The debt that Britain still owes for slavery

Letters
Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

Afua Hirsch (The case for British slavery reparations can no longer be brushed aside, 9 July) is right to challenge the shiftless response to the case for reparations. Her argument is fortified by the fact that within living memory Britain, as a colonial power, exploited the forced labour of those in captivity to gain economic advantage. I speak from my own experience as counsel for detainees in the Kenyan emergency group litigation, heard by the high court in London between 2016 and 2018.

During the state of emergency in the 1950s, the colonial power, with the tacit approval of London, implemented a policy of detention of British subjects in camps and “punitive villages”, where men, women and children were forced to work in pursuit of so-called “rehabilitation”. Former British subjects, now elderly Kenyans, gave evidence to the court in 2016, many of them bearing the marks of the harsh regime they were subjected to and having endured a lifetime of infirmity caused by forced labour.

Due to the rigidity of limitation law, the case was always going to be difficult. It failed. The British government has expressed “regret” for abuses in Kenya, but has not apologised, or considered the moral argument for reparations to reflect the benefits of the wealthy society that we still enjoy, off the back of others’ enforced toil.
Mary Ruck
Byrom Street Chambers, Manchester

• Of course we should be shocked by Britain’s history of slave trading. But we can’t change the past; rather, we should look around at present-day Britain. Consider people in Leicester working in crowded conditions with wages that are so low that their work could be considered slavery. Consider the asylum seekers in immigration removal centres, imprisoned for the sin that they asked for asylum here. Consider the instances of inequality for black, Asian and minority ethnic people. Stop destroying statues of the long dead; start lobbying against the hostile environment and for equality.
Dr Charmian Goldwyn

London

• The call for apologies and reparations only perpetuates the unequal relationship between the two parties that existed at the time. The Nigerian novelist Dillibe Onyeama, one of Eton’s first black students, who suffered “appalling” racism in the 1960s, got it right. When he was invited to receive an apology (Report, 23 June), he said it was not necessary: “It was neither solicited nor expected, it was not fought for. There’s no obligation on the part of Eton College to apologise for anything.”
Fawzi Ibrahim
London

• At least one minister has accepted that Britain owed a debt of reparation. Lord Palmerston, the foreign secretary, told parliament on 9 July 1847 that “this country does owe a great debt of reparation to Africa” and England was “among the first to commit the sin” of “introducing this abomination to the shores of that quarter of the world”. It was, he said, “some atonement” that Britain had led the way in abolishing slavery. Palmerston acknowledged this debt as part of the case for spending on the Africa squadron of the Royal Navy.
James Heartfield
London

• The huge sums paid to 19th-century slave owners fitted into a capitalist system – recompense to named owners for loss of “assets”. A key issue today is finding a suitable form of reparation – such as huge payments into the welfare and education systems of affected nations in Africa and the Caribbean.
Norman Miller
Brighton

• Afua Hirsch makes a powerful case but I suspect the chance of anything reaching as much as “any other business” on a cabinet agenda will have to wait until we have a prime minister of African or African-Caribbean descent.
John Pelling
Coddenham, Suffolk

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