Friday, September 10, 2021

TIL: Reparations

For years, there's been talk of reparations for slavery. The reactions fall into one of three categories:

  • It's about time!
  • Noble idea, but expensive. And impractical. Impossible.
  • Hell no. I never owned slaves.

I don't intend to litigate the issue here. Readers have probably heard the arguments and sided with one or another long ago. What I want to do here is mention something I learned. It's a perspective gained from Britain, which is doing some soul-searching of its own on the subject.

It turns out that many of those old estates American tourists think of when they think of jolly old England have a connection to riches obtained from sugar and cotton plantations during colonial times. And those plantations ran on slave labor. Britons owned many of the plantations in the Caribbean. Even when the plantations were not owned by Britons, but by Americans, the Britons were complicit, buying their output and getting rich from the trade. That should not be all that surprising. The amount of money Britain made in the so-called triangular trade over the centuries was considerable. So much so, that the first reparations went, not to former slaves, but to former slave owners. Reparations for losing the right to own slaves was considerable. Many of the country homes we admire today owe much to those reparations. According to a 2013 article in The Independent,

when slave ownership was abolished by Britain in 1833 the government paid out a total of £20m — the equivalent of £16.5bn today — to compensate thousands of wealthy families for their loss of 'property'.
many of those who received the windfalls ploughed at least some of the cash into buying, building or refurbishing some of the greatest properties in the British countryside.
Source: The Independent.

That article is from 2013. It talks of something from 1833. Ancient history, right? Not relevant to anyone living today, right? It's easy to think that. Then I learned something else this week. Something that prompted this blog post.

According to another article, in The New Yorker,

Under the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, the British government had agreed to pay twenty million pounds, the equivalent of forty per cent of its annual budget, to compensate plantation owners, and absentee investors, for the loss of their human property...The British government finished paying off the debt in 2015.
Source: The New Yorker.

Let's recap. Britain abolished slavery in 1833. Hurrah for them. They paid reparations for their action. Hurrah for them??? Maybe not. Note who the reparations went to. The slaveowners, not the slaves themselves or their descendents. In other words, the whites, not the Blacks. And most shocking of all, British taxpayers, white and Black, were still paying off the debt for those reparations to white people as recently as 2015.

The irony is strong. There are Black taxpayers in Britain who were still paying off borrowed money in 2015. Money that went to reparations. To whites. And that's what I learned today. Is it any wonder that this isn't taught in schools today?