*** DEBUG END ***

Angela Tilby: Ancestors’ misdeeds are not ours

15 September 2023


Laura Trevelyan

Laura Trevelyan

THE former BBC correspondent Laura Trevelyan has given £100,000 as reparation for her family’s slaveholdings in the Caribbean. She has also set up Heirs of Slavery, a group of descendants of those who profited from the Atlantic slave trade, to support campaigns for apology and compensation.

Personal gestures such as Ms Trevelyan’s have apparently encouraged some West Indian governments to consider targeting particular individuals and institutions for money rather than make their continuing case for reparations to European governments. Apparently, the King is to be asked to compensate personally for profits that the Royal Family gained from slavery.

I have mixed feelings about all this. I can see the case for British institutions’ contributing to parallel institutions in Caribbean countries as a way of acknowledging past injustice and to lay the foundation for mutually beneficial future relationships. But, when it comes to individual families, I am not so sure.

There is no doubt in my mind that slavery was and is an enormous evil, and that there is a moral debt still to be paid to those of African heritage whose ancestors suffered under the yoke of slavery. I can understand why Ms Trevelyan felt moved to donate what, for most of us, would be a considerable sum to make up for what her family did, and the wealth that they made on the back of slave labour.

What worries me, though, is that, when the burden of guilt is shifted from nations and institutions to specific families, there is more than a hint of blood guilt being attached to individuals because of what their ancestors did in the past. There is a debate in scripture about inherited guilt. Exodus speaks of God’s wrath against sinners as persisting until the third and fourth generation. But this is contradicted by Ezekiel, who insists that guilt is not transferred. The sinner dies for his own sin and not anyone else’s.

And blood guilt has a darker resonance for Christians. St Matthew’s Gospel has the inflamed Jewish mob saying to Pilate, “His blood be on us and on our children!” — a cry that has been used to justify the most ruthless anti-Semitism down the centuries. I am sure that Ms Trevelyan is sincere in her desire to atone for her family’s past; but — and this should not need saying — she is not responsible for the deeds of her ancestors. If her gesture is interpreted as the paying of blood money, it can lead only to a spiral of guilt and demand fuelled by the reverse racism of some current critical theories.

Not long ago, the relationship between the UK and its former Caribbean colonies was characterised by good will and shared bonds. There are worrying signs that this could be poisoned, and that would be a tragic outcome. Apology, ritual, forgiveness — there are other ways of making atonement.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear below your letter unless requested otherwise.

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available


Inspiration: The Influences That Have Shaped My Life

September - November 2024

St Martin in the Fields Autumn Lecture Series 2024

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


Visit our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)