With the anniversary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade has come the demand for "reparations" to be made to "the victims". The demand for reparations is, on an emotional level, easy to sympathise with. The trade was an abomination and undoubtedly a crime against humanity. The problem with reparations is not so much with the principle but perhaps rather more with their practicality.
The world we live in has seen a series of such crimes against humanity down the centuries. Most recently, in the twentieth century, we saw the holocaust against the Jews and gypsies during Nazi rule in Germany, the murder of millions in Cambodia, the genocide against Armenians in Turkey and the slaughter in Rwanda.
Now we in Britain should not delude ourselves that these atrocities in any way over-shadow the slave trade. None of these twentieth century events went on for more than a handful of years. The worst of them - the Nazi Holocaust - lead to the deaths of many millions but took place over a mere few years (although the killing was on an industrial scale.)
The African slave trade on the other hand took place over decades and involved the transportation of an estimated 11 to 12 million men women and children to the Americas.
Many would argue that this forced transportation has left a lasting legacy of poverty for Afro-Americans and for the African states from whence they came.
In general this cannot be disputed and although arguments could be made that cultural practices within some of these communities also contribute to their poverty and crime it could well be argued that these cultural practices are themselves the consequences of the slave trade.
There can be no doubt therefore about the scale of the atrocity that was involved in the Atlantic slave trade. Nor indeed can there be much argument that it has continuing effects. What is the problem with reparations then?
The major problems with reparations is that because these events took place so long ago it is not easy practically to identify the beneficiaries of such reparations. Should every black person in Britain for example be a beneficiary? Or only those who can prove slave ancestry? Or those who can prove ancestry from countries where slaves where taken? Do we ask Africans to prove that their ancestors were not ones who actually took and sold slaves to the British? What about the poor white working class from Britain, some of who's conditions were barely better than slaves as they worked in cotton mills and mines - should they be excused from the costs of reparations?
And if we accept the principle of reparations and could resolve these practical problems what would be the next atrocity that we turn our attention to? The Highland clearances? Raids by Scottish reavers across the English borders? The conquest of ancient Britons by the Romans? The victims of Napoleon's conquests?
In general reparations can only sensibly be made when the victims or immediate relatives of victims are still alive. In other words it may be possible to use reparations as a method for "laying to rest" such atrocities only where there are people still alive who can be shown to have some direct connection to the events. This is a major problem with reparations for African slavery. None of us alive at this time were in any way either directly the victimsers or the victims. None of us has anything but the remotest family connections to victims or masters.
Perhaps the only "reparations" that can be made is for us to honestly remember these events and not to shirk from the horror of them. We must not shirk from what our ancestors did or were complicit in allowing. Most of all we should fight against all modern forms of slavery. We should also be generous in our aid to Africa for this is also arguably a form of reparation. These are the only practical ways to make true reparation for the horrors of the slave trade.
Map of the Slave Trade route