Today, Britain faces demands for £200 billion for its role in the slave trade, and Scotland is being told to pay its fair share. Our Writer at Large talks to the theologian leading the fight

THE numbers have been crunched. If Scotland was to pay its fair share of what the nation owes in slavery reparations the total figure would come in at more than £20 billion.

That number has been reached by Michael Banner, the leading voice in Britain calling for compensation to be paid to Caribbean nations for the past crime of slavery. 

Banner is no run-of-the-mill campaigner. He’s one of the country’s most distinguished theologians and ethicists, and an acclaimed academic.

Banner is dean of Trinity College Cambridge, and has held senior posts at Edinburgh University and King’s College London. 

He has been a key voice in public policy discussions for decades, ranging across the environment to bioethics, and has chaired many government committees. 

The Herald on Sunday caught up with him to discuss the case he’s put together on why reparations should be paid for slavery. 

It’s the subject of his new book Britain’s Slavery Debt, a work sure to trigger yet another culture war.

The Herald: Michael Banner, dean of Trinity College Cambridge and leading campaigner for Britain to payMichael Banner

The campaign for Britain to pay reparations has heated up within Caribbean nations. 
Caricom, the organisation which represents 20 Caribbean states –including Jamaica, the Bahamas, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago – has issued a 10-point plan for “reparatory justice”.

It states: “European governments were owners and traders of enslaved Africans, instructed genocidal actions upon indigenous communities, [and] created the legal, financial and fiscal policies necessary for the enslavement of Africans.”

Caricom wants a “full, formal apology” from nations like Britain for the “lives of millions of men, women and children  destroyed in search of profit”. 

As part of reparations, Caricom wants European governments to help improve public health in the Caribbean, alongside assistance on education and for cultural institutions like museums commemorating slavery.

There are also calls for debt cancellation and technology transfer as “the Caribbean was denied participation in Europe’s industrialisation process. This system was designed to extract maximum value from the region and enable maximum wealth accumulation in Europe”. 

The bill
Let’s look at the headline figures for reparations. Banner has established that Britain owes £205bn. Scotland’s share is one-tenth of that total.

How did he work that out? Simple. He took the money the British state paid to slave-owners on abolition, and extrapolated from there. After abolition, slave-owners received £20 million in compensation for the financial losses they were deemed to have incurred.

That figure was for the approximately 650,000 human beings enduring slavery in the Caribbean at the time.

However, Banner notes two important factors: firstly, far more than 650,000 people were subjected to slavery. Over the nearly 200 years during which Britain practiced slavery, around 2.3 million people were transported from Africa. So, 650,000 doesn’t come close to the real tally of suffering.

The Herald: Scotland is lucky that only a few on the “maverick fringe have felt violence would be

Secondly, slave owners disputed the £20m compensation. “According to the owners, the real value of enslaved people was more than £40m,” Banner says. So, taking slave owners at their word, Banner opted for £40m as his base figure.

The sum of £40m divided by the 650,000 people enslaved at the time, he explains, gives a figure of around £60 per person.

Now, if the value of each slave was £60, and 2.3 million were transported, you get a total sum of £138m. Add in compound interest, adjust for modern rates, and you get £205bn.

It’s grim, brutal arithmetic, but how can Banner argue for reparations unless there are basic numbers with which to work?

Banner discovered that Scottish slave owners received more than one-tenth of the compensation.

There were approximately 3,500 claims made by slave owners for compensation across Britain, with more than 450 from Scotland including 130 from Glasgow, 178 from Edinburgh, and 29 from Aberdeen.

If we divide £205bn by 20, we get Scotland’s share: a minimum of £20bn. However, this figure is evidently an underestimation. Firstly, Scotland’s share of the compensation was higher than 10%.  
“It’s well known Scots played an outsized part in growing and sustaining the British empire, and Glasgow was in particular closely tied up with Caribbean trade,” Banner says. “We know Scotland was overrepresented in the slaving economy.”

Additionally, “Scots in London didn’t count as Scots” in terms of the compensation paid. So Scottish involvement in slavery exceeded 10% of the entire trade.

Nevertheless, Banner feels 10% of the reparations bill is a fair figure for Scotland, even though the number “looks conservative”.

In terms of slavery, Banner adds: “Scotland was up there with everyone else – Scotland played a prominent role in the slave-economy, both in the Caribbean and among the merchants and bankers who drove and funded the slave trade and the sugar plantations that trade served.”
BANNER says, however, that “equally, Scotland played a prominent role in abolition”. He explained that the Scottish Enlightenment inspired politicians to oppose slavery, and there was “popular agitation in Edinburgh and elsewhere”.

These “were significant elements in the complex of forces which brought enslavement to an end”.
Given Scotland perceives itself as more “liberal” than the rest of Britain, the country could take a lead on payment of reparations, Banner believes.

“Scotland now has an opportunity to show leadership once again on the side of right, by recognising the compelling case for making reparations to the nations and people of the Caribbean. The British government has consistently failed to face up to this responsibility. Scotland can show the way.”

The Herald:

There’s a real lack of understanding among the public, Banner believes, when it comes to Britain’s role in slavery. “We weren’t there at the beginning. It was Portugal and Spain. They were leaders early on. Britain came late, but when we came to it, we were top of the league. At the end of the 18th century, we were the leading slaving nation in the world.”

Although many other nations became involved – France, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark – we remained at the top for a long time. 

Slavery was embedded in British life. “Slavery wasn’t something a few bad apples did, the whole economy was founded on it,” Banner says. 

British goods were traded for human beings in west Africa, those humans became slaves producing cotton, sugar and tobacco, and these commodities helped fuel the empire and industrial revolution. Glasgow’s Merchant City was built on the proceeds of slavery.

Britain has been slipshod in how we have taught generations of children about slavery. “The narrative was Britain abolished slavery. As a kid you don’t say ‘hold on, if we abolished it, we must have practiced it too’.”

After abolition, Banner says, life for former slaves remained bleak. For a long period, they remained as effective bonded labourers, or worked for poverty wages on the same plantations where they had been slaves.

The large numbers of Caribbean people coming to Britain during the Windrush period shows how desperate life was post-war. Men and women were prepared to leave their homes and families to work here in “low-paid jobs”.

Banner says “abolition wasn’t about ‘let’s give these people their freedom and put them on their feet’, it was about ‘how do we keep them on the plantations’.”

The proceeds of slavery and the compensation for slave owners was used to “create huge Scottish estates”, Banner explains. Evidently, no slave was compensated for what happened to them, he adds.

Banner notes with bitter irony that much of the discussion around abolition centred on “protecting property” – with slaves deemed property. Yet we denied Africans the right to call their own body their property.

There was also talk about the damage that would be done to slave-owning families through abolition. As Banner again points out, slaves were stripped of the very notion of family.
HE’S got zero time for the usual excuses trotted out when it comes to Britain facing up to its slaving past. Banner rolls his eyes at people who say “what about the Vikings, what about the Romans, they had slaves and we aren’t asking them for money”.

Firstly, no Viking state exists. Ancient Rome fell long ago. “We cannot identify the successors of the perpetrators – the inheritors of the perpetrators – and the inheritors of the victims,” he says, when it comes to Viking or Roman slavery. “It’s too long ago.

“But we know the people living in the Caribbean now – the people asking for reparations – are the inheritors of those who were wronged. And we in Britain are broadly the inheritors of the wealth that came our way. It’s not a long time ago, and in a sense it’s still active.”

He dismisses the claim that Britain “wasn’t the worst” when it came to slavery. Banner describes this argument as “my rape wasn’t as bad as your rape. I don’t even know how to begin to discuss that as a real point. Were we worse? Were the Belgians? Slavery is bad, there’s no good kidnapping and murder”.

Banner bats away the argument that “you shouldn’t visit the sins of the fathers on their children”. Evidently, the sin of slavery was visited on children born into captivity. However, Banner says: “I don’t want to visit anyone’s sins on anyone’s children.

“If I steal your bike, the police will come after me for theft. I’ll be punished. However, if I steal your bike and sell it to someone else, who then sells it to someone else, the person who the police find with that bike will have to return it. They won’t be punished, they just have to return the bike.”

Reparations are the same, he says. It’s not punishment, “it’s restitution”. We’re just being asked to return stolen property. If someone unwittingly bought a Picasso looted by the Nazis, they wouldn’t be charged, Banner added, but nor would they be allowed to keep the stolen painting.

“I’m not interested in saying people are sinners – that’s God’s responsibility,” he says.
Banner is bewildered by people who claim slavery has “nothing to do with them”. They’re often the same people who say “we’re proud we won the war”, or “I’m proud to speak Shakespeare’s English”.

If we feel pride in one aspect of our country, we should feel shame for other aspects, he says. “It’s morally flat-footed, obtuse, tone deaf, not to feel shame just as you feel pride.”

The Herald:

CARICOM’S demands are about “repairing the damage slavery and colonialism did, building back the social capital lost to a community which didn’t have education, and then suffered 100 years of colonialism when Britain didn’t invest”.

He adds that the “model of British imperialism” did nothing to help Caribbean nations recover from slavery. “We took their raw materials, and then sent them back finished goods for which they had to pay  You never get rich selling coffee beans. We neglected them badly, just forgot about them, until we took their troops to fight in the First World War, or their people to come and be our nurses.”

The events of slavery are relatively recent history. Banner says there are people alive today whose “great grandmothers” were slaves, and we must consider the effects of “intergenerational trauma”.

In the Caribbean, Banner found the issue of slavery so sensitive that it was difficult to talk about around some people. It was like asking if a female relative had been “raped”, he said.

Britons of Afro-Caribbean heritage are now beginning to speak about discovering their female relatives were raped by slave owners. 

Sir Geoff Palmer, one of Scotland’s leading black academics, has told how his family was owned by Scottish slavers, and that one of his ancestors was raped.

Banner has studied the wills left by slave-owning Britons. In many cases, these men fathered children with women owned as slaves. 

“Sometimes in their wills they free their slave children,” he says. However, “less than 5% of slave owners show any interest in their illegitimate children – they’re typically just more kids for the plantation, more slaves”.

The dreadful irony is that “the ones manumitting [freeing] their children are the ‘good guys’. But, of course, Nazi camp guards went to Christmas parties with their kids and got dewy-eyed about Silent Night.”
DESPITE Scotland’s shameful past, the country did play a major role in abolition, both politically and in terms of ordinary people campaigning against slavery. “Scotland has an honourable role in its contribution to abolition, but a less honourable role in contributing to the venture of slavery and receiving much of the wealth that flowed from that.”

Many 18th-century English politicians came to Scotland for their education, where they were influenced by the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment – key to turning the tide against slavery. 

“No-one came to Oxford or Cambridge circa 1800 for the sake of the education,” says Banner. 

“It was for what we’d call ‘networking’. The English went to Scotland to learn ‘stuff’, and what they learned was the moral economy of Adam Smith, which taught that enslavement was simply perverse.”

The thinking was that slavery was just economically “irrational” as slaves would do everything possible to work as little as possible, whereas someone paid for their labour would work harder and so boost productivity.

“Abolition was – contra to the Hollywood version – as much a rational calculation as it was a moral crusade,” Banner says. “And into that calculation went all that the politicians of the 1830s had learned from Smith and his followers.”

The governments which passed bills abolishing the slave trade, and then slavery itself in 1807 and 1833, “both had Scottish Lord Chancellors” – Thomas Erskine and Henry Brougham who were “important supporters of abolition”. Brougham received a peerage for his “contribution to abolition”.

There were “a number of Scots in London very active and significant” in the abolition movement. One was Zachary Macaulay. He witnessed slavery’s horrors first-hand on Jamaican plantations.

He is memorialised at Westminster Abbey. “Edinburgh was certainly a big leader in terms of petitions and opposition to slavery.”

The historical evidence of slavery is everywhere if we care to look. Many Glasgow streets bear names linked to slavery. 

Banner found connections between his own college and slavery. When he began investigating links, it took him just one hour’s work before he turned up “three slave owners who subscribed to a building we put up around 1830. The cellars are stuffed with silver from the children of slave owners who came to the college”.

Churches were infected by the “moral stain” of slavery. Some owned plantations where slaves were branded with the crucifix.

There are links to the Highland Clearances and slavery. “Money which came back to the UK in compensation shaped or influenced Scotland,” Banner says. “Perhaps the most notorious aspect is the connection with the clearances.” 

The clearances happened in two phases between 1750 and 1860.

The 1st Duke of Sutherland, says Banner, “used wealth from enslavement to purchase huge estates and carry out clearances”. He notes “the curious echo” of slavery in the clearances, as large numbers of Scots were forced “across the Atlantic against their will”. 

Scottish aristocrat John Gordon, 4th of Cluny, “is another example of someone engaged in brutal practices on both sides of the Atlantic”. He was involved in the clearances and received £25,000 on abolition in compensation, due to six Tobago plantations where he owned 1383 slaves.
BANNER makes a strong case for reparation, but is it at all likely? Won’t Western governments resist Caribbean pressure at a time when there’s war in Europe and a cost of living crisis?

Caribbean nations “haven’t got much leverage”, Banner admits, “they’re small players and they’re poor”. But they do have “a compelling moral case”, and many Britons “recognise we have a shared history”. 

Claims that British aid to Caribbean nations somehow negates the duty to pay reparations doesn’t cut it for Banner. Only a fraction of UK aid goes to the Caribbean.

Between 2011/15, the Foreign Office says it allocated the entire Caribbean just £75m. By comparison, in 2022, Nigeria received £110m.

Banner says as “a moralist” it’s not for him to predict whether reparations will be paid. “I’m not a bookmaker. I’m concerned with what should happen.”

However, he believes reparations will eventually be honoured. Who would have predicted the Berlin Wall would fall, he asks. 

He suggests a “one-off wealth” tax could raise funds. There have been suggestions this could target families and institutions which got rich from slavery. 

“Wealth from slavery is very sticky,” Banner says. He points to the Drax family, whose heir today is Tory MP Richard Drax.

The family’s Barbados plantation was called a “killing field”. Drax is set to earn millions from the sale of the land for housing. The family effectively pioneered the plantation system. Drax previously said no-one should be responsible “for what happened many hundreds of years ago”. Banner says Drax should “just give the bloody estate back”.

Other families linked to slavery have made personal reparations. The Trevelyans -–through Laura Trevelyan, the BBC journalist – apologised and promised £100,000 for economic development on Grenada where the family owned 1,000 slaves and six sugar plantations. Meanwhile, Caribbean nations have demanded reparations and an apology from the royal family for its connection to slavery.

Glasgow University has admitted its role in slavery and paid £20m in reparations, funding research at the University of the West Indies. Such actions, Banner says, “send out the right message, and show there’s a building coalition”.

As a theologian, Banner says he doesn’t need to fall back on scripture to make his case for reparations. The moral argument, he believes, is clear.

But if you want him to, he’ll quote the Bible to show what Christians should do. He refers to the story of Jesus and the tax collector Zacchaeus who told Christ that for anyone he had cheated he would “pay back four times the amount”. Jesus replied that “salvation” had come to Zacchaeus.

And to those who say Banner’s campaign is “woke”, he replies: “Yeah, fine, it’s woke.” But as the Gospels show: wasn’t Jesus woke too?