Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Compensating for History

There has been a recent fashion in some quarters to demand, and in others to give, apologies for historic crimes committed by the distant ancestors of those apologising against the distant ancestors of those apologised to.

Part of me has always found this faintly ridiculous, though the fact is that just about all countries have done terrible things in the past and I do agree that where this is true it should be acknowledged.

Where the argument becomes ludicrous, however, is when people start suggesting (as was apparently put forward during David Cameron's visit to Jamaica) that the descendants of people long dead have some kind of not just moral, but financial, debt to descendants of the victims of wicked things done centuries before anyone alive today was born.

This is usually raised in connection with the slave trade, a hideous practice which people of every race and almost every country were engaged for centuries until, in 1807, Britain voted to ban it, and our Royal Navy began a successful campaign to eradicate the forms of the slave trade which had existed up to that point. (Sadly the institution shows a lamentable ability to come back in new forms, but that is a story for another time.)

Yes, Britain played a terrible role in the vile slave trade before 1807 and, as a country, we should acknowledge that, though we also can take pride in the role we played in stopping it.

But if you take that argument further, as some politicians in Jamaica were doing today, and argue that we should pay compensation to the distant descendants of those who were shipped over the Atlantic (in addition to the substantial amount of foreign aid we are already paying to help countries like Jamaica with the problems of today and the future rather than the past), where do you stop?

For a start, it seems utterly bizarre to compensate the distant descendants of long-dead victims of historic crimes without first compensating the living victims of crimes committed in less than a human lifetime ago.

There are still Holocaust survivors alive in Israel, Britain and around the world: there are people alive today in Britain and many other countries who had their homes bombed, or who were orphaned, wounded, raped, abused as prisoners of war or otherwise badly treated by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, or Imperial Japan during World War II.

If we're going to start compensating people for historic crimes, surely victims who are still alive today should be first in the queue? Their claim is vastly stronger than those of the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren of the people British slavers carried over the Atlantic prior to 1807.

And then the vast majority of the people our ancestors shipped over the Atlantic as slaves were not enslaved by the British but by their fellow Africans, who then sold them to European slavers. So if Britain owes the Jamaicans a debt because of the part our ancestors played in shipping slaves over the Atlantic, so do many African countries, whose ancestors actually enslaved them.

Of course, Europeans were not the only people who took slaves, and Africans were not the only people who were enslaved. At about the same time as the Atlantic slave trade was going on, North African Barbary pirates were taking more than a million Europeans as slaves - and North African states were profiting from this evil trade. Granted not as many victims as the North Atlantic trade, but over a million men, women and children enslaved is still a huge and ghastly crime. So if Britain should pay compensation to Jamaica we are also entitled to claim it from Morocco, Algeria, and Libya.

Good luck with that!

But why stop there? What about all the people killed or enslaved by Viking raiders? On this basis most of the rest of the nations of Europe should be able to claim compensation from Norway, Denmark, and Sweden for the depredations of their Viking ancestors against ours.

And what about the Romans? They invaded our country and most of the rest of the then known-world without provocation and carried people from every country from North Africa to Britain and from France to Persia off as slaves. So on that basis Italy should compensate all the countries from which the Romans enslaved people two thousand years ago.

It just doesn't stop. And it does not make sense. People are responsible for their own actions, not those of their grandparents.

It is sensible for us to give foreign aid to nations like Jamaica to help with the problems of today. It is right that David Cameron did acknowledge that  "these wounds run very deep" and that slavery is and was "abhorrent in all its forms".

He added: "I do hope that, as friends who have gone through so much together since those darkest of times, we can move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future."

Mr Cameron also announced £25m in British aid for a new Jamaican prison and a £300m development package for the Caribbean which will provide grants for infrastructure projects, including roads and bridges.

He said his visit - the first by a British prime minister in 14 years - was to "reinvigorate" ties between the countries, and that he wanted to concentrate on future relations rather than centuries-old issues.

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