Should we have to apologise for the actions of our ancestors? By Freya Ibbott
Due to the recent protests in America and the rest of the world in support of the black lives matter movement, the past actions of the British Empire and whether decedents of those who participated in the terrible actions of it should apologize to those who were negatively affected by its actions. There have been arguments supporting both sides, with people saying that since they did not have any influence over what happened they should not feel bad about it, and others who believe that they should recognise and apologise for the things that their ancestors did.
First of all, we need to look at what our ancestors did, how they affected other races at that time and how it still affects them today. In the 16th century, it was actually the Portuguese who first engaged in the trade of Africans who were part of their colonies. In 1526, they completed the first transatlantic slave voyage to Brazil, and other European countries soon followed. These slaves were kept in terrible conditions during the voyage. There would be hundreds of slaves squeezed onto a ship, each with very little space, nowhere to go to the toilet and not even being given a meal every day. Sickness and disease were rife amongst the slaves and spread quickly due to the cramped space. Other causes of death included mistreatment, accident and suicide. Once they got to the Americas, their conditions barely improved. Many would work on plantations and would be overworked, beaten by their owners and they had absolutely no rights to healthcare, education or religion. Quite often, they would be banned from using their own language and would lose any family ties, since any kin would most likely be sold on somewhere else. It wasn’t until after the civil war in the US that slavery was made illegal and then in 1870, African Americans were given the right to vote. Our white English ancestors were directly responsible for a lot of the slave trade and therefore were responsible for the mistreatment and discrimination against African Americans.
Even after they were freed, slavery still affected the laws and thoughts of people from shortly after its illegalisation up until modern day. At first, its influence was directly seen in things such as the grandfather clause (which made it illegal for people in southern states to vote if their grandfather’s father had been a slave) and Jim Crow laws. Nowadays, its influence in the US can be seen in the mass incarceration and prison industrial complex, which relies on filling prisons with many BIPOC in order to make a profit*. Its influence can also be seen across the Atlantic Ocean in the racist attitudes of many people, whether this be consciously or subconsciously. For example, black children are over 4 times more likely to be arrested than white children. As a result, it is clear that our ancestors are responsible for the oppression that Black people experience in today’s society. Does this mean that we should have to apologize for then?
Let’s take a look at another way that our white ancestors have caused oppression and trauma for another minority group. When colonisers first reached the Americas, they came across the Native Americans. Although there is a lot of evidence to show that the Native Americans tried to make agreements with the settlers, they were treated as subhuman. In the 16th and 17th century, they would even take Native Americans back to England and put them on display, either dead or alive, for people to come and view. After American independence in 1783, measures to exterminate the Native American increased dramatically. The US government authorized more than 1,500 wars, attacks and raids on Native Americans, the most of any country in the world against its indigenous people. When Columbus arrived in 1492, it’s estimated that 5 million to 15 million Natives lived in North America. The number declined sharply to fewer than 238,000 by the late 19th century. Many historians believe that should be considered a genocide. Westward expansion then meant that those who were left were pushed onto reservations of often the least fertile land. It has not been until very recently that there have been efforts to give land back to the Native Americans and even now, they are still often considered outcasts in society due to them being historically excluded. However, the question still stands: is it our responsibility to apologize for the actions of our ancestors?
Looking back over the past 500 years, there are many things that we as a nation feel proud of. For example, our role in defending democracy in the second world war, the conversion to democracy, and even, some would say, bringing education and industrialisation to our colonies during the time of the British empire, although this is a touchy subject. Therefore, if there are things that we as a nation are proud of then there must also be things that we are ashamed of. I strongly believe that we cannot pick and choose which parts of our history to take pride or shame in. In addition, due to the years of suppression of other races and cultures by our ancestors, we are in a more influential and privileged position than the descendants of those who our ancestors oppressed and who are still oppressed in today’s society. In conclusion, although we personally should not feel guilty for what our ancestors did, we should feel responsible to apologise for the oppressive actions of our ancestors and for the systemic racism which can still be seen today as a result. Although many people believe that treating everyone equally is the way to get rid of racism of any kind, this is not possible until we get all races on the same level with equal opportunities. Until then, we must make sure that schemes and programs are put in place to ensure that this happens.
*If you want to learn more about how the prison industrial complex affects BIPOC, I recommend you watch the documentary “13th” on Netflix.
Resources and articles