On an almost daily basis, some woke dullard makes the claim that we wicked Brits all benefitted from the slave trade and need to cough up. Invariably, the same sort of folks say we should forgive and forget events of eight years ago in Europe, most Germans were not Nazis they say. The only problem apart from the logistics of reparations – who gets the moolah – is that both statements are not true although in 2021 I am probably not allowed to say that. Here goes anyway… let’s start with the Hun.
Two of my brothers-in-law are half German and so the matter of the criminality of their nation is perhaps best expressed not by me but by the President of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeir, who yesterday fessed up that Germany has for too long suppressed the “unprecedented brutality and gruesomeness” of its soldiers during the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. “It weighs on us that our fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers were involved in these crimes,” he said. When Germany invaded Russia, its soldiers were told they were fighting subhuman animals and thus let loose “hatred and violence” as the war moved “towards the madness of total annihilation”.
Just over three million Germans were involved in the 1941 invasion of Russia where they killed civilians, not just Jews, and soldiers alike. And, of course, German combatants also committed atrocities in many other places. As I prepare to head to Greece, there are many reasons why so many Greeks, their homeland also invaded by Germany in 1941, loathe the German nation with a passion.
Clearly, vast numbers of Germans were also involved in the operation of and the logistics needed to support more than 44,000 concentration camps and ghettos. And such was the scale of that operation that if you did not have a relation involved in some aspect of war criminality or genocide, you were bloody well aware of what was going on.
So in Germany there should be near term guilt for most of its citizens. But what about the Brits and slavery? Apparently we are all guilty and need to pay? Writing in the Guardian, natch, Kris Manjapra talks of slavery as “Britain’s crimes against humanity”. Well not all of us sir. When in 1833 slavery was abolished throughout the empire thanks, in good part to a chap called William Wilberforce with whom I share DNA, it was agreed that slave owners be compensated for their loss of property to the tune of £20 million, 40% of the Government’s annual income – in those days tax was far less onerous than it is today – and 5% of GDP. Whichever way one looks at it, this was a huge sum. But this grubby payment was the only way to get the abolition of slavery through Parliament.
So how many folks benefitted from this payout? The majority of men and women who were paid under the 1833 Abolition Act are listed in a Parliamentary Return, entitled Slavery Abolition Act, which is an account of all money awarded by the Commissioners of Slave Compensation in the Parliamentary Papers 1837–8 (215) vol. 48. And while we are told that slave ownership is a national crime, the number of families – like the Gladstones – winning the 1833 lottery were in their hundreds.
The population of England and Wales in the 1831 census was 13.9 million. Scottish census records should allow you to add another 2 million to that number while Ireland chips in a quite amazing eight million though I accept that most of them were very poor peasants and so utterly distanced from this vile trade. But in 1833 Britain & Ireland we still see a few hundred families winning the lottery out of a population of well over 20 million.
Now I accept that there are also some families which made a mint not from owning slaves but from shipping them in earlier years before that trade was also banned. But still, in terms of the “crime against humanity” in Britain, we are talking about a tiny fraction of the population. Meanwhile, there would be more families in Britain who suffered a far greater loss fighting the evil of slavery. For instance, the West Africa Squadron, which was established at some cost to fight the slave trade, saw casualties of more than 1500 sailors.
And then there is the financial cost to Britain. That £20 million came largely in the form of a loan, a loan only finally repaid only in 2015! That money was repaid by the British taxpayer. By all of us. Rich, muddling along and poor alike. The reality is that while a small number of folks grew very rich on the back of slaving, 99% of Brits did not, we just paid a financial penalty. Now we are all asked to pay twice?
I am not suggesting that we should forever condemn the entire German nation just because most of them are, according to their own President, related to war criminals. But, as a nation, it should not be allowed to forget its sin for a good while yet. We Brits should also not forget that we did not as a nation always act in a model way although, as those men of the West African squadron knew, we also did much good. Britain did not invent slavery but as a nation we did more to stamp it out than any other nation on God’s earth. Our guilt for the sins that were committed in respect of slavery should surely not be collective for the numbers, the facts, just do not justify that position.
If Lib Dem MP Wera Hobhouse, who says her idol is William Wilberforce and that it was right to remove the Colston statue, wants her family to hand over its entire wealth given that its origins were in the slave trading activities of Isaac Hobhouse, that would be her call. Nothing is stopping her from making a vast personal donation, although I am not sure to whom it should go. But why should the rest of us, whether related to Wilberforce or not, have to accept a collective guilt and pay up for a second time? Unlike a small number of families, 99% of Brits have no reason to feel a “national” shame at all. Unlike some of our fellow Europeans…