The Sins of the Fathers

I couldn’t resist a very short post this lunchtime about the story about Richard Dawkins run in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph  (which, I hasten to add, I don’t buy). It seems that some of Dawkins’ ancestors were slave traders:

He has railed against the evils of religion, and lectured the world on the virtues of atheism.

Now Richard Dawkins, the secularist campaigner against “intolerance and suffering”, must face an awkward revelation: he is descended from slave owners and his family estate was bought with a fortune partly created by forced labour.

The implication seems to be that Dawkins should not be taken seriously because of something that was done by his ancestors almost three hundred years ago. I’m no great admirer of Richard Dawkins. I think he’s the sort of chap that gives us atheists a bad name, advocating a kind of fanatical fundamentalism that I find just as unpalatable as if it had a religious flavour. But, really, is there any need to smear him with the transgressions of his forefathers? Dawkins is reported to have been “speechless” when he heard about the Telegraph story – which I have to admit is no bad thing – but it does strike me as  a puerile stunt.

There’s probably hardly a family in Britain that hasn’t got a connection with slavery somewhere down the line. It’s a shameful part of our collective past, but it’s no more Richard Dawkins’ fault than any other living person. All I can say is that I hope the Telegraph’s hacks do a similar job digging up the dirt they’ll no doubt find in the history of any number of wealthy families, including those to which prominent members of the Conservative Party belong.

Anyway, mindful that the Telegraph journalists, being the deeply honorable people that they are, will now in the interest of balance be going back through the family histories of everyone in the UK who has an opinion about anything, it is time for me to come clean and reveal that my  own great-great-grandfather, Ebenezer Coles, was himself guilty of the heinous act of forcibly taking his entire family to Newcastle…. (geddit?)

23 Responses to “The Sins of the Fathers”

  1. Peter: you don’t buy Richard Dawkins, the Sunday Telegraph or the story?

  2. Well said, Peter. But I fear the ‘deeply horrible’ hacks at the Torygraph will not be too interested in the Bullingdon connection. I know of one ancestor who was a ‘supervisor’ on a plantation in Tobago. But there is a huge difference between the ordinary working man who was offered work in these situations, to the ‘landowners’, already rich and without a scruple in their bodies.

  3. Coles to Newcastle…. oh puleese…..

  4. telescoper Says:

    I agree that the Treaty of Versailles placed an impossible burden on Germany after WWI, and that was a major factor in the rise of National Socialism. Fortunately, at the end of WWII the same mistake was not repeated.

    It was Germany that invaded Belgium, and thus opened up the Western Front however…

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    When all is said and done, it is invasion rather than talk that decides who started a war, and on the western front of WW1 that means Germany. (Not, of course, that today’s Germans are responsible… by supreme irony they seem to be winning peacefully an empire they don’t want, their nation having tried twice to win an empire by war and failed).

    Niall Ferguson, in “The Pity of War”, argues that it was *failure* to enforce the penalties on Germany that led to WW2. Look at the ruin of NE France by 1918 and the number of British and French deaths due to that invasion and those conditions don’t seem unfair. Throughout all previous history the consequence of Germy’s defeat would have been the execution of the bulk of German men, the women raped and kept as sex slaves, and the chidren taken into slavery. Sanctions that were purely economic seem to me to be very reasonable. If we are going to consider children’s children’s children then let’s also consider the number of British or French families who lost their breadwinner three generations ago, with lasting generational consequences.

    • telescoper Says:

      An interesting thing I learned recently is that it was the fact that Germany was allowed to pay some of its reparations in kind that flooded the market with cheap German coal, thus precipating the collapse of coal mining in Wales and the subsequent terrible economic depression.

      I think it was right to try to deprive Germany of the ability to wage war through limiting its army and navy, but I still feel that a bit more magnanimity in economic terms might also have removed the desire to wage war which returned all too soon.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Maybe, maybe not. In WW2 Germany suffered invasion and bombing, which didn’t happen in WW1. That, I suspect, is a big difference in determining Germany’s differing reactions to defeat in the two wars.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      “Why have the punishment go just one way, just because of who won and who lost?”

      It’s not because of who won and who lost. it’s because of who stepped over their own borders and invaded someone else. Who won simply means that reparation is enforcible.

      “Even if one can somehow blame all Germans for World War I (which is dubious at best), punishing someone, in whatever way, for the sins of his parents, or just the generation of his parents, seems rather bizarre”

      Where did I do that? If you want instant reparation then you have to go down the road of mass execution, rape and slavery, of which I disapprove. Better to give a few deccades to enact financial reparation.

    • In the ’90 I travelled with my family to a relatively remote are in Central Italy, close to the Adriatic Sea. Germany’s retreat toward the North has been very tough there. Apart the many butcheries in the area, after the well known Proclamation by General Badoglio (8 Sep ’43) that put a too late end to the awful alliance among the German and Italy, they just devastated everything they could, as everywhere in the occupied countries.

      40 years after the War, you could still feel the impact of this retreat everywhere and it happened I talked to people still remembering terrible events. Actually we went there to visit the area, but then we were so touched by a few tails we heard from local elderies, that at some point we completely changed plans and started visiting the various villages to check for the legacy of the IIWW. At some point we went to a tiny village – I don’t remember its name actually, completely destroied by the Nazis. What remained of the wonderful Romanic Church in the middle of the old village (now completely rebuilt) was just the perimeter in stones of the walls and, surprisingly, the main door: a wonderful wooden work still standing with no walls around. We sit in front of it with my partner and our little son, considering what an awful decision meant for our beautiful country. That closed door surrounded by no wall in front of us was really the symbol of what we have been so far. We were really touched. Someway, for the first time in my life, despite studying history at school, talking to my family and elderies, etc., I really understood what a War means. It was a Sunday afternoon, and there were families strolling around in the warm weather. At some point I picked up a statement from a young couple pulling a newborn child in his pram. This is what I heard:

      “He is a German… *but* he is not bad… he is a nice guy”.

      The tone was like a bit of surprise. More than 40 years after all that mess and disruption, the heritage of something happened so long ago was still in the air…

    • Anton Garrett Says:


      I wrote “It’s not because of who won and who lost. it’s because of who stepped over their own borders and invaded someone else.”

      You replied: “World War I was not so clear cut.”

      As I specified, it was clearcut on the western front. Furthermore the German masterplan was to invade and defeat France so quickly that the German army could then be deployed on the eastern front, to destroy the slower-mobilising Russian army – again outside German borders, ie another invasion of a non-belligerent. The plan in the west was held up by heroic near-suicidal Belgian action, after which enough harrying action forced Gen Kluck to turn south from the coast earlier than planned, wrecking his plan to encircle Paris. A bloody stalemate ensued on the Marne, involving the famous story of the Parisian taxidrivers driving out the garrison of Paris, and the shedding of a lot of British volunteer blood too. When you are facing machineguns, you dig – so a digging race ensued north and south. Whenever one side thought it had out-dug the other, a battle took place. The net result was parallel trenches from the coast of northern France to the Swiss border and several years of stalemate. All on French soil, and all due to Germany invading France, not vice-versa.

      What reparations to France would you regard as fair?

      The reparations which I specified, ie economic and over the next few decades, directly involve the culpable generation. To say that Versailles directly led to Hitler is a vast over-simplification. And because Germany was in the frontline of the Cold War it got subsidies via the Marshall Plan that Britain, which had stood alone against Hitler while others remained aloof, never saw. You seem to write as if Germany *deserved* the Marshall money. It’s a funny old world.

      • QUESTION
        based on previous comments, circle your best answers to the following questions:

        1. in 2003 US and some western countries invaded Iraq and lost the war. They should then pay back the country ( yes / no )

        2. in 2003 US and some western countries invaded Iraq and won the war. They should therefore pay back war damage to that country ( yes / nos )

    • Anton Garrett Says:


      In Iraq the invaders won the war but lost the peace – very different. The ancient Romans or the Victorian British could have told Washington what to do next:

      1. Don’t disband the army so as to leave thousands of young men sloshing round the country with weapons; instead run it as *your* force.

      2. Break up the network of internal power-brokers, ie those loyal to Saddam Hussein who had enriched themselves in his regime, invariably corruptly and often with torture.

      3. Recognise that you cannot enact democracy in a place where the parties in an election are not sincere about accepting the result peacefully if they lose.

      4. Run it as a benevolent dictatorship – make the law fair and with penalties that the locals understand, enforce it without corruption, and enact reconstruction projects that genuinely benefit the people, hiring locals who were not part of Saddam’s regime.

      5. Recognise that you cannot run an empire if you don’t actually enjoy living among people of a different culture, even as their lords (as the ancient Romans and Victorians did). You will never be successful if you can’t live without MacDonalds.

      Finally: know these things in advance, and if you find this program not to your taste, stay at home. I still don’t understand why the USA invaded Iraq (Afghanistan was a lot more obvious), or why it subsquently quit just when it needed a safe base from which to talk to Iraq’s neighbours.

    • Anton Garrett Says:


      Perhaps you have not realised it, but the consequence of your position is that Germany invades France (actions speak louder than words in history), France loses millions of lives evicting German troops, and you believe there should be no reparation. I regard that as a reductio ad absurdum demonstration that something is wrong with your reasoning. If you don’t then I won’t persist in discussing it with you, since your moral compass is so different from mine that I simply don’t know where to begin.

      Not Versailles, but the failure to enforce it, sent a bellicose nation the lesson, “you can get away wtih it” and we all know what happened next. Niall Ferguson takes this position in his book “The Pity of War”. (What was the response when Hitler re-occupied the Rhineland? Nothing, though there could have been.) Ferguson is a ‘serious historian’ who constitutes a counter-example to your assertions about Versailles.


    • Anton Garrett Says:


      You actually said (at 5.10pm) that “no serious historian debates that it [the harshness of Versailles’ terms] was a major contributing factor [to WW2].” I gave the counter-example of Niall Ferguson, who disputes it and is undoubtedly a serious historian.

      So pin the blame for Germany’s invasion of France on a few dozen German politicians and generals? Every German soldier who died there could have said No, I will not set foot on non-German soil, and if enough had organised and said No then nothing could have been done. What does your proposal do for the millions of French families who lost their breadwinner fighting a purely defensive war for their own nation’s freedom on their own soil? This invasion was an action by the German State, so it is the German State that should make reparation. I am not interested in talking about other wars.

    • Anton Garrett Says:


      To clarify: When I said “this action [1914 invasion of France] was an action by the German State, so it is the German State that should make reparation” I of course meant beginning in 1918, not today.

      But another point: I asked you “What reparations to France would you regard as fair?” and you responded: “Reparations for France to pay [presumably, ‘be paid’]? Again, a false dichotomy.”

      A question that begins “What…” is not a binary question! Are you saying that your answer is Zero?

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      “Burdening an entire country, especially those born after the fact, for the actions of a few is on the same level as football fans smashing shop windows when their team loses.”

      False analogy! The invasion of France in 1914 was an action of the German State. The German State is responsible, and should therefore be accountable. I regret your complete silence on whether you believe that French families who lost everything in NE France deserve any compensation.

    • Anton Garrett Says:


      “Leaving aside the question whether it was right to assign 100% of the guilt to the losers…”

      No, I assigned it to the *invaders*.

      “the question is who the “German state” is”

      I’m glad you now accept it was the German State that was responsible. France could therefore legitimately demand reparation from the German State. How the German State raises the money within itself is not a matter for France. All of the moral questions you raise – and they are good questions – comprise an internal matter for Germany, and do not bear on international relations between Germany and France.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Reparation is asking for what you lost, materially and also perhaps for distress caused; revenge is asking for more. The two are morally distinct.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      “strict enforcement of the Treaty of Versailles could also perhaps have prevented WWII in the sense that amputation will prevent cancer from occurring in that which was amputated. This is always an option (as in the “nuke ‘em back to the stone age” demands concerning Afghanistan)”

      Ferguson explains how it could have been done. And you don’t need nukes to return people to the stone age. Have a look at pictures of north-eastern France in 1918.

  6. telescoper Says:

    Another topical connection I made have made in the post – had I thought of it while I was writing it – is with the Falkland Islands. However much anyone argues that Britain was wrong to take possession of the Islands in 1825, the blame does not lie with the current generation of Falkland Islanders who have the right to live in peace without the threat of another invasion from Argentina.

    And if the Argentinian government feels so strongly about colonialism, presumably they will be considering giving mainland territory of Argentina back to the indigenous people dispossessed by their Spanish ancestors.

  7. ” In Iraq the invaders won the war but lost the peace – very different. ”

    that makes evident that one can always split reality to make his thesis right. Now, then, we have to consider 3 different points:

    1. who invaded whom (not sure about the grammar in English, sorry)
    2. who won the war
    3. who won the peace

  8. Anton Garrett Says:

    “Every German soldier who died there could have said No, I will not set foot on non-German soil, and if enough had organised and said No then nothing could have been done.”

    “First, everyone who said no would have been shot on the spot.”

    Not if enough of them said it. The first 50,000 *might* have been shot on the spot. But after a while the German high command would not have found it possible to commit genocide on their own people. A lot fewer Germans would have died than subsequently died trying to steal another country – and no Frenchmen.

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