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Angela Tilby: Ancestors’ misdeeds are not ours

15 September 2023

BBC

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.

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