Britain should pay reparations for slavery, says Cambridge Dean

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A statue of Cecil John Rhodes outside Oriel College at the University of Oxford - Adrian Dennis/AFP
A statue of Cecil John Rhodes outside Oriel College at the University of Oxford - Adrian Dennis/AFP

A Cambridge University Dean has become the first senior clergyman to call for the British government to pay reparations for the slave trade as part of its “obligation” to undo the “original injustice”.

The Revd Dr Michael Banner, said that Britons were the “leading perpetrators of the horrors” of slavery and that the “question of making recompense for them has to be faced”.

The call for reparations for the descendants of slavery is popular across campuses in the US. However, the Dean, fellow and director of studies in Theology and Religious Studies at Trinity College, is believed to be the first member of the clergy in the UK to make the claims.

He argued that the paying of reparations does not amount to “a demand for a pile of cash”, but instead “proposes a more holistic healing of the wounds of colonialism”.

He also told The Telegraph that he recently discussed his views with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby.

Controversial figures from history

He said that the Archbishop, a graduate of the college and an honorary fellow, described his arguments as “challenging”.

Speaking at the Society for the Study of Christian Ethics conference last week, he said: “We surely have reparative obligations and others have a claim on us where we are manifestly the beneficiaries of an original injustice and where others identifiably still suffer on account of it.”

The Dean’s comments come as campuses across the UK struggle to reconcile their links to their colonial past in the wake of the Rhodes Must Fall movement and are likely to spark debate not just at the University of Cambridge, but also in political circles as ministers continue to deal with statues of figures from history who are deemed controversial.

Original victims of colonial exploitation

Dr Banner, who is currently a member of the Ministry of Defence’s Advisory Committee on Less Lethal Weapons, and a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day on the Today programme, added: “If the descendants of the original victims of colonial exploitation still suffer as a result of these injustices, are we modern Britons beneficiaries of those wrongs? Again the answer must be ‘yes’.

“Sometimes when institutions such as colleges or universities consider their connections with slavery, they look for evidence that the institution or its benefactors directly held enslaved people, or had wealth manifestly derived from owning plantations, and consider themselves in the clear if no such connection is found.

“It seems to be taken for granted, in other words, that any accrual of wealth from slavery in the past has materially benefitted the institution in the present.”

His calls come amid the ongoing global debate regarding the roles that countries played in the Atlantic slave trade and whether or not reparations should be paid.

Slavery was abolished in the UK in 1807, although it wasn’t until a quarter of a century later that slavery ended throughout the British Empire by the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and Church of England were contacted for comment.

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