Britain’s Black Debt: Reflections

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.

Suggested reading:

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.

Harry Dickinson, the Magna Carta, and the American Revolution

On the evening of January 26, 2016, Harry (H. T.) Dickinson, Emeritus Professor of British History at the University of Edinburgh, presented a lecture on “Magna Carta in the American Revolution.” As an audience member, I live tweeted the lecture using #HTDickinson on my Twitter account, @HistoryByPaula and spoke to Dickinson at the reception that followed. This public lecture was given as part of the festschrift in Dickinson’s honour and coincided with the launch of a new book, Liberty, Property and Popular Politics: England and Scotland, 1688-1815 (Edinburgh University Press, 2015). Many of the contributors to the volume were also in attendance.

Harry Dickinson has an unparalleled publication record and excellent reputation in the field of British history. As Gordon Pentland noted in his introduction, 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of Dickinson’s first contract with the University of Edinburgh. What has always struck me about Dickinson is his wealth of knowledge, capacity to synthesize vast amounts of information, and ability to make clear connections from which to formulate opinion and further one’s understanding of a topic.

Tuesday’s lecture was no exception. Beginning with a brief discussion of the passing of the Magna Carta in 1215 and 1225, Dickinson provided a detailed analysis the 1225 version’s Chapter 29, and then returned repeatedly to this chapter as he spoke. We followed along his carefully prepared outline of the origins, events, and outcomes of the American Civil War and were amazed as he teased out connections between the rhetoric of the colonists and their British opponents.

Dickinson was able to show numerous ways in which both sides were able to use the rights guaranteed to them by the Magna Carta to support their position in opposition to the other and, after Independence, how the American side concluded that they no longer needed the Magna Carta as they were creating a republic. It was fascinating.

For his sources, he drew from political records, letters, popular pamphlets and treatises, coins, artwork, architecture, and state and national constitutions. In the Q & A that followed, he was apologetic that we were only hearing 6000 words out of the full 22,000 word paper, “Magna Carta in the Age of Revolution,” that he had written on the subject, and I was surprised and happy to receive an email from the event organisers the following day with a link to his work. What a great advantage to be able to dig deeper into the sources, the connections, and the findings following a lecture. I enjoyed the evening and will be hoping to hear him speak again soon.

Live Tweeting Harry Dickinson’s Lecture

This evening, January 26, H.T. Dickinson, Emeritus Professor of British History at the University of Edinburgh, will be giving a lecture entitled “Magna Carta in the American Revolution” that will coincide with a festschrift in his honour (Liberty, Property and Popular Politics: England and Scotland, 1688-1815, Edinburgh University Press). Harry is a dynamic speaker, an endlessly supportive supervisor, and an accomplished author and historian. His unparalleled knowledge of British political history over the long eighteenth century will no doubt be demonstrated this evening.

I’ll be attending “Magna Carta in the American Revolution” and plan to live tweet the lecture on Twitter beginning at 5:15pm GMT (12:15pm EST). Follow me on Twitter @HistoryByPaula and search for the hashtag #HTDickinson to follow along.

Suggested Reading:

Pentland, Gordon and Michael Davis, eds. Liberty, Property and Popular Politics: England and Scotland, 1688-1815. Essays in Honour of H. T. Dickinson. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015.

Selected Works of H.T. (Harry) Dickinson:


The Politics of the People in Eighteenth-Century Britain (London and New York, 1994 and 1995).

Caricatures and the Constitution, 1760-1832 (Cambridge, 1986).

British Radicalism and the French Revolution, 1789-1815 (Oxford, 1985).

Liberty and Property: Political Ideology in Eighteenth-Century Britain (London and New York, 1977 and 1979)

Edited Collections:

Britain and the American Revolution (London, 1998)

Britain and the French Revolution, 1789-1815 (Harmondsworth, 1989).