In November 2015 the University of Edinburgh hosted a multi-day, interdisciplinary conference on the issue of reparations, entitled Repairing the Past, Imagining the Future: Reparations and Beyond…. I attended the final element of that interdisciplinary conference, Sir Hilary Beckles’ lecture on Britain’s history of slavery and its legacy in the former Caribbean colonies, “Britain’s Black Debt.” This was also my first experience live tweeting on Twitter, and I welcome you to go back through my twitter account @HistoryByPaula to find the quotations I recorded live on November 6th.
Sir Hilary is a scholar of British slavery and abolition and supporter of the reparations movement. In his talk, he explored Britain’s former and current relations with several Caribbean nations, explained how Britain had used and exploited African slaves and its Caribbean colonies to develop its own infrastructure (and, crucially, not that of the colonies), and gave a brief history of the growing push for reparations. He spoke of his early discomfort at the fact that it was the enslavers and not the slaves who had received compensation from the British Government and the British taxpayers at the end of slavery in the British Empire. He referred to the British slave trade as “cultural genocide” and explained that “black people in the Caribbean are without a known ancestry.” He argued that the former colonies had been so desperate to achieve independence from the “mother country” that they hadn’t had time to ask or argue for reparations, which was why the issue hadn’t been dealt with decades ago at the time of independence. And he spoke in support of the global reparatory justice movement and concluded that reparations were inevitable; if anything, David Cameron’s casual dismissal of the claims for reparations would only work to bring people together to strengthen and solidify the case for compensation (financial or otherwise).
Sir Hilary is an excellent speaker and his great speaking skills, passion for and knowledge of his subject, and the relevance of the subject led to one of the most heated Q & A sessions that I have ever witnessed. Individuals literally stood up in support for reparations and for what Sir Hilary had said. They concurred, they added their own personal experiences and stories, they shouted, they argued, and they cried. The audience’s passion kept us there for so long that we eventually had to be forced out of the room by the conference’s organisers as we had gone so far over the allotted time.
So often I think that, as historians, we find ourselves detached from our subjects, seeing them as being in a time too different from our own to matter much today. Yet here is a topic with a legacy that directly affects individuals, towns and cities, and entire countries. It continues to adversely affect governments’ abilities to care for their people, and for people to understand themselves.
Beckles, Hilary McD. Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide. Kingston, Jamaica: The University of the West Indies Press, 2012.
“British slavery reparations Q & A.” The Guardian, September 30, 2015.