During WWII, Britain mobilised a huge, now-forgotten, army of African soldiers from its colonies on the continent to fight against the Axis powers (Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan). These African soldiers were wrenched from their homes by colonial conscription laws, fought bravely and well during the Second World War. But when peace came in 1945, the rapidly diminishing British Empire cynically betrayed these men, subjecting them to systematic discrimination and denying them the same post-war benefits as white soldiers.
Any discussion about the deeply polarizing topic of reparations for colonial slavery, if it happens at all, happens within a politicly constrained debate, colored by anti-colonial amnesia and denial of the sins of the past. However, there is a need to understand that the “British success” did not happen in a vacuum, it happen in a social and historical context that requires acknowledgment, this sparks an even bigger question – Should we be responsible for the sins of our fathers?
This is a probing question in a society which believes so passionately in inheritance. How is it possible, at one and the same time, to believe deeply in the right to inherit wealth and property acquired by progenitors while insisting that ancestors in the present cannot, in any way shape or form, be responsible for the mechanisms of wealth-making in the past?
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Britain recruited African men — forcibly in numerous cases — to protect its colonies on the continent and further afield. During the second world war, these soldiers bolstered Allied forces to defeat the Italians in the Horn of Africa, to capture Madagascar from the Vichy French and to fight Japan’s imperial forces (the Axis powers) in desperate conditions across Burma. As a matter of fact some 600,000 African soldiers fought for the British during World War Two, on battlefields across their own continent as well as Asia and the Middle East.
Nevertheless, the British government systematically discriminated against African soldiers, paying white corporals – even those living in African colonies and serving alongside African soldiers in British colonial units – far more than their black counterparts. Despite their sacrifices and harrowing deployments, the British government denied these African soldiers’ equal treatment. The revelations have led senior opposition politicians to call on the British government to make an official apology, to launch an investigation, and to compensate the last surviving veterans affected by this controversial policy.
This is not the first time that the British government has been accused of discriminating against soldiers drawn from its former empire. In 2009, Gurkha veterans—former servicemen of Nepalese ethnicity who had fought for Britain—won the right to settle in the United Kingdom after a High Court battle. The British government’s response to the new revelations regarding the prejudice and mistreatment of its African soldiers has so far been muted and self-contradictory, with officials refusing to engage with the issue publicly. At the same time, African soldiers’ experiences should not be seen as markedly different from those of soldiers from other parts of the world. There is however a need for the British government to acknowledge the service of anyone of any color and indeed nationality that was fighting for the crown in the cause of freedom in world war II. A “modest ex gratia payment”, would add “substance to the otherwise rather empty words” of an apology that for long has been disregarded.
The topic of financial reparation or compensation are often left out in political discussions and deemed as divisive and insulting. By contrast, many politicians believe that monetary compensations will make it harder to build the political coalitions required to solve the problems facing black people today.
Britain arguably made money from the dehumanization of black bodies; thus, African soldiers have a profound right to call for a gesture. The “historic links” between the UK and African colonies are rooted in violent racist colonialism. When Britain ended the slave trade, it wasn’t the enslaved who received compensation for their suffering – instead, it was slave owners.
It’s convenient enough to believe that: “my grandfather’s house is my house but how he came to own it is none of my business”. Britain cannot really make “reparations” for something as monumentally horrific as slavery, they can´t bring back the generations who died and lived as chattels. What Britain can do is acknowledge the fact that slavery and colonial abuse has led to the impoverishment of subsequent generations – and recognize the damage that was done financially.