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Slavery: The Guardian may be guilty, but not the rest of us


IF you happen to pass the Guardian’s offices near King’s Cross this week and hear wailing, gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, don’t worry – it’s just the Graun in the throes of an extraordinary guilt trip.   

Britain’s self-righteous bible of progressive, liberal-leftish wokery has been engulfed by hand-wringing turmoil after discovering that its 19th century founders had lucrative links to the transatlantic slave trade.   

An investigation commissioned by the paper revealed that when it was first published in Manchester in 1821, it was bankrolled by businessmen who derived their wealth from the city’s cotton industry. Cotton, of course, came mainly from the Deep South of the United States, where the fields were worked by black slaves.   

Cue sackcloth, ashes and hair shirts all round in the higher echelons of the Guardian. Editor-in-chief Katharine Viner told of her shock when she learned of the paper’s tainted provenance, saying: ‘This history had, in many ways, been hidden in plain sight . . . I felt sick to my stomach.’   

To make amends (and hopefully settle Kath’s sensitive stomach), the Guardian has issued an apology to descendants of the enslaved, and is forking out £10million in reparations as part of a ‘decade-long programme of restorative justice’.  This will include raising awareness of transatlantic slavery, expanding reporting of black communities in the UK and other foreign territories, creating 12 Guardian journalism roles and funding a global fellowship programme for mid-career black journalists.   

Yes, of course slavery was evil – a crime against humanity – and if the paper chooses to spend its money in this way, that’s its own business. The fact that its ‘restorative justice’ programme also enables it to embark on a gigantic virtue signalling exercise is, of course, entirely coincidental.    

What rankles is the assertion that has arisen in its coverage that we in Britain are all somehow guilty over the slave trade – that slavery is the original sin which burdens each one of us, and for which the Government must atone by paying reparations.    

The claim is that the proceeds of slavery financed Britain’s development, enabling the Industrial Revolution and cementing the country’s leading place in the world as an imperial power, bestowing benefits on the whole population.   

However, one Guardian reader, John Cookson, neatly summed up what a nonsensical proposition that is. He wrote in a letter: ‘My ancestors gained nothing from slavery. They worked in the mills and factories of Lancashire, particularly in Salford and Manchester, in the most appalling conditions . . . if reparations are to be paid, a tax on the aristocrats and fat cats whose ancestors profited from slavery would be the only just solution.’   

But another reader, economic historian Professor Sir Roderick Floud, claimed: ‘Everyone in Britain and the rest of the developed world has benefited from at least 200 years of cheap tobacco, coffee, chocolate and, above all, tea and sugar, produced by slaves or indentured labourers (or, today, low-paid workers) in conditions even worse than those his forebears experienced in Manchester and Salford in the 1840s.’    

I’m 100 per cent with Mr Cookson on this. Life for most ordinary Britons in the 18th and 19th centuries – when the slave trade was at its height – was no bed of roses, with poverty, disease and destitution an ever-present reality for many. The ill-gotten gains of the slavers flowed into the coffers of a small coterie of aristocrats, financiers, speculators, merchants and traders, not into the pockets of those toiling in the dark, satanic mills. Even when Britain abolished slavery, British plantation owners benefited as the Government paid out substantial compensation.     

On a personal note, like Mr Cookson’s forebears, my ancestors gained nothing from slavery. In the 1840s they were trying to scratch a living in the rural west of Ireland. When the potato blight brought famine, a million Irish – all citizens of the British Empire – were allowed to starve to death or were killed by malnutrition-related diseases. A million more were forced to emigrate. How’s that for a crime against humanity? But I haven’t noticed the Guardian agonising about it, or demanding reparations.   

As for Sir Roderick’s assertion about cheap chocolate and tea, etc: if  having a cuppa and a choccy bikkie is a crime, pretty much the whole country is bang to rights. However, such snacks are probably already off the menu in the Guardian canteen.   

What’s glossed over amid the current navel-gazing is that while Britain may have been complicit in the slave trade, it finally led the world in ending slavery at the cost of many sailors’ lives. Our pioneering drive to abolish the trade began as early as the 1770s and over the next century it was the most important humanitarian campaign in English history. 

From 1808 to 1870, the Royal Navy placed a permanent squadron, at times equal to a sixth of its ships, to intercept slavers off West Africa, exposing crews to yellow fever and gruelling hardship, and at huge taxpayers’ expense. The Navy captured hundreds of slave ships and freed some 160,000 captives.  

Elsewhere, as the Guardian agonises, the former BBC journalist Laura Trevelyan has already apologised for her family’s involvement in slavery – her ancestors owned 1,000 slaves in Grenada – and is donating £100,000 in reparations. Again, it’s her money and her choice, although it must be said that £100,000 these days is hardly a fortune for the well-heeled.  

Meanwhile, the Guardian is building a whole editorial series around its slavery-linked shame, with specially-commissioned features, newsletters, ‘explainers’, and photo essays focused on Manchester. 

Well, confession is good for the soul, as they say. But please, Ms Viner, keep the rest of us out of this trendy penitence-go-round. We’ve nothing to feel guilty about.   

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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