Should the British government apologise for the slave trade?

March 22, 2007

Should the British government apologise for the slave trade? First of all, whom should they apologies to? Anyone who’s suffered because of the slave trade; but they are all dead. Are they, though? Couldn’t it be that people still suffer to this day as a consequence of it? If so, those people deserve an apology. Furthermore, don’t people whose ancestry has suffered from the slave trade deserve an apology? They do if, and only if, what happened to their ancestors bothers them to this day – and in some cases it will.

Now the difficult question: why should the British government apologise for the slave trade? Because the British government recognises the slave trade as abhorrent. It does. And because the British government was involved in the slave trade; by, in the very least, allowing it. But certainly, one will want to say, this British government was not involved. Indeed, no member of this government was involved. And no one who voted for this government was involved. It was too long ago. So, there is no responsibility, just on the ground that they did not do it.

Two problems with this: first of all, if we have recognised, as we have, that anyone alive today, who suffers today as a result of the slave trade, deserves an apology, then should we not recognise that anyone alive today, who profits today as a result of the slave trade, should issue that apology? We probably should; and it is probably the case that there are people, today, still profiting from the slave trade – someone whose family got really rich through the slave trade, and who is still enjoying the wealth to this day. But even accepting this, it does not mean that the British government should apologise for them. That, surely, would be their individual responsibility if anyone’s, and so it should be themselves, and not the government, to issue an apology.

The second problem is more fundamental: isn’t the British government an historic continuity, such that there is only one thing, the institution by the name of “British government”, through history? If that was so, then Blair’s government, today’s British government, is directly responsible for the slave trade, on the ground that it was the agent who perpetrated the crime, if one accepts, as we should, that ‘The British government was involved in the slave trade”. In this proposition, ‘British government’ identifies an institution which is still in existence, in the shape of Blair’s government, rather than a set of people long dead that used to constitute those British governments that were involved with the slave trade.

That way, we would be treating the institution of the British government through history just in the way in which we treat a single person through their life. If, in my youth, I had committed a crime, then, today, I would still be responsible for that crime, because it was the same person who committed that crime, namely me. And the same argument would apply to the institution British government. And the fact that today that institution is constituted by Blair and his ministers, while hundreds of years ago it was constituted by someone else, would count as much as the fact that today I am constituted by a set of cells, while at the time of the crime committed in my youth I was constituted by an all-together different set of cells. And, just as in my case, the continuity, the fact that it is the same person, me, at both times, is guaranteed by some sort of identity, consciousness, and past, so with the institution of the British government there would be a sort of identity, consciousness, and past that would guarantee that we are still talking about the same thing.

But how could there be a continuity, if this government would never dare to allow such monstrosity, while the government of the time did? It doesn’t matter; because the fact that, in my old age, I have become the sort of citizen which would never commit the crime I committed in my youth, does not mean that I am no longer responsible for that crime. So, if the analogy stands, then Blair’s government is indeed directly responsible for the slave trade, just as it is responsible for everything that any British government has ever done, good or bad. But can we praise, for example, the Blair’s government with having won WWII? It sounds weird. Can we praise Blair’s government with universal suffrage? Weird, again. And even weirder it would be to praise or blame a government for policies it doesn’t agree with that were implemented by a previous government;

So this argument for the identity of all governments over time under the institution of the ‘British government’ does have some counter-intuitive consequences. But, let us remember it, if we don’t accept this argument, then it isn’t at all clear why should Blair’s government apologies for the slave trade. One might propose that identity through continuity is not necessary, and that it is sufficient to claim that Blair’s government is, today, the representative of previous British governments. More so, it could be supposed, than any other institution around. And so that it should apologies on behalf of those which it represents, namely previous British governments. But would that be enough? Would it be enough if Blair said that the British government apologies for what other British governments have done in the past? Maybe so; and still better than just saying how horrific the slave trade was. Indeed, it seems that any rational human being ought to think that the slave trade was horrendous, and that any rational human being ought to feel sorry for those involved. But it looks as though it would not be enough that the British government said that; because that’s short of an apology, and the relation between this British government with previous ones is tighter than the relation between any human being today and those human beings that were involved with the slave trade.

One final thing: if one was to dismiss those arguments, there would still be wrong reasons for not apologising: such as temporal relativism.

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19 Responses to “Should the British government apologise for the slave trade?”

  1. Dave On Fire Says:

    An interesting case. I agree that the discontinuity excuse doesn’t really apply in the case of Britain. There is increasingly a case for considering that a democratic civilian government should not be responsible for the “onerous debts” incurred by dictators, but there has been no such regime change in Britain.

    To be honest, the only reason I think Tony should apologise is that he so clearly doesn’t want to. Perhaps it’s just a measure of how much I’ve come to distrust the man. If he was falling over himself to apologise I would dismiss it as cynical whitewash; his reluctance can only be explained by their being some real substance to an apology.

  2. yucca Says:

    Hi Dave On Fire,

    I hadn’t actually thought of the regime change issue; I guess it makes sense to think that, if there is a regime change, the government that comes next, being there a democratic one after an authoritarian one, or the other way around, should not be responsible for things done by the previous government.

    But even with democratic governments, can you blame (or praise?) Tony’s government for, say, Thatcher’s reforms? But I guess your point is abuout representation, not identity. And the point about representation I agree with.

    On the substance of the apology, what could it be? Why would Blair not want to?

  3. Dave On Fire Says:

    I’m not sure of the specific liabilities he would be taking on, if indeed there are any. But when you apologise for something, you take responsibility for it, and responsibility is only a step away from liability. If the consequences of the slave trade are still felt today (as they undoubtedly are) and we accept that we are responsible, we will have a hard time turning down demands for reparations.

  4. yucca Says:

    is that what you think it’s a stake? maybe… i dunno: for me its just a principle, and im not sure i would support anyone making a claim for reparations, more than two hundred years down the line.

    but you’re right… once we accept responsibility, than we don’t have much of an argument against people asking for compensation…


  5. […] for the slave trade on behalf of the British Government. I was going to comment on one of my blogrolled blogs, but I decided I had enough to say that I should post it […]

  6. Saj Says:

    I think this is funny not as in the slave trade but the aplogy which has to be made repeatedly. why shall we carry on apologising for something that our forefathers did, I feel that one sorry is enough and how much can Britian go further to apologise. Should Britian stand on trial on an african court?, sorry if I am offending anyone but I am expressing what I feel.

  7. WHY SHALL WE APOLOGISE? Says:

    I TOTALY AGREE WITH YOU WHY SHOULD BRITIAN CARRY ON APOLOGISING EH? WE HAVE SOME SHAME FOR OUR PAST BUT WE HAVE SOME DIGINITY WHICH PROVE TO THOSE NATIONS BY OFFERING THEM RELIEF AND AID. HOW MUCH MORE CAN BE DONE TO RECTIFY THE MISTAKE, SHALL WE HAVE THEM MAKE US WHITE PEOPLE THEIR SLAVES FOR A COUPLE OF HUNDRED YEARS.

    I JUST FONT GET IT.

  8. yucca Says:

    Hi Saj,

    Why do you talk of “keep apologising”? Have we ever done that? I think people are just asking for Blair to do it once, and for all. I think that would be enough.

    Yes, that might trigger some requests for compensation, but that’s a separate matter. Let us apologise, and let us get on with it!

  9. yucca Says:

    @comment #7: see above

    wouldn’t be bad if you’d get rid of capitol letters, and if you’d sign the comment

  10. Steve Says:

    My wife is descended from a slave.

    Should someone apologise to her?

    If so, who?

  11. yucca Says:

    Hi Steve

    There are two interesting aspects to your question: the first is whether the fact that she is descendent from a slave is sufficient to deserve an apology; the second is who should do or say what to her.

    On the first point, i think that there are two conditions that are sufficient: if she is materially worse off because of the fact that she is descendent from a slave, then, irrespectively of whether she wants an apology or not, she deserves one. Otherwise, even if she is not materially affected by it, if she feels the burden of it, as in, if she wants an apology, i think, again, that she deserves one.

    On the point of who should issue such an apology, that is difficult. As I say in the post, if there are, alive, any representatives of people that either were involved in the slave trade, or profited from the slave trade, then those people owe her an apology. One such category is people that are profiting today from the wealth their family has accumulated through slave trade. If such people exist, they owe your wife an apology.

    Then the question is what counts as representing people involved with the slave trade. I don’t think that ancestry is sufficient: you should not necessarily apologise for something that your ancestors did; you ought to do it, only if by your condition or your behaviour, you show that you either profited from their actions, or that you don’t disapprove of your actions. So family won’t do. But,as i argue in the post, the government of today has a relationship to previous government that goes far beyond family relationship. It represents previous government: that is, it is the closest thing we have today to previous governments. Closer, say, than discendants of members of previous cabinets.

    There is an interesting philosophical question with all this, which i only touch upon in the post: that there might be a middle ground between being sorry, and saying “i’m sorry”, and apologising. so that, if you are responsible for x, and x harmed someone, you ought to apologise to them. while, if you are responsible for x, i don’t have to apologise to the person harmed, but i still ought to feel sorry for them. this is the straightforward case. but it might be that slavery, or cases in which you are the accidental cause of some harm, call for something more than saying “i’m sorry”, but less than an apology. what might that be?

  12. yucca Says:

    @steve

    P.S. i wouldn’t mind hearing what your wife thinks of the matter.

  13. Steve Says:

    My wife roared with laughter at the very idea. And in her ancestor’s case, the apology would be due from the Dutch, if anyone, and the family og Pieter Hacker, who owned her, well actually her and her daughters, but the daughters were manumitted by one Johann Breitschuh, who married one of them.

    But seriously, I would not want to see Tony Blair going through the relatively undemanding exercise of confessing other people’s sins. I would prefer that he did not apologise for the slave trade, but rather apologise for the bombing of Belgrade and Basra — or would it be better to wait 200 years for some representative of the Biritsh government then (if there is still a British government then) to apologise for the actions of the belligerent Mr Blair?

  14. yucca Says:

    steve,

    you didn’t really engage with my arguments… anyway, i don’t need to tell you that the difference with iraq is that this government does not think it was wrong to bomb basra, while it does think it was wrong to practice the slave trade

  15. Dave Says:

    yucca, I think Steve did engage to the point that there’s no point in apologising. That’s the same point I’ve been making. All the mental gymnastics of who should give and receive the apology aside, what is the actual point of apologising?

    I’ve left further thoughts and an extended reply to you on my blog.


  16. […] This has led to quite a lot of discussion in the blogosphere, with some pointing out some of the advantages of the slave trade, and others supporting the call for an apology. […]

  17. E the Wise Says:

    The idea of an apology is utterly ridiculous! Here in the states the the topic of reparations comes up now and again and the topic is so devoid of serious policy that it is a mockery. On our site we toss such ideas around because we compose a group of college buddies that are mixed between liberals and conservatives. But even among the liberals, there is no real supporter of such foolishness.

  18. Ali Says:

    if nobody resisted slavery it would have carried on up till today, children would have followed in their fathers footsteps


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