Friday, March 1, 2013

"Rich Protecting the Rich"

In my British Romanticism class with Professor DeWispelare, one of the topics we focused on recently was the slave trade of late-eighteenth century England. Professor DeWispelare sent us a very interesting online article from The Independent on February 24, 2013 about the substantial reparations made to slave-owners that amount to billions of pounds in today's time. I found this article shocking, as I did not know the extent to which slave-owners were paid reparations by the government when slavery was abolished.

The article says that the British government gave out £20 million to "compensate" for about 3,000 families that owned slaves when the practice was abolished in Britain's colonies in 1833. This equates to about £16.5 billion today. It really makes it that much more appalling to compare the amount it was back then to how much it is worth today.

The article concludes with a quote from TV chef Ainsley Harriott, who had slave-owners in his family: "You would think the government would have given at least some money to the freed slaves who need to find homes and start new lives. It seems a bit barbaric. It's like the rich protecting the rich." I would have to agree with this sentiment. Like Harriott, I was surprised and bothered by this.

What do you think about the information presented in this article? David Cameron and George Orwell stood out to me among the famous people cited in this article whose ancestors benefited from slavery. David Cameron declined a request to comment to the press about this. The article also mentions that some families used the money for philanthropy. Does using the money for charity purposes help redeem these families over those who used it for more selfish means, or does it not really make a difference? I don't know if it does.

1 comment:

  1. Sam, I'm so grateful to you for calling attention to this article. In response to the question you're posing — does using the reparations for the purpose of charity redeem these families over those who used the money for "more selfish means?" — I also have to state that I don't really know if it does, and I mean this in the most visceral way possible.

    Despite the complicated context, I think the answer is essentially 'no'. While I don't think it's necessarily fair to criticize a "good" or charitable action if the motive behind that action is pure, this is obviously difficult — perhaps even impossible — to judge the intent of another. More to the point, I don't think one good action can make up for an unrelated bad action. That is, giving to a charity does not balance out the karmic scale.

    Forgiveness, if it is to be found — if it is even possible to begin to ask for — must stem from a form of reparation that directly addresses the system of slavery. And what would sort of space would that form of reparation inhabit? Is it even possible to get at? I guess I ask because even though I think it would have been more appropriate for reparations to have been paid to former slaves over former slavers, I also feel like that doesn't even begin to address the problem of slavery (though, it likely would have been a better start to opening a dialogue about slavery, status, property, and individual liberties — a dialogue that remains difficult and tenuous even today).


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