Reparation Story

A family’s journey through history, from empire to making amends

The idea

From the 15th up until the 19th century, Britain invaded and colonised countries all over the world to create the largest empire in history. At its height, the British Empire controlled over a quarter of all land on Earth, and ruled around a quarter of the global population. Broadly speaking, this empire was used to make what is now the UK a very wealthy nation, through a violent campaign which enslaved millions of people, seized natural resources and restricted or eradicated indigenous cultures.

Though the British Empire no longer officially exists, its legacies live on in the form of racism, poverty and other social injustices. As a result, some people possess significant privilege, while many others face relentless daily oppression. Some argue that there is nothing to be done about past wrongs; history is history, and we are better off looking to the future. Reparation Story is an active response to such a claim.

In the 1950s, my grandfather was employed by the UK Government at a radio station in Malaya (now Malaysia), which was still under British rule. As someone with an ancestor who profited from the British Empire, I believe I have a responsibility to make sure I fully recognise what that means. I need to learn the history, confront any damage caused, and acknowledge that this is all a part of my family’s story. I need to understand how my grandfather’s career might still influence my own life, and continue to impact Malaysian citizens today. Though it will be a complex and challenging process, I want to prove that it is possible to comprehend all this — and to make whatever amends are necessary. That’s where reparations come in.

Reparations are a way of making amends for past wrongs, perhaps by providing compensation to people who have been adversely affected by colonisation or conflict. Reparations can also include the redistribution of land, property and resources which might have been stolen or destroyed. There are historical examples of reparations being made, most notably after the Second World War. By 2005, the German government had paid some €63 billion to individuals affected by the Holocaust, and German companies which exploited forced workers have also made payments. Despite the British Empire causing profound suffering all over the world, the UK Government has made no attempt at reparations. Take slavery as an example: over 3 million African lives were stolen, but nothing has been paid by government or private businesses to enslaved people or their descendants. Instead, slave owners were actually compensated for the loss of their ‘property;’ the equivalent of £17 billion in today’s money was paid to middle and upper class slave owners.

While governments and businesses which profited from colonialism must acknowledge and make up for their crimes, we cannot exempt ourselves from individual action. We all have to join the fight. As I discover and share my family’s reparation story, I hope you will consider following along here — and perhaps tell your own.

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