This article was written by Sam Chapman for the Exeter essay competition. The judges for this competition are currently reviewing the essays.
Estimated read time of essay: 5 minutes
On the 25th of March 1807 the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was signed by King George III of England, signalling the end of perhaps the most destructive and inhumane chapters within the history of the British Empire and the United Kingdom itself. It is undeniable that the slave trade has had irreversible impacts upon the world, much of which can still be seen today. This therefore forces us to evaluate whether those whose ancestors benefited from the slave trade should be forced to pay reparations in response today. I hold the belief that these organisations are in no way responsible for the actions of the past, but they must still be held accountable for their unfair advantage within the economy through the use of reparations to redistribute the wealth these companies obtained through privilege.
It can be argued that within the capitalist society in which we operate it is perfectly acceptable to utilise all advantages given to us to strive for success economically, as to many it seems that we must accept privilege is an inevitability that will always be present so we must make the most of the relations and wealth that we have to begin with. A clear example of this mindset is Bill Gates who had access to computers early on in their evolution during his time at Lakeside School Seattle. Gates himself says, “If there had been no Lakeside, there would have been no Microsoft” illustrating that his privilege to afford such a school, setup the foundations for the idea of Microsoft. Therefore, many would argue that successful businesses today which profited from the slave trade in the past cannot be held accountable as they merely use the advantages available to them today, and that they have no connections to slavery themselves. Some view this as the reality of the world we live in, such that there is a ruthless brutality to accepting the cards we are dealt and making the most of what we have. Subsequently, reparations are a ridiculous measure which are too idealistic as forcing payments upon these organisations implies reparations are required for privilege of any kind which has led them to success, and this is simply not realistic.
However, I question this logic, as I propose that it is a mindset of a bleak pessimist to simply accept inequality, and it is ridiculous to call a demand for rebalance idealism. We cannot standby and accept an unfair system, and whilst the world has a magnitude of complex issues, addressing the imbalance due to the slave trade is a clear place to start. The use of reparations is an obvious and acceptable method of rebalancing the inequal ecosystem of the economy. On the 28th of August 1833 legislation was passed by parliament that fully abolished slavery since the 1807 act had not successfully done so. A significant factor for the passing of this policy was the £20 million in compensation to slave owners who felt they were losing their own property and heavily resisted. According to the Bank of England, £3.4 million was compensated in the form of government stock and large amounts of money was received by London bankers and merchant firms. This was such a vast amount of money that the government only paid back the loans required to make these compensations in 2015, over 200 years later. University College London’s Legacies of British Slave Ownership project calculated that around 10-20% of Britain’s wealth has significant links to slavery. Many of the key British banks accept their part in the slave trade, including HSBC, Barclays, and Lloyds showing many prominent organisations were certainly involved. These figures hopefully provide a greater insight into the enormous impact of slavery, showing that many organisations have had blatant advantages within our economy. This must be accounted for, and reparations would immediately have impact, being a one-time payment, which could hinder businesses with proven ties to the slave trade. Organisations could take accountability of their involvement in the slave trade and the subsequent suffering it caused, allowing them not to forget the past, but to promote a new message of equality. I must reiterate that those who run the companies today are in no way accountable for the actions of their ancestors but accepting these reparations provides the opportunity to condone the atrocities committed and remove the undeniable advantage developed by the slave trade.
The money generated by reparations could then be used to promote new businesses which would have otherwise struggled to thrive in competitive markets where privilege has dominated. It must also be remembered that not only did the slave trade result in vast wealth, but great poverty. In America the average black family has a tenth of the wealth of the average white family, largely due to the consequences of slavery. This makes it blindingly obvious that even after eight generations the effects of the slave trade are apparent. Reparations provide a unique opportunity of redistribution, transferring money from organisations with unfair advantages to those whose relatives suffered from the slave trade and who are in poverty today as a consequence. Therefore, reparations are not just a tool to sanction and harm businesses, but will also help new growth in the economy from those who were unfairly in a worse position due to the lasting impacts of slavery.
Concluding, I strongly believe modern-day organisations have an expectation to pay reparations for their involvement in the slave trade. If anything can be learned from slavery, it is that humanity has the power to shape the world, the potential of absolute internal destruction or total harmony. We must strive for a world of acceptance and love for all people because only then will we have a world which is worth protecting. Reparations of this kind will force a change of mindset and allow equality where there is currently great imbalance. The figures used show undeniable advantage still prevailing today due to the horrors of slavery which must be accounted for.
Royal Museums Greenwich: history of slavery. https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/how-did-slave-trade-end-britain
CNBC: Bill Gates’ advantage due to access to computers. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/05/24/bill-gates-got-what-he-needed-to-start-microsoft-in-high-school.html#:~:text=Gates%20was%20first%20introduced%20to,placed%20in%20all%2Dgirls%20classes
Bank of England: slavery compensation. https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/working-paper/2022/the-collection-of-slavery-compensation-1835-43#:~:text=As%20part%20of%20the%20compromise,behalf%20of%20the%20British%20government
The Guardian: Banks linked to slavery. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/jun/18/barclays-hsbc-and-lloyds-among-uk-banks-that-had-links-to-slavery
The Washington Post: Racial Wealth Gap. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/06/19/why-racial-wealth-gap-persists-more-than-years-after-emancipation/