The big beast of fairness seems to have rattled the cage of Britain’s conscience. For many years black people have been crying out for a sense of acknowledgement that they were wronged in varied ways over aspects of their association with Britain and parts of its Empire.
Suddenly authorities have awoken to the merits of the cases against the institutions and apparently are taking steps to rectify the position, one hopes, through the processes to atone by means of reparation and or compensation.
Some time ago, the University of Glasgow in Scotland acknowledged that there has been an unearned benefit to the University due to the practices of the slave trade. It was estimated to be about £200 million. They decided to set up a fund to assist students from the Caribbean who study in the UK. This was seen as an acknowledgement that something should be done to compensate for the atrocities of the slave masters. Although the sums for assistance will be relatively small, nonetheless it is a step in the right direction.
Recently, in a speech in London, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby tacitly said that the wrongs of slavery practised by the British Empire in collusion with the Church should be placed in the tray of modern generations. Although he did not explicitly mention the dreaded word ‘reparation’, one could be in no doubt as to his meanings.
The sequence of owning up to the wrongdoings against black people continued soon after the Archbishop’s speech when the British Home Office accepted that monetary compensation should be made to the hundreds, perhaps thousands of immigrants known as the Windrush generation.
We now have one of the oldest institutions of the Commonwealth, Cambridge University, in an act of navel-gazing, setting up an inquiry into the whole matter of whether or not there was a beneficial and residual gain to the University through the slave trade.
In a statement on April 29, the University announced that there will be a two-year inquiry into its historical links with that period of the dehumanising of black people. The inquiry will explore the notion of whether reparation should be paid.
The investigation will be the first of its kind in England and Wales. The University currently holds endowment reserves of about £1.7 billion and it is hoped that should there be any links through slavery and coerced labour to these bequests that they will be uncovered.
Interestingly and perhaps more significant than any material benefit that may be handed out, is the direction that consideration be given to whether the University’s academics, through their work, may have influenced race-based thinking between the 18th and early 20th centuries.
These developments seem to have reverberated across the fair-minded and chattering classes. Other institutions are now looking at the impact these dastardly acts have had on generations of innocent and helpless black people.
The Cambridge University move appears to be driven by its Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope, a human rights law scholar from Canada.
He said: “There is a growing public and academic interest in the links between the older British universities and the slave trade, and it is only right that Cambridge (University) should look into its own exposure to the profits of coerced labour during the Colonial period.” He added: “We cannot change the past, but nor should we seek to hide from it. I hope the process will help the University understand and acknowledge its role during that dark phase of human history.”
Vice Chancellor Toope’s overall assessment seems to go hand in glove with Archbishop Welby’s sentiments that the present generations should accept and acknowledge responsibility for what was done in their names.
This matter seems to have brought about a wind of change and it appears to be impacting far and wide into the western world. Many educational institutions have undertaken or are undertaking studies in efforts to cleanse their souls. Momentum is gathering force and St. John’s College, Oxford, has designated that an academic should look at its Colonial past. Not to be outdone, the Chairman of Governors at the University of East London said that all universities that benefited from the trade should contribute to a £100 million fund to support ethnic minority students.
The recent developments should give heart to Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies and his cohorts. Sir Hilary and his men have many times ploughed a lonely path around the UK appealing to the ears of all those who would listen to his arguments for reparation. These initiatives by the universities must seem like manna from heaven to him.
His mission was at times criticised as being impracticable if not impossible, but each journey begins with a small step, however small that step might be. Perhaps the battle should now be rejoined given that the wind is blowing in the right direction.
Many argue that the effects of slavery have left a genetic mark on our people and this has not been eradicated. However, those who fight for reparation are perhaps taking another step towards providing a platform where black people can move on and like the institutions, cleanse themselves.
As they move out of the desert, an oasis beckons, and it does not seem to be a mirage.
*Readers please note that last week’s A View from London entitled Waiting on Change that featured West Indies Cricket Michael Holding incorrectly stated that Holding lives in Cayman Islands. He lives in Florida.*
Vincent “Boo” Nurse is a Barbadian living in London who is a retired land Revenue Manager, Pensions and Investment Adviser. He is passionate about the development of his island home and Disapora.