Restorative justice for the victims of colonialism is an idea whose time has come. A few years ago, the Indian diplomat Shashi Tharoor suggested Britain pay India compensation to atone for centuries of colonial rule. ‘I’d be quite happy if it was one pound a year for the next two hundred years,’ he said.
In April, Cambridge University announced a two-year study into how buildings and wine cellars might have been constructed on the backs of slaves. ‘There is growing public and academic interest in the links between the older British universities and the slave trade, and it is only right that Cambridge should look into its own exposure to the profits of coerced labour during the colonial period,’ said Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope.
Too right. Glasgow University has already conducted a study into its own links with slavery and concluded that £200 million worth of its wealth was ill-gotten in this way — though it hasn’t yet decided what form reparations should take. In America, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a hearing in June to examine ‘the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, its continuing impact on the community and the path to restorative justice’. The campaign has received support from nearly 60 House Democrats and a string of the wokest Democratic presidential candidates, including Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren.
To those who suggest we might be better spending our time righting the injustices of today rather than of the distant past I say: shame on you. If these wrongs are not righted through compensation they will live on in our collective shame and the descendants of the victims will continue to suffer. Far from abandoning the principle of restorative justice we should be expanding it and exploring what other injustices might be put right through financial compensation.