Accountability for slavery remains an elite project in Britain

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AT TATE BRITISHin London, a crowd gathers in front of a painting. Death of Major Pearson, 6 January 1781, showing a black soldier avenging the killing of a British officer when the French invaded Jersey. The painter used this man to “symbolise the ferocious loyalty of the empire”, the curator explains. This shows that the artist could be relying on the naivety of the public, he suggests, because Britain at the time was “heavily involved in the slave trade”. “If we can be proud of the best times in history… we have to think about the worst.”

Times of reflection come and go. The killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, in 2020, prompted soul-searching about race around the world, including Britain. Protesters in Bristol erected a statue of Edward Colston, a slave owner, and dumped it in the harbour. The biggest faults since then have come from institutions that look to the past. In January the Church of England pledged to spend £100m ($127m) to “deal with past crimes”, after admitting it had invested in the transatlantic slave trade. In March the Guard apologized after “discovering” it was founded with profits from slave-raised cotton. Universities, banks, museums and others have done similar things. In February the Trevelyan family, whose ancestors owned part of the slave plantations, apologized and said they would pay £100,000 in compensation to Grenada.

Such actions are still exceptions, however. Britons’ views on their country’s history are changing a bit, but overall they have little interest in reassessing it. Polling data mostly suggests apathy, including the worst aspects. When asked by voters about the empire some Britons, especially older ones, would express pride. Nowadays people generally shave, although a few (16% according to one survey in 2020) consider it embarrassing. An account with a legacy of slavery is sometimes seen as the duty of an elite who fortified their ancestral homes with the profits of African blood. An April poll found that 44% of Britons thought the royal family, whose ancestors monopolized the early slave trade through the Royal African Company, should be paid some form of reparations. But few believe that the country as a whole, or other businesses and institutions that benefited from slavery, should do so.

The subject of slavery is rarely addressed nationally. Take the Demerara rebellion of 1823, when British colonists brutally suppressed a non-violent rebellion of 10,000 slaves in what is now Guyana. One of the frontrunners, Quamina, was so engaged that a colony of wasps built a nest inside him and caused him to fly in and out of his jaws. The incident caused an uproar in Britain and helped fuel the abolitionist movement in the colonies. But today most Britons only know Demerara as the sugar they put in their coffee, not the revolution. His 200th birthday, on August 18, seemed unlikely to bring much public notice.

Such apathy sets Britain apart from other imperial powers. In December the Dutch government apologized for that country’s role in slavery and set up a fund to raise awareness of its legacy. The president of Portugal, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, said in April that his country should take responsibility for the slave trade. The president of France, Emmanuel Macron, paid tribute to Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian revolutionary. In contrast, the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, is more cautious. “Trying to solve our history… is not something we focus our energies on,” he told Parliament in April. Instead the history is being built in places like the Tate Britain cafe, over a coconut pandan donuts and pork and fennel sausage rolls.

Younger Britons are slightly more involved. A 2021 study found that 86% of English schools reported teaching 11 to 14-year-olds about the transatlantic slave trade. But only 13% said they taught the legacy of slavery: a far cry from how German students regularly talk about the impact of the Holocaust. In “Bridgerton”, a historical series popular among young actors, black actors are cast as Georgian noblemen. To some who give power. But the whitewashing of slavery adds to the usual assumption that it was mostly an American problem.

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