Reparations for slavery only feed a culture of victimhood: As an aristocratic family gives Grenada £100,000 to atone for the sins of their ancestors, ESTHER KRAKUE argues the issue casts the West as perpetual oppressors
Apologising for ancestral sins has become an increasingly fashionable activity in affluent liberal society. Expressions of shame are often accompanied by pledges of compensation as individuals abase themselves for the ills of their forebears.
The BBC’s Laura Trevelyan, a member of a well-known family that has been long distinguished by wealth and public service, is the latest example.
This week it was reported that she and several of her relatives are to give £100,000 to an economic development fund on the Caribbean island of Grenada in atonement for the Trevelyans’ past association with slavery there — her ancestors owned more than 1,000 slaves across six plantations.
In addition to the cash, the family has also made a public apology during a visit to the island last year. ‘I hope we’re setting an example by apologising for what our ancestors did,’ Laura said.
It sounds highly commendable, but the fact is that this impulse to take moral responsibility for the past has the potential for harm.
Laura Trevelyan and several of her relatives are to give £100,000 to an economic development fund on the Caribbean island of Grenada in atonement for her ancestors owning more than 1,000 slaves across six plantations
Of course, the slave trade was abhorrent, but far from promoting harmony and respect, the reparations industry is actually feeding a destructive culture of victimhood — with white Westerners permanently cast as historic oppressors.
It fuels corruption and financial bullying in the name of restorative justice, and promotes the constant denigration of Western civilisation in the cause of decolonisation.
And, as Laura Trevelyan — despite her best intentions — will no doubt discover, it can leave people vulnerable to attack on other fronts over ancestral vices.
Having promised apologies and reparations for slavery, they are often asked to atone for other historic misdeeds.
In the Republic of Ireland — much closer to Britain than Grenada — some influential voices are now challenging the role of the Trevelyan family in the terrible Irish famine of the mid-19th century, which led to up to a million deaths and was caused by crops being infected with potato blight.
Laura’s own four times great-grandfather Sir Charles Trevelyan was in charge of famine relief at the time, a job which, according to Irish legend, he carried out with a cruelty bordering on inhumanity.
Indeed, in one notorious outburst, he is said to have declared that ‘the judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson’.
So far, the Trevelyan family has been silent on the question of an apology for the famine — even though back in 1997, Tony Blair expressed remorse for it, saying those who governed in London at the time had ‘failed their people’.
Then there is Laura’s family’s link to one of the most effective, brutal weapons ever devised. Her great-great-great grandfather, an American called Oliver Winchester, invented the Winchester repeating rifle, which was so deadly because it could keep firing rounds without needing to be reloaded. With its lethal capability, it transformed warfare and became known as ‘the gun that won the West’ due to its role as the prime asset in the blood-soaked defeat of the Native Americans.
In a book Laura herself wrote about the Winchester rifle, she said: ‘The Native Americans had no defence against the weapon they called the “spirit gun”.
Trevelyan in action as the anchor of BBC World News America
‘They were massacred on their ancient lands, as the frontier moved ever further westwards towards California.’
While the indigenous people were slaughtered, Laura’s ancestor prospered, using his tremendous wealth to build ‘an ostentatious home in New Haven, with flamboyant turrets and luxurious walnut and white-oak cabinets’.
Yet in her book, Laura was dismissive of the idea that she and her family should share any blame for the bloodshed created by the Winchester. ‘I don’t feel responsible for or guilty about it,’ she wrote.
Such inconsistencies are matched by wider contradictions in the debate about reparations. On several levels, the drive to dish out cash to slaves’ descendants, while well-meaning, is absurd.
After all, none of the recipients of these sums has ever been kept as slaves, nor have there been any slave-owners in the West for many generations. Furthermore, the families of those who were taken from Africa to America and the Caribbean now generally enjoy far greater prosperity, freedom and security than the families of those who were never removed.
Yes, their forebears suffered unspeakably from the slave trade, but would any of the black Americans now clamouring for post-colonial payouts exchange their U.S. passports for ones from African countries?
Just as importantly, reparation enthusiasts wilfully refuse to recognise the historic role played by Africans themselves in the promotion of slavery.
The nonsense is exposed at its worst in a scheme drawn up by the ultra-woke city of San Francisco to give $5 million to each eligible black resident as recompense for the experience of oppression.
Although California never adopted the institution of slavery, the city says ‘the values of segregation, white supremacy and exclusion of Black people were legally codified and enforced’, so lump-sum payments are needed to ‘redress the economic and opportunity losses Black San Franciscans have endured collectively’.
It is hard to imagine a worse use of public money. This is identity politics at its most toxic, where people are lavishly rewarded not for their achievements but for their membership of a certain minority victim group.
If the city of San Francisco really had this kind of money to spare, why not spend it on tackling social and economic problems, such as drug abuse, child poverty, crime and homelessness, which are all rife in this fractured city.
A portrait of Sir John Trevelyan with his wife Louisa Simon (centre couple) who had more than 1,000 slaves on Grenada
The rich irony is that some of the people who might benefit from the scheme — like several of my relatives who live in San Francisco and hail from the Akan tribe in Ghana — actually had African ancestors who helped to facilitate the transatlantic slave trade.
We can see the same process at work on a global scale. For decades, African governments have received colossal sums in Western aid, yet, far from improving their countries, much of the money has been squandered through corruption. Now, instead of putting their houses in order, the same governments demand more funding in the form of reparations for slavery.
A classic example is President Akufo-Addo of Ghana, who is worth a staggering $250 million while his nation’s economy is gripped by poverty and stagnation. Rather than dealing with the real problems, he is seeking slavery compensation for Ghana from the West.
This is not just a distraction but also an exercise in hypocrisy, for it was the British Empire that suppressed the slave trade in Ghana in the face of bitter hostility from tribal leaders who gained from it.
But you won’t hear that truth from the reparation-mongers and their guilt-ridden allies.
Lacking any sense of nuance or understanding of the historical realities, they cling to their narrative of Western exploitation and African suffering.
Sadly, there was nothing unique about the transatlantic trade. Throughout the story of mankind, there has been slavery, including that experienced by ancient Britons under the Romans and the Vikings.
Even Ethiopia, one of Africa’s most advanced countries in the early 20th century, had slavery as an integral part of its culture until the British ended it in the 1940s.
And by far the most brutal slaving regime was that run by Arabs from the 7th century, which involved the mass torture and castration of young African men. Are any of today’s wealthy Arab states offering compensation for that?
Greed and guilt are poor foundations on which to build public policy. Instead of using a distorted version of the past, influential figures on all sides should concentrate on resolving the real problems of the present.
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