Yesterday I stood in the hall of the Durham Union to argue for the proposition: “This house believes Britain owes reparations to its former colonies”. The following is the text of my ten-minute speech, followed by five brief reflections on the opposition’s arguments.
Jason Hickel is an anthropologist who works on political economy and global justice. He is the author of a number of books, including most recently The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions which was reviewed in BRAVE NEW EUROPE
I still remember the first time I taught colonial history at the London School of Economics.
LSE students are among Britain’s finest: they graduate from top schools, perform brilliantly on their A-level exams. And yet when I gave a lecture about the Indian famines of the late 19th century to a classroom full of third years, I was met with blank stares. As a direct result of British policy, 30 million Indians died needlessly of hunger between 1875 and 1902. Laid head to foot, their corpses would stretch the length of England, from Dover to the Scottish borders, 85 times over.
No one in the classroom had ever heard of it.
And this tragedy was not an isolated incident. There were many more. The Great Bengal Famine in 1770 killed 10 million people, one third of the region’s population. Here too historians blame British policy: brutal tax collection, enclosure of forests and waterways, forcing farmers to rip up their rice to plant crops for export. Similar policies imposed over the following decades claimed the lives of another 22 million people, all while record agricultural exports were being siphoned away to London.
Historian Mike Davis has famously likened these famines to the holocaust. And yet the corpses that the British left strewn across India have been almost entirely forgotten. Tell me: would we ever tolerate such amnesia when it comes to the crimes of Nazi Germany? Never. Any such ignorance is rebuked, and rightly so. Yet when it comes to the crimes of the British Empire, an insidious form of holocaust denialism vipers right through our culture.
While he was Prime Minister, David Cameron went on record saying: “There’s an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British Empire did.” Why? Because the British brought “development” and whatnot. Or so the argument goes.
But there isn’t a shred of evidence to back this up. During the entire 200-year history of British rule in India, there was zero increase in per capita income. In fact, during the last half of the 19th century—the heyday of British intervention—income in India collapsed by half. The average life expectancy of Indians dropped by a fifth from 1870 to 1920.
India wasn’t “developed” under British rule – it was de-developed. And not just in terms of social welfare. British policy was designed to destroy India’s domestic industries by imposing asymmetrical tariffs, by dismantling the institutions that trained up producers, and in some cases even by maiming skilled artisans – all to create captive markets for British goods. During the course of British rule, India’s share of the global economy shrank from 27% to 3%.
Yet despite this litany of violence, a recent YouGov survey found that 80% of Britons do not regret colonialism. 44% are actively proud of it. How is this possible? I hear it all the time: pundits and politicians arguing that colonialism brought democracy, property rights, rule of law, railroads…
What a strange twist of reason this requires.
Democracy? British rule was dictatorship! Africans and Asians struggled and bled for the right to vote in their own countries. Property rights? The whole point of colonialism was dispossession—securing the rights of the colonizers to the property of the colonized: land, gold, diamonds, taxes, even the bodies of the colonized themselves. Rule of law? The object of colonial legal codes was to deny equal rights to colonial subjects. And India’s railroads were used to pump resources—grain and timber—out of the hinterlands to the ports for British use.
Even if we accept that useful things were shared during colonialism – universities, for instance – that is not the same as saying they were a benefit of colonization. Colonialism is not a necessary vector for the transfer of knowledge or technology. Britain has long enjoyed the Arabic numeral system, algorithms, and even algebra itself, without ever submitting to Arab invasion. It takes a warped mind to believe that the best way to share ideas with other humans is to colonize them.
But we have barely scratched the surface. Let’s not forget that Britain’s first forays into colonialism were linked to the consummate expression of barbarism: the Atlantic slave trade. 300 years of state-sponsored human trafficking. 14 million souls shipped across the sea. Countless bodies shackled to British plantations and churned into the sugar and cotton that fueled Britain’s industrial rise.
And yet in the book I was made to read to become a British citizen, this long, dark history was reduced to three sentences. You can visit Glasgow, Bristol, London, Liverpool and every other British city that grew rich on the slave trade without encountering a single memorial. Denialism vipers through our culture.
We could spend all night listing off Britain’s crimes against humanity. But that is not the point I want to make. This is not just about a list of crimes. The denialism runs much deeper than that.
You see, we have this story we tell ourselves, that Britain’s crowning moment of greatness, the Industrial Revolution, emerged sui generis from within Britain’s borders – robust institutions, good markets, advanced science and technology. This is the story that’s written into our children’s textbooks: we must all be proud of Mr. James Watt and his inventions.
But scholars remind us that there is much more to the story than we are normally told. From historians like Sven Beckert, Kenneth Pomeranz, Ellen Wood, Parthasarathi and Karl Polanyi, the evidence is clear: the Industrial Revolution was built on state violence, slavery and colonization. Britain’s economic rise depended on cotton, sown and harvested by enslaved Africans on land expropriated from indigenous Americans; depended on the theft of agricultural products from Indian farmers; and depended on the forced de-industrialization of Asia.
But, I can hear you say, that was all in the past. It ended more than 70 years ago. Things are different now.
Are they? Only if you’re willing to forget what happened afterward. Only if you’re willing to forget the British-backed coup that deposed Mohammed Mossadegh, the first elected leader of Iran, when he tried to regain control of the country’s oil reserves from Britain. Only if you’re willing to forget the British-backed coup that deposed Kwame Nkrumah, the first elected leader of Ghana, when he sought to reduce his country’s dependence on British imports. Only if you’re willing to forget the structural adjustment programs that Britain helped impose across its former colonies in the 80s and 90s, one after the other, reversing the progressive policies of the postcolonial era to restore British access to cheap labour, raw materials and markets, devastating the livelihoods of ordinary people in the process, adding hundreds of millions to the ranks of the poor.
But we’ve forgotten all that. And we’ve forgotten much more besides, including things that are happening right now. We’ve forgotten that the City of London operates at the center of the world’s tax haven network, which helps facilitate illicit financial flows that cost the South more than $1 trillion per year. Colonialism may be over, but the system that it created – a system designed to siphon wealth from South to North – remains very much in place. The word “reparations” suggests that the problem is in the past. It is not.
Frantz Fanon had it right when he wrote, in Wretched of the Earth, that “Colonialism and imperialism have not settled their debt to us once they have withdrawn from our territories. The wealth of the imperialist nations is also our wealth. Europe is literally the creation of the Third World.”
So go ahead – I challenge you: chalk up the billions of hours that enslaved Africans worked on British plantations, pay it at a living wage. Tally up compensation for the 60 million souls sacrificed to famine for the sake of British surplus. Boost it all by 200 years of compound interest, and add that to the trillions lost during structural adjustment and the trillions more in stolen cash that flows through Guildhall. Try it. The numbers begin to swell. They rise like a chorus of voices from the forgotten corners of our past. They march like an army of ghosts who demand a reckoning.
And then it strikes you…. Then it strikes you that there is not enough money in all of Britain to compensate for these injustices. And you realize, that if Britain paid reparations – real, honest, courageous reparations – there would be nothing left. Britain would not exist.
And that is exactly what people find so terrifying about the question of reparations. It’s not that they fear the actual prospect of paying. It is that even just thinking about what is owed reveals the hard truth: that what is owed, is everything.
But really, this is not about the money. This is about something far more important… this is about the story. The real reparations we need are narrative reparations. So this is what I ask of this house tonight – that we demand, at minimum, repair of the broken story we tell ourselves: an end to the denial that has festered among us for too long. Let us demand the truth be told in our schools and in our town halls. Let us demand that alongside every statue celebrating Victoria and Churchill there be memorials to their victims. Let us demand that the real story of Britain’s rise be worn like poppies upon our breasts.
As Aime Cesaire put it, “A nation which colonizes, a civilization which justifies colonization, is a sick civilization, a civilization that is morally diseased.” So what is at stake here, in the end, is not only justice for the dispossessed, but Britain’s own healing. Britain’s own humanity. To repair this broken story will cost you nothing, and yet you have everything to gain.