TOPIC GUIDE: Reparations

"Britain should pay reparations for its role in the slave trade"

PUBLISHED: 29 Jan 2016

AUTHOR: Nadia Butt

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Despite The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 formally outlawing slavery throughout the British Empire nearly 200 years ago [Ref: Wikipedia], Prime Minister David Cameron’s first state visit to Jamaica last September was overshadowed by calls from high-profile politicians, including Jamaican leader Portia Simpson Miller, for Britain to pay reparations for its involvement in the slave trade [Ref: RT]. This is just one example of an increasing demand for reparations from Western nations to individuals and countries who were affected by the slave trade. According to some calculations, reparations for the transatlantic slave trade [Ref: UNESCO] could add up to $14 trillion [Ref: Newsweek] and those calling for reparations argue that slavery facilitated the rise of Britain as a global player, and forced human exploitation was a “major source of wealth of the British Empire” [Ref: Independent]. The implication of this is that the impact of slavery has filtered down through generations and had a discernible material impact on the present: benefiting the descendants of those who owned and traded slaves, and holding back the societies of the descendants of slaves [Ref: New Statesman]. Critics of reparations are concerned about the idea of apologising and paying reparations for something no modern Briton was a part of, and question whether reparations are ever the way to resolve historical injustice. Though few would argue about the inhumanity that slavery embodied, the issue at hand is whether there is a moral and financial debt still to be paid by modern Western states, such as the UK. Would financial reparations absolve the UK once and for all from its debt to generations of peoples affected by the transatlantic slave trade? Or should we stop trying to find solutions to today’s problems by resolving history’s wrongs?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

The Moral Case
In his Second Treatise on Government, philosopher John Locke observes that, “he who hath received any damage, has, besides the right of punishment common to him with other men, a particular right to seek reparation” [Ref: The Atlantic]. This right to seek redress in the face of injustice, lies at the heart of the moral case for reparations as a way of atoning for hundreds of years of unpaid labour, suffering and exploitation. For writer Kehinde Andrews, the moral case for reparations is obvious. He dismisses arguments by opponents that the Caribbean should move on from slavery, noting that such sentiments fail to “properly acknowledge Britain’s role in the kidnap, slaughter, rape and exploitation of millions of Africans”, and he goes on to conclude that as such, “it is clear as day that Britain owes a substantial debt to the descendants of those who were enslaved.” [Ref: Guardian] Advocates of reparations also point to the fact that more than two million Africans were trafficked to the Caribbean by the British during slavery, and reparations would go some way to attaining justice for those “genocidal actions” [Ref: New York Times]. However, others note that in terms of moral atonement, with great financial cost to itself, we must not forget that Britain played a significant role in the abolition of slavery globally [Ref: Forbes]. And some critics also view the moral opprobrium surrounding reparations as problematic, and question whether it is ethically right for modern citizens to apologise or pay reparations for actions carried out by ancestors, generations ago. For example, columnist Patrick West states that “you can’t apologise for something you didn’t do. It’s an effortless and insincere gesture” [Ref: spiked]. Do we as a modern society still have a moral duty to atone for this historic act of inhumanity, or is it the case that “we cannot have collective responsibility for everything that anyone from our country has ever done in the history of the world” [Ref: Telegraph]?

A lasting legacy?
Opponents of reparations are wary of attributing any modern social, economic or cultural problems to the institution of slavery, and reject the idea that the decedents of slaves are determined by the events of the past. To highlight this, one journalist claims that the talk of historical legacies results in black people being “treated as the pathetic, psychologically damaged goods of historical events…not as the authors of their own lives, but as hapless characters in a play written by someone or something else.” [Ref: Spectator] Moreover, for campaigner Josie Appleton: “There seems to be an idea that harm, and responsibility for harm, is transmitted pathologically from generation to generation” which falsely assumes that descendants of slaves are unable to break free “under the weight of their psychological chains” [Ref: spiked]. Others are also reluctant to accept that the whole Caribbean is in abject poverty as a result of the legacy of slavery. According to recent figures, “Most slave colonies in the Caribbean are now fairly successful middle income countries, or better…the Bahamas has a GDP per head close to that of Italy or Spain. Barbados scores higher on the UN Development Programme’s human development index than any of its much larger South American neighbours” [Ref: Economist]. However, advocates dismiss these suggestions, and say that we can clearly see the modern legacy of slavery in the UK and the Caribbean. They argue that whilst the West has thrived on the “ports, docks and roads being constructed with money made from the slave trade”, the legacy for the Caribbean has been characterised by “high levels of depravation… crumbling infrastructure and 20 per cent of its population in poverty” [Ref: The Student]. Similarly, Priyamvada Gopal contends that: “The Industrial Revolution would have been impossible without the wealth generated by slave labour. Britain’s major ports, cities and canals were built on invested slave money. Several banks can trace their origins to the financing of the slave trade…The Bank of England also had close ties to the trade.” [Ref: New Statesman] The key point being that although slavery was abolished nearly 200 years ago: “The effects of this time are still felt around the world today”, and reparations would help address the “wrongs of slavery so that the countries and peoples that suffered throughout history, can begin economic and social development on equal terms with former colonisers” [Ref: New York Times].

Reparations to whom?
In 1834, one year after the British abolition of slavery, the 46,000 British slave owners received compensation to the tune of between £16bn and £17bn from the British government for their ‘loss of property’, while the freed slaves received nothing [Ref: Guardian]. For supporters of reparations, this injustice is part of the reason why they are so important. In 2014 the Caribbean Community Secretariat (CARICOM) outlined a ten point plan for reparations [Ref: Leighday], and one of the suggestions was debt cancellation for Caribbean countries, as a way of lessening the financial burden that they argue is a direct legacy of slavery [Ref: Leighday]. In the same vein, others argue that the introduction of fair trading policies and sensible aid programmes are the “best possible form of reparations for the wrongs of the past.” [Ref: New York Times] In the press and media, there have been intimations that the UK should pay Jamaica up to $25bn in reparations [Ref: Business Insider], but for critics, the practicalities of who would be paid, and how, is a key area of weakness in the pro reparations argument. Julia Hartley-Brewer outlines the problem, when she notes that the majority of slaves were actually sold by fellow black Africans to Europeans – and so asks whether Caribbean countries should be asking African nations for reparations too [Ref: Telegraph]. She goes on to argue that whilst the transatlantic slave trade was an abomination, it is unclear why its descendants are more deserving of reparations than those of Egyptian slaves for instance [Ref: Telegraph]. Others are also unsure whether reparations are the way to address historical legacies more broadly. MP Tristram Hunt for instance, argues that as an alternative we need to “boost cultural and educational links,” in addition to incorporating slavery and colonialism into the curriculum in the UK [Ref: The Times]. So with all things considered, are reparations a good idea to rectify a historical wrong? Or are they impractical, embodying a worrying trend of pathologising the past?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Africa: What should reparations for slavery entail?

Ama Biney All Africa 14 October 2015

Jamaica is owed reparations for British imperialism

Benedict Cottrell-Boyce The Student 6 October 2015


The slave trade was not my fault

Patrick West spiked 9 October 2015

Reparations for Britain’s Atlantic Slave Trade would be impractical

John MacKenzie New York Times 8 October 2015

No, Britain doesn’t need to pay reparations for the slave trade

Brendan O'Neill Spectator 30 September 2015


The case for reparations

Ta-Nehisi Coates Atlantic June 2014


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Justice requires former colonialists pay reparations

Verene A. Shepherd New York Times 8 October 2015

The absurdity of demanding reparations for slavery

Daniel Hannan 6 October 2015

We shouldn’t pay blood money for slavery

Tristram Hunt The Times 3 October 2015

Cameron, slavery, history and the enlightenment tradition

Tanzil Chowdhury Critical Legal Thinking 1 October 2015

Cutting through the nonsense

Economist 27 May 2014

Blood Money

Economist 5 October 2013

Should we pay for the sins of our fathers?

James Walvin Times Higher Education 7 October 2007

Slavery reparation: why now?

Josie Appleton spiked 5 September 2001


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Should Britain pay Jamaica reparations for slavery?

Phoebe Greenwood Guardian 30 September 2015

The morality of empire

Moral Maze BBC Radio 4 18 July 2012

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