Cambridge’s self-flagellation misses the point: Britain didn’t invent slavery but it did abolish it

The University of Cambridge has been in the news this week having launched an academic investigation into its historical relationship with the slave trade. The project will examine whether the University profited from ‘the Atlantic slave trade and other forms of coerced labour during the colonial era’. The intention, presumably, will be to follow Glasgow University in setting up a ‘programme of reparative justice’ to atone for the University’s past sins in this area.

How though, we might ask, will they ensure that the beneficiaries of such a scheme are not themselves descendants of those complicit in slavery – the African rulers who resisted abolition to the last, for instance, or the Arabs who didn’t abolish slavery until 1962?

Indeed, the whole notion of white people as slavers and non-white people as oppressed is surely an example of unvarnished racism, generalising about a racial group in order to discredit it. The fact is that slavery was universal. The difference is that white people – including many educated at Cambridge – abolished it, at huge cost to themselves, while both white and non-white people resisted.

If we must make racial distinctions about slavery, then, on any objective view (some) whites are surely the heroes of the sorry tale. You’d have thought being the first people group in the history of the world to abolish the infernal institution would be sufficient atonement for earlier sins.

Besides, arguably Britain should be demanding reparations from Africans and others for all the costs in blood and gold of having to forcibly suppress the trade and practice during the 19th century over the course of many years – estimated by the Royal Navy at greater than the profits of the trade in the preceding century.

Or shall we just call it quits? Though a thank you wouldn’t go amiss.

(Image credit: Christian Richardt/Wikimedia Commons)


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