The Student
Opinion
The University of Edinburgh should not pay reparations for slavery
by Rob Lownie, 1/10/20

Earlier this month, The Student was sent an open letter addressed to the University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh College of Art. We could not fulfil their request to print the letter in its entirety, but it is a document that requires discussion. 

The signatories made three demands of the university ‘at a minimum [their patronising italics, not mine]’: to ‘implement the Black Education Movement demands’; to ‘run an historical audit of [the University’s] links to the slave trade’; and the payment of reparations, along with a donation to the Free Black University.

The open letter is just one of many Edinburgh has received as a direct response to the death of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests across the world.

A number of these letters are genuinely necessary, calling for diversity in staff, an improvement to the system of reporting racial discrimination, and better counselling for ethnic minorities. In fairness, this most recent missive listed several of those noble intentions. Then we get to the reparations.

The letter claims that by ‘failing to take positive affirmative actions, the university has unfortunately been involved in upholding white supremacist behaviour and thinking’.

It is no secret that the university, and the city of Edinburgh as a whole, benefited financially from the transatlantic slave trade. This should not be a source of pride, but nor should it provoke a raft of apologies when Edinburgh’s current administration bears no responsibility for past injustices. It is an inconvenient truth that a number of the letter’s middle-class signatories will themselves invariably have ancestors who owned slaves. One imagines that they would be reluctant to pay any reparations of their own.

An example was set last year by the University of Glasgow, which pledged £20 million in reparations, atoning for the way it had profited from the transatlantic slave trade. The money went towards funding a research centre, a move that does little to help descendants of slaves, and mainly serves an esoteric collection of academics and administrators. Our own university is still in dire financial straits as a result of Covid-19. Giving away lucrative research grants to satisfy a group of virtue-signalling students, whose letter adopts the language of a ransom note, is not the most sensible way to spend its money – our money, that is.

Where the reparations should go is a question partially answered by the letter. It suggests a donation to the Free Black University, a proposed institution which aims to provide a safe learning space for black students. The FBU purports to ‘decolonise’ education, but, in reality, would only racialise it further, dividing people based on the colour of their skin and teaching information through an ethnically-skewed lens. After decades of progress, the idea of segregation being the endpoint of equality is frightening. 

The FBU’s GoFundMe page talks of ‘redistributing knowledge’ and ‘the transformation of minds’. This sounds an awful lot like indoctrination when one considers that the University is committed to teaching the highly controversial critical race theory, an ideology which has brought more division than it has harmony to British society.

Rather than broadening horizons – which is what higher education is supposed to do, instead of mollycoddling students and telling them what they want to hear – the initiative will only narrow them, and will suggest that a person can only ever be defined by the shade of their skin, not their skills or interests. 

Apart from the FBU and ‘black students and educators’, the open letter does not specify the beneficiaries of these reparations. This is patronising, painting the black community as permanent victims, no matter where they find themselves in history. It clubs them all together as an amorphous mass, regardless of personal experience, or indeed the myriad national and ethnic differences among black people.

This mentality of victimhood is in complete antithesis to the aim of reaching racial equality through empowerment, and is a mindset which the former politician and racial equality campaigner Trevor Phillips has dismissed as ‘dangerously misguided’. 

Besides the University of Edinburgh, who else should be paying reparations? The slave trade was a triangular trade, and Britain and the United States were not the only villains. To think so would be an extremely Eurocentric viewpoint, ignoring the significance of traders and political elites in Africa and South America in the process.

Contrary to quite a few ill-informed statements online, slavery was not an exclusively western practice, nor did racism originate in the British Isles. From the beginning of the sixteenth century, right through to the eighteenth, Barbary pirates from North Africa kidnapped and enslaved well over a million white Europeans. There has been no talk relating to Maghreb remuneration of present-day westerners. Ottoman slavery predated and outlasted the Barbary trade, its barbarism matching anything the Europeans later inflicted, yet Turkey has not attracted the ire of the reparations crowd.

Or how about the Ashanti Empire? Part of what is now Ghana, it prospered from 1701 until 1957, when the country achieved independence, on the back of the slave trade. The present nation’s status as a regional power and upwardly mobile economy are consequences of that colonial legacy. Should Ghana’s current president, Nana Akufo-Addo, be organising reparations for past brutality?

Likewise, the Kong Empire, operative during a similar period and situated in what now forms part of the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, had its roots in mercenaries and enslaved West Africans being deployed in inter-tribe warfare. Given that the Ivory Coast was economically prosperous in the years after independence, by virtue of its cocoa and coffee production, should they, too, fit the bill for slavery? In a word, no.

This is not to condone Britain’s, and Edinburgh’s, role in imperial violence; it is merely a reminder that world history can never be simplified into racial binaries. Horrific regimes and individuals, power structures and policies, have sprung from every corner of the globe. Nor is Britain’s role in slavery some secret we desperately try to submerge. Speaking from experience, I was taught extensively about the slave trade whilst at school, and never in a way which glorified the crimes of the British Empire. 

During a Middle Eastern history course which I took in my first year at Edinburgh, Britain’s interference in the region was dealt with in a manner which was even-handed, justifiably tending more towards criticism than apologism. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, in which the UK and France carved up the Middle East without consulting the native people, and the 1956 British invasion of Egypt, which prompted the Suez Crisis, were not made out to be anything other than selfish opportunism. We are more open about our history than detractors might suggest: their issue is that we do not stoop to self-flagellation and, eventually, reparations.

Historic slavery is repulsive, but its present-day iteration should concern us more. According to the International Labour Organisation, over 40 million people are currently in slavery around the world. This can manifest itself in the form of forced labour, unpaid household work and sexual exploitation. Of the countries with the highest number of slaves in 2018, none of the top eight were European.

If one looks at the Social Responsibility and Sustainability section of Edinburgh’s website, there is a comprehensive statement from 2018 regarding the University’s stance towards modern slavery, moving beyond blanket condemnation and addressing questions of recruitment and supply chains. As the statement makes clear, contemporary slavery ‘is a complex and often hidden issue’ and
there ‘remains a need to continue focus on raising awareness of risks and what actions people can take.’

When human enslavement still exists in the world, it is that which demands our attention. Paying off the debts of the past will never eradicate the evils of the present. Reparations, from the University of Edinburgh and from other institutions, must not be on the table.

Hope for Justice is a non-profit organisation which endeavours to end human trafficking and slavery. You can donate to the cause at https://hopeforjustice.org/donate/uk/

Image credit: Magnus Hagdorn via Flickr