During recent trips to the Caribbean, the British royal family has faced demands for reparations and compensation for the UK’s involvement in the historic slave trade. What are reparations? And should we pay reparations for slavery? Let’s talk about this on today’s episode of Thinking in English! 

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Vocabulary List

head of state (n) – the official leader of a country, often someone who has few or no real political powers

Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state in 15 countries

Atrocity (n) – an extremely cruel, violent, or shocking act 

They are currently investigating the atrocities committed during the war

To trace (v) – to discover the causes or origins of something by examining the way in which it has developed

She traced her family back 400 years 

Impoverished (adj) – very poor

He was an impoverished young actor 

Wrongdoing (n) – a bad or an illegal action 

She has denied any wrongdoing

Descendant (n) – a person who is related to you and who lives after you

They claim to be the descendants of the royal family

To emancipate (v) – to free a person from another person’s control 

Slaves in the British empire were mostly emancipated in 1833

Appalling (v) – very bad

The weather today is appalling

Precedent (n) – an action, situation, or decision that has already happened and can be used as a reason why a similar action or decision should be performed or made

There is already precedent for promoting people with no formal qualifications in this company 

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When people think of Queen Elizabeth II they tend to associate her with the UK. She is head of state in the UK, she has lived in the country for her whole life, and her face is on our money and postage stamps. But did you know that she is not just the Queen of England?

In fact, Queen Elizabeth is the head of state and Queen in 15 countries including the UK. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Belize, Jamaica, Bahamas, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Lucia, Grenada, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines all still have Queen Elizabeth as the head of state

While these countries are all completely independent and sovereign, the role of the Queen, the royal family, and the UK can be quite controversial. In many of these countries, Britain and the British government committed atrocities, established slave societies, and created colonies based on racism

Take the Caribbean islands for example. Today, significant amounts of the Caribbean population can trace their ancestry back to slaves and indentured laborers brought to work on the islands by Europeans. Most famously, millions of African slaves were brought by the British, French, and Dutch to grow things like sugar and spices. Irish, Indians, Chinese, and Indonesian people were also used as indentured labour.

Queen Elizabeth is head of state in countries largely made up of the descendants of the slaves that helped turn the UK into the world’s most powerful country in the 19th century. Yet many of these countries remain poor and impoverished despite the riches they created for the European empires. As a result, there have been increasing calls for these islands to become republics and distance themselves from the Queen.

If you have been listening to Thinking in English for a while, you might remember the episode I recorded on Barbados last year – they became a republic and said goodbye to Queen Elizabeth in 2021!

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Reparations for Slavery?

However, is simply becoming a republic and getting rid of the Queen enough to recover from Britain and Europe’s history of exploitation in the Caribbean? 

Over the past few months, members of the British royal family have taken part in overseas trips and tours to represent the Queen in the Caribbean. Rather than a joyous welcome, the Queen’s grandson and future British King Prince William and his wife Kate were greeted with protests and demonstrations when they visited Jamaica and the Bahamas in March. Groups were demanding that Britain both apologise for historical wrongdoings and pay reparations to the descendants of slaves. 

In fact, the Jamaican government already announced plans last year to demand compensation from the British government for enslaving over 600,000 Africans who were then brought to Jamaica. One politician in Jamaica proposed that the UK should pay $10 billion. Jamaica is also making efforts to become a republic. 

A painting of a slave ship – National Museum of Liverpool

Prince William and Kate were not the only royals to face protests in the Caribbean. The Queen’s son Prince Edward was confronted with protesters in St Vincent and the Grenadines who were also calling for slave trade reparations. Prince Edward even had to cancel his planned trip to Grenada when the Grenada government announced he would be forced to meet with the countries Reparations Commission on Slavery. 

Across Britain’s formers slave colonies demands are growing for compensation. Slavery made the UK and the British royal family incredibly wealthy, but left the former slave colonies impoverished. A quote from one of the St Vincent and the Grenadines protestors sums up the sentiment nicely – Jomo Thomas (the former chair of the National Reparation Committee) said to the Guardian that “They hunted us down, they kidnapped us, they stole us, they worked us. They owe us and they must now pay us.”

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What Are Reparations? 

Protests across the Caribbean are calling for reparations from the British government. But what are reparations? In simple terms, reparations are payments (which could be in money or something with value like land) given to a group that has suffered harm. They are a form of compensation for past wrongdoings. 

Perhaps the most famous example of reparations came after WW1. Germany didn’t just lose the First World War, they were forced to pay for the entire thing. The Treaty of Versailles forced Germany to pay 132 billion gold marks (about $270 billion) to the countries damaged and affected by the conflict. This massive debt is one of the factors that contributed to the rise of Hitler’s Nazi party in the 1930s. Germany only finished paying its WW1 reparations in 2010. 

Reparations for slavery would be based on the idea that slaves were brought from Africa and other parts of the world to the Americas, forced to work, helped make European countries unimaginably wealthy, and their descendants are still impoverished as a result. 

An interesting fact is the the UK actually already paid reparations for slavery in the 19th century… but not to slaves! The Slave Compensation Act of 1837 was passed by the British parliament after slavery was banned in the Empire. However, the compensation did not go to the former slaves, but the slave owners. 40,000 slave owners were awarded a share of £20 million – today that is worth around £2.5 billion paid to slave owners in reparations (and the British government was still paying this debt in 2015).

Reparations do not necessarily have to just be paid in money. Reparations could also include a wide variety of different measures. For example, in the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 2021 annual report, examples of non-monetary reparations included apologies, education, memorials, reforming institutions, and making sure that the historical wrongdoings will never be repeated. 

Britain is not the only country facing demands to pay compensation to former slaves. The United States famously allowed slavery until the middle of the 19th century and many social problems in the country today were caused by slavery in the past. France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and other European colonial powers also benefitted immensely from slavery.  

Should Government’s Pay Reparations for Slavery?

So, should the British, American, French, Portuguese, or other former slave trading countries, pay reparations to the descendants of slaves? Although it is clear slavery was a terrible atrocity, paying reparations is an incredibly controversial topic. 

I’m now going to highlight arguments from both sides of the debate. As I always do with these debate style episodes, I’ll give you some of the common arguments, and then ask you to think critically about the issue. After listening to the episode, you can decide for yourself whether countries like Britain should pay reparations to the descendants of slaves!

Governments SHOULD Pay Reparations for Slavery 

First, slavery created massive wealth for some countries and individuals, but left millions of people across the Americas impoverished. Let’s take the United States as an example. According to the Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates, “by 1836 more than $600 million, almost half of the economic activity in the United States, derived directly or indirectly from the cotton produced by the million-odd slaves. By the time the enslaved were emancipated, they comprised the largest single asset in America: $3 billion in 1860 dollars, more than all the other assets in the country combined.”

This situation is the same across the former European slave colonies in the Caribbean. As slavery was gradually banned and discontinued, this wealth was never available to the former slaves and their descendants. As I mentioned earlier, countries like the UK actually compensated former slave owners instead of the former slaves. And even after slavery, racism and discrimination continued to prevent the descendants of slaves from accessing wealth.

Slaves were not simply forced to work for free: they were treated terribly and faced appalling conditions. New diseases were introduced to African populations; the journey across the ocean is infamous for the atrocious treatment of slaves; slaves were regularly forced to work in dangerous conditions; and even after slavery were prevented from accessing healthcare. Reparations would go some way to address this historical mistreatment and help improve the health conditions of slaves’ modern descendants. 

There is also already precedent for paying reparations to former slaves and other groups who have been harmed. The US government has paid reparations to Japanese-Americans imprisoned during WW2 and the victims of the Tuskegee Study. Like the UK, parts of the US actually paid slave owners compensation in past. 

Some organsiations have already begun to offer compensation to the descendants of slaves that were formerly owned by those organsiations. Universities including Georgetown, Virginia Theological Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary are currently paying such reparations. German manufacturing companies Siemens and Volkswagen created funds to pay reparations to the former slaves forces to work for them during WW2. 

Governments SHOULD NOT Pay Reparations for Slavery 

The slave trade was banned by the UK at the beginning of the 19th century, and slavery was abolished in most of the Empire in 1833. This means that there are no living former slaves, and no living person who owned a slave. We would need to look far back in our histories to find a person who was even alive during the period of slavery. 

Should we be punished or held accountable for something that people alive today had no involvement in or influence over? A lot of progress has been made since the time of slavery: laws have been passed to make sure such things can’t happen again and international organisations set up to improve human rights. Is this enough? 

Government’s would probably use tax payer money to pay reparations to slaves. Many people would agree that slavery was a terrible thing, but should people today be punished for the crimes of their ancestors? 

Reparations are also not a simple thing. How can you put a price on centuries of pain, damage, and trauma? How much should the descendants of slaves be paid? 

Paying reparations may actually cause even more divides in countries across the world. Depending on your ancestry, you could either be paying or receiving reparations, despite being citizens of the same country. Many descendants of slaves would be insulted by the amount of money offered as compensation- considering the incredible number of descendants it would be impossible to offer a lot. And people across Europe, white Americans, and even some Caribbean islanders would be angered that they need to pay (probably through taxes) for something they didn’t do.

Reparations are intended for the victims of slavery, but there are no direct victims of slavery around in the Caribbean or Americas. Of course, indirectly slavery has caused problems, but these problems could be addressed in different ways. 

Reparations would also be too expensive and too difficult to pay. I mentioned that Jamaica has considered asking the UK to pay $10 billion in compensation. Can you imagine the cost of compensating every single descendant of every single slave? In the US alone there are around 30 million descendants. Some estimates suggest the US would need to pay out trillions of dollars.

Also, who should receive reparations? Slavery ended over 100 years ago, and since that period there has been a great deal of international migration and cultural mixing. Should incredibly wealthy descendants of former slaves receive compensation? Or should it just be for the poorest descendants? What if you have ancestors who were slaves, and other ancestors who benefited from slavery? How can we accurately trace family histories when there were not good records kept for slaves in the past? And if the descendants of slaves receive reparations, should the indigenous peoples and other forced laborers also be compensated? 

Basically, reparations are incredibly expensive and probably impossible to pay to individuals.

Final Thought

As the British royal family visited countries in the Caribbean they were met with protests and demonstrations demanding reparations for slavery. Similar demands can be regularly found in the African-American community of the US! This episode of Thinking in English has tried to explain the idea of reparations, and provide you with some arguments both in support and against paying reparations for slavery. 

On the one side, slavery created massive wealth inequality – countries like the UK and US became rich off the backs of slave labour, while the former slave colonies have been left impoverished. There is also precedent to pay reparations to former slaves.

On the other hand, should people today be held responsible for the actions of their ancestors? Slavery was terrible, but no one alive today was involved in the atrocity. And who should receive reparations? How much should they receive? Reparations would be incredibly expensive and incredibly difficult to implement!

What do you think? Should governments and countries like the UK pay reparations for slavery? Should they pay money or are there other ways to apologise? Do you think paying reparations would improve relations between Britain and its former colonies?


2 thoughts on “153. Should We Pay Reparations for Slavery? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
  1. In Russia there was a kind of reparation for the descendants of those repressed in 1937, but only for their children. Memorials and museums were built. There was also a “Memorial” society set up to tell stories and investigate the atrocities of Stalin’s regime. I think it was the right thing to do. I think the UK and the US should educate the population by telling the truth about slavery, maybe pay compensation to the direct descendants of the slaves (maybe up to the third generation). At least something should be done to not forget the mistakes of the past

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

2 thoughts on “153. Should We Pay Reparations for Slavery? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
  1. In Russia there was a kind of reparation for the descendants of those repressed in 1937, but only for their children. Memorials and museums were built. There was also a “Memorial” society set up to tell stories and investigate the atrocities of Stalin’s regime. I think it was the right thing to do. I think the UK and the US should educate the population by telling the truth about slavery, maybe pay compensation to the direct descendants of the slaves (maybe up to the third generation). At least something should be done to not forget the mistakes of the past

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