“Say NO to paying for something that happened 100s of years ago,” screamed one meme that was doing the rounds on social media around the time tabloids began to claim that Caribbean nations were “suing” for reparations. They aren’t, strictly speaking, and nor can something which ended only in 1838 be compared, as it often is, with the Viking invasions or Roman conquest. The CARICOM group of nations, led by Barbados , is really calling for a wider dialogue about historical justice. Why should Britain – or any other former slave-trading nation – shy away from it?
After all, in almost any other sphere, historical continuities are acknowledged, even venerated – aren’t we told ad nauseum that the monarchy is important because it represents continuity? Even something like the “Commonwealth” – whose Games will be held in Glasgow this summer – celebrates the international “links” forged by Britain’s Empire and its apparent historical achievements. Britons are constantly reminded by politicians and some historians to take pride in having “given” former colonies those two old chestnuts, the railways and the English language. Seems a bit odd, if not thoroughly hypocritical, to then swiftly put distance between our “proud” present and the Empire’s rather less flattering legacies, which include gargantuan impoverishment and dislocation across swathes of the globe. How is it possible to keep up the endless national self-congratulation for the abolition of the slave trade while insisting that no one today has any connection to slavery itself?