General Sir James Duff was an army officer and MP for Banffshire in Scotland during the late 1700s. Following the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, he was paid £3 million because ‘reasonable Compensation should be made to the Persons hitherto entitled to the Services of such Slaves for the Loss which they will incur by being deprived of their Right to such Services.’ He also happened to be David Cameron’s first cousin six times removed. Indeed, Cameron’s wife Samantha is also a descendant of William Jolliffe, a businessman that received £4000 compensation for the ‘loss of his 164 slaves’.
The Guardian yesterday reported that David Cameron had refused to reciprocate Jamaica’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller’s call to enter into meaningful discussions about Britain’s role in slavery. Sir Hilary Beckles, chair of the Caricom Reparations Commission, wrote ‘we ask not for handouts or any such acts of indecent submission. We merely ask that you acknowledge responsibility for your share of this situation and move to contribute in a joint programme of rehabilitation and renewal.’ Though unfortunate, the rebuff is not surprising. Indeed, it is symptomatic of Enlightenment’s power, a tradition that has shaped the ‘Western’ intellectual tradition (and indeed Cameron’s political diplomacy), and the insidious and calculating construction of history that is characterised either by immediacy, revisionism or obliteration.
An immediate history is a past often only considered in narrow proximate configurations. In other words, causes connect events but lose their connectivity the more remote into the past they become. Thus a causally proximate history of the past often ignores the durability of (often oppressive) conditions or zeitgeists (such as colonialism or slavery for example).
Then there is the revisionist history. Though it considers the past beyond the limited proximate causes of past events, it simultaneously romanticises the ‘deep past’ or elides conditions (indeed conditions which constitute individuals, communities and events which are normalised, and thus do not configure in present recollections). Indeed, under the revisionist lens, it is entirely fair to say that colonialism brought India the railways…
And finally there is the paradigmatic obliteration or ‘history as no-history.’ This is perhaps the most pervasive, most popular among the three that inform the western intellectual tradition of the Enlightenment. It allows us to ‘transcend history’ and orient our focus upon the future. Indeed, it gave us future-oriented utilitarianism and timeless rights. It gave us the universal reasoning subject of the social sciences that is able to state nice little axioms such as ‘all are equal before the law’ but hides a violent and ritualistic evisceration of pasts between peoples and communities; indeed, former descendant of slaves ‘are equal’ to David Cameron. It is a tradition that allows the past to be spatialized and thus conducive to division and delineation so that it can say, crudely put, things today are separate from yesteryear.
‘Western diplomacy’, as a natural product of this intellectual tradition, similarly treats history in one or a confluence of these three forms, evidenced by Cameron’s refusal to acknowledge this countries past transgressions from which it still profits. Instead, these types of histories lend nicely to our PM ignoring slavery and focusing on, as the press has reported, future trade deals and the building of a new prison in Jamaica. Perhaps this is a coping mechanism for the Enlightenment tradition, for it absolves its collective conscious from confronting troubling past transgressions that interpenetrate and colour its present and future.
Tanzil Chowdhury is a Doctoral Researcher in the School of Law, University of Manchester.