The proceeds of slavery

Cambridge University has announced an inquiry into the way it benefited from the slave trade. It seems that those who have profited from injustice should compensate their victims even unto the seventh generation.  After the Second World War, Germany was called upon to restore stolen property to its owners or compensate them for its loss. The identities of the Jewish families wronged, the Nazi wrongdoers and the relationship between original victims and surviving family members, were all the subject of good evidence. The loss claimed for was quantifiable.  Compensation made sense.  As time passes, however, the connection between the descendants of the wrongdoer and wronged becomes more tenuous. I’m not sure how any individual descendant of a slave could show a justifiable claim to compensation from any particular person or institution at this stage.  More recent events, good or ill, occurring well after the abolition of enslavement will have had a major effect on peoples’ lives making them richer or poorer and so will have made any serious attempt to show an individual’s right to compensation for the enslavement to be impossible.

Britain’s involvement in slavery is in any event quite complicated. Certainly some Britons traded slaves and benefited from slave plantations from the early 1600s. On the other hand, the British legal system led the world in 1772 in starting to bring it to an end. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield (an Oxford graduate), made a far-reaching decision in the famous case regarding a slave, James Somerset.  The case had been brought on the ground of Habeas Corpus, and the decision of the Court was that “ one has the right to take a slave by force [from Great Britain] to be sold abroad”.  The British parliament then decided to abolish the slave trade in 1807. It went further and abolished slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833. Then, for more than a hundred years, finishing just before the First World War, the Empire was involved in the suppression of the slave trade across the Atlantic and within Africa. 

Egon Flaig, a German historian of slavery, described this as “the first state-sponsored struggle for the worldwide abolition of slavery”.  It was also very expensive: the Royal Navy used 15% of its ships in blockading the west African coast and Britain paid 90 per cent of the total cost of the blockade.  Other German historians tell us that from 1816 to 1862 the British state spent as much on the suppression of the slave trade as British merchants had earned from the sale of slaves between 1760 and 1807. Obviously, though
the benefit to the slave owners from their slaves in the colonies is, probably literally, incalculable, as is the amount which was or was not remitted back to the UK.

It’s true that when slavery was abolished in 1833, the slave-owners were compensated but not the slaves. That was unfair. But to whom? It was the basis for persuading a majority of MPs to back abolition.  If it had not been paid, how much longer would that slavery have continued? And of course the payment was made not by ‘the government’ as a third party but in reality by the then taxpayers who didn’t own slaves to their slave-owning fellow-taxpayers. 

What’s more, if a claim to compensation for slavery is to be made. it cannot be levelled at Cambridge University or indeed this country alone. It would have to include the descendants of the inland African chiefs who sold other Africans to the slave-traders, and the descendants of those Arab slave-traders who sold the slaves to the Europeans on the coast.  And why single out slavery? It is just as obvious that the University also benefited from the redistribution of land after Henry VIII’s seizure of monastic wealth in the 16th century.  So then claims by the Pope against the University for compensation?  But how did the Catholics manage to amass ownership of so much land in the first place? And what about the Norman aristocracy who were the beneficiaries of the feudal system imposed after the invasion in 1066, even though the Normans said that they disapproved of slavery?

In fact, in my opinion the whole enquiry is a complete waste of time and brain-power.  We already know that the University benefited from what we now regard as a disgusting trade in people.  Determining precisely how much the ill-gotten gains they received from their slave-owning donors amounted to is pointless. Likewise, despite the good done by the likes of Wilberforce in the early 19th century, there is no doubt that Cambridge academics had been part of the mind-set prevalent prior to emancipation which had said that Africans were not up to ‘our’ standards. They were lesser animals and so could reasonably be used for forced manual labour – an easy proposition to justify when they were deprived of any meaningful education or opportunity in life. And that opinion of the African has continued in some quarters to the present day.  So then, surely what is required is an effort on the part of the University to set the record straight and to go much further -  by offering better educational opportunities to people from racially disadvantaged
backgrounds, whether here or, more usefully, in Africa itself and in the Caribbean.

Perhaps there is something-else the egg-heads of  Cambridge can do, as suggested by a descendant of slaves. Trevor Phillips was formerly chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, whose ancestors were transported from Africa to British Guiana and Barbados. He dismisses the whole enquiry as “virtue signalling on steroids”. He urges the university instead “to change the future rather than attempt to rewrite the past” and to concentrate on contemporary racial discrimination.

He has made a concrete proposal in connection with so-called artificial intelligence.  We know that AI is not intelligent, but is in fact an algorithm used to detect patterns in existing large data sets. It then uses that pattern recognition ability on all data of a similar nature in order to draw inferences from that upon which decisions can then be made. The difficulty is that the data we have and from which the algorithm is learning is often prejudiced. For example, insurance companies, even before AI, typically charged higher premiums to people from minority ethnic areas, even taking into account crime levels, age and other factors which may influence risk. This is because the people who created the data sets in the first place were largely white male insurance risk assessors.  In learning from this data, the AI algorithm necessarily engages in the same type of racial profiling and charges higher premiums accordingly. Phillips therefore suggests that Cambridge University uses its resources in trying to overcome the inherent racism and no doubt sexism of AI. 

I think that most people would agree that it would make more sense to try to redress present disadvantage, rather than to spend time telling us what we already know – that Cambridge University, like many other ancient institutions, benefited indirectly from the slave trade and no doubt from many other historical wrongs.

Paul Buckingham

5 May 2019


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