The Price of Slavery: Who Should Pay?

March 31, 2023, 12:28 PM GMT+0

Regular readers of The Guardian had something of a surprise this week. The nation’s most liberal left-wing newspaper disclosed on its front page that, back in the 19th century, its founding editor had made a fortune from cotton which had been cultivated by slaves. What’s more, it was offering £10million to worthy causes in Jamaica and the American state of South Carolina to help atone for its sins and urging others to do the same. How do you react to this? A typically virtue-signalling gesture that will achieve nothing or a welcome acknowledgement of the horrors inflicted by one of history’s greatest outrages?

The announcement was published almost three years after an investigation into links between the Guardian’s founders and slavery. The Guardian’s owner, the Scott Trust, said the £10m would be invested in projects linked to the slave trade. The paper was founded in 1821 by John Edward Taylor, a cotton merchant whose father had also worked in the textile industry. The investigation concluded that Taylor had indeed had multiple links through partnerships in a cotton manufacturing firm and a cotton merchant company linked to slavery. One of those financiers had tried to claim compensation from the British government in 1835 for what he regarded as the loss of his ‘human property’ which numbered 108. He failed but his partner successfully claimed £1,904 in compensation. That would be worth about £200,000 pounds today. Taylor and at least nine of his 11 backers had links to slavery, principally through the textile industry.

Katherine Viner, the editor in chief of The Guardian, wrote in an editorial the morning the story was published that there was no doubt that the Guardian was founded with money partly derived from slavery, and the links were extensive. She had felt ‘sick to my stomach’ at what it revealed. The price of human flesh on the Mississippi, she wrote, was ‘regulated by the price of cotton in Manchester.’

‘The Manchester Guardian was founded in 1821 in the aftermath of the Peterloo massacre, with an inspiring mission arguing for the right of working people to have parliamentary representation and for the expansion of education to the poor. It was in favour of the abolition of slavery.

‘Yet Taylor, and most of those who lent him money to found the Guardian, profited from cotton, a global industry that was reliant on the systematic enslavement of millions. One of Taylor’s backers was not only a cotton merchant but also co-owner of a sugar plantation in Jamaica where 122 people were enslaved. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that these interests may have influenced the paper’s editorial policy.

‘In 1833, when the enslavers demanded a huge payout for giving up their human “property”, a Guardian editorial supported them, arguing: “We are convinced, that no plan for the abolition of slavery could have been worthy … which was not based on the great principles of justice to the planter [that is, the enslaver] as well as to the slave.” Justice to the planter meant a share in a massive £20m gifted by the state; justice to the enslaved meant only freedom, with not a penny in compensation.’

So what should the modern Guardian do about all this?

Viner is in no doubt: ‘It is absolutely right that we apologise for our past, as the Scott Trust is doing today, and that we build relationships with descendant communities where our founders had these connections. The trust will devote funds to community programmes in Jamaica and in the Sea Islands in the US over the next decade, and will fund further research into these histories, including researching the founders of the Observer… As a media organisation, the Guardian will redouble its efforts to change representation in our sector.

Studies have shown, she says, that just 0.2% of journalists in the UK are black despite black people constituting about 3% of the overall population, with people of colour more broadly making up 18%. Britain’s media, including the Guardian, ‘must work harder to recruit, retain and elevate people of colour into leadership roles and to create an inclusive environment… We will do more to report meaningfully on black communities across the world. Over the next 12 months we will create new reporting roles based in the Caribbean. We will add to our teams in South America and Africa. And in the UK and US, we will hire more journalists to focus on the lives and experiences of people of colour. There are stories that aren’t being told, and the Guardian is well placed to tell them.’

To all of this many will say: about time too. Slavery is a stain on the conscience of all those whose ancestors benefitted from it. Apologies must be offered and reparations must be made. But there is another view. It cannot be right for the sins of earlier generations to be visited on those who bear no responsibility for them.

That view was expressed by the historian AN Wilson in the Mail. He asked whether our ‘grovelling, apologetic attitude’ has gone too far? His answer: a resounding yes.

‘It has begun to seem’ he wrote, ‘that every aspect of our complex and long history, with all its twists and turns in church and state, has to be determined today by simple-minded value judgments. Dickens’ house in Broadstairs, Kent, for instance was daubed with angry graffiti because our greatest novelist was supposedly a racist. Churchill, a hero when they put up a statue of him in Parliament Square, is now in the dock. Young people …. are free to condemn him as a defender of racist imperialism.

‘With each condemnation of figures from our history, there comes the expectation that someone must pay for the sins of our ancestors and this, in turn, digs us deeper into a mindset which proposes two ideas which are manifestly false. The first is that everything in British history is inherently evil, something for which we ought to be flagellating ourselves. Second, that we can atone for these sins by making financial settlements. The nuanced, delicate business of telling the truth about the past has been replaced by the easy display of gesture politics.’

Wilson acknowledges that when we read of some horror perpetrated by our ancestors it’s understandable that we should wish somehow we could put matters right. But, he says, ‘We have to recognise that the past is the past. The best we can do is not to forget, but to learn and move on while acknowledging that we can never undo the evils of history. This is an unassailable truth, even if some of us might derive comfort from feeling we can wipe out our ancestors’ sins by getting out our chequebooks.’

One of those organisations that has opened its chequebook is the Church of England. It has promised £100 million to pay for a programme of investment, research and engagement and to help communities affected by historic slavery. Those payments, says Wilson, are ‘little different from indulgences bought by the faithful from the money-loving popes of Rome before the Reformation so that they would not end up in Hell.’ He wonders ‘quite how the church can absolve itself of the past by paying money now for evils which were perpetrated in the 18th century’.

As for The Guardian, Wilson attacks its claims ‘to be in the moral vanguard, setting an example for the rest of us sinners… and telling other individuals, institutions and states to follow.’

So the question is: should we follow? Let’s make the assumption that there is nobody reading these words who does not regard slavery as in every way one of the great crimes of history. But does everyone whose ancestors benefitted in one way or another from it bear some responsibility for their actions? And if we do, should we try to make amends? And if so, how? Or should we claim that we cannot be held responsible for the actions of those who died centuries ago? And should we point out that Britain has already made a massive historical contribution by leading the fight to get the slave trade abolished in the early 19th century?

Let me know what you think.

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