SIR Charles Trevelyan (yes, Virginia, The Fields of Athenry) was a Godly man. He administered British rule in Ireland during the Famine years and he saw evictions of Irish peasants and the toll taken by An Gorta Mór as "a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence". The Famine, he declared, was 'the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected... God grant that the generation to which this great opportunity has been offered may rightly perform its part..."
Trevelyan was also into the slave trade in a big way. In 1835, the Trevelyan family received £26,898, (some £4.5 million in today’s money) in compensation from the British Government for the abolition of slavery a year earlier.
A £100,000 fund, donated by the New York-based BBC journalist Laura Trevelyan, was formally launched on February 27, 2023, by Sir Hilary Beckles, chair of the Caricom Reparations Commission, and the Trevelyan family.
Charles Trevelyan’s take on An Gorta Mór as God’s way of culling the recklessly-breeding Irish was not uncommon. Many a trader comforted himself with similar thoughts as his ships left Ireland heavy with food on their way to England, leaving Irish bodies on the side of the road, their mouths stained green with the grass they’d eaten in a desperate effort to stay alive.
So here’s the question: is Laura Trevelyan to be commended for her feelings of family guilt? Should present generations make reparation for the deeds of the past? Tony Blair seemed to think so – he apologised to the Irish people for the tens of thousands of deaths during An Gorta Mór.
Whatever the good intentions of Blair or Laura Trevelyan, theirs is a misguided pursuit. All of us would like our family, our countrymen and women to have at all times acted in an honourable fashion. Needless to say, they didn’t. But the idea that we should apologise for deeds perpetrated decades before we were born is a crazed one. If you literally didn’t exist at the time of the injustice, how could you share in the guilt of what was done?
But Laura Trevelyan and others are benefiting from the wealth their ancestors amassed and passed on to them. You can see how they might feel uncomfortable with this, but it’s still crazy to picture guilt as hopping down the decades and landing on those living today. If Laura Trevelyan must make reparation for the acts of her ancestors, then we all should be out shaking our family tree to check for money great-great-granda might have acquired in dubious ways.
Granted, the treatment of the Irish people by England over centuries is indeed shameful. But how reparation could even begin to make amends for such centuries-long injustice is impossible to say.
Except for one. It would indeed be a moral act were Britain were to renounce its claim to jurisdiction over Ireland, an immoral claim it has insisted on over centuries. But have you heard any British people recently rending their garments in remorse and calling for British renunciation of that claim? Yes, if Irish people call for reunification in a border poll, but meanwhile, what they have and have always had, they hold.
As King Charles settles into his new role as head of state, you may be sure he feels neither guilt for the barbarity of his predecessors nor any need to part with a penny of his present £1.2 billion wealth.