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Brief thoughts on exposure and inheritance
Recent days have seen (another) kerfuffle involving historical research. The basic gist is that a researcher at Cambridge was looking into slavery in the Caribbean. Malik Al Nasir, the scholar, gave a TEDx talk in which he named a former MP, Antoinette Sandbach, as being descended from a slaveowner.
Sandbach responded by threatening to sue the university. To say this probably wasn’t going to be the best tactic is putting it mildly. But the situation raises questions about historical research, free speech, and people’s rights to be left alone.
Sandbach perhaps has a point, to the extent that she was singled out because she has some level of public prominence. She is not the only living descendant of Samuel Sandbach (1769-1851). But she was an MP, she has a linked Wikipedia page, and she also carries the same surname. Al Nasir didn't name any number of dozens of other descendants who are probably living completely private lives.
Which makes it a bit of a paradox, if her complaint hinges on a right to be forgotten. Did she abandon that when she chose to become a public figure? Is it fair to be hauled into the limelight not for one’s own actions, but a genealogical connection? (And a very distant one at that). We don’t point out the living relatives of serious criminals closer to our own time, and the logic is worth pondering. If we don’t consider the nephew of a murderer who was active 20 years ago to be part of the story, why the great-great-great-etc of someone who was running a sugar plantation two centuries ago?
In the current climate, being identified as having an ancestral connection to the slave trade is pretty toxic. I’d argue it’s less “problematic” to admit to having commited a crime yourself, than to be associated with such a legacy. Readers may recall the rather awkward situation of Ben Affleck, who was exposed (via the Sony email hack) as having pushed the producers of PBS’ “Finding Your Roots” to not mention his slaveholding relatives.
Sandbach has also now made some awkward apologies for her family’s connection to the triangular trade, and the whole situation seems to be a perfect example of the Streisand effect. I had never heard of Al Nasir’s research (or Ms Sandbach), until it hit the news due to her grievance.
I’ve been musing on the issue as it’s something that comes up for those of us who work on history. I’ve been wary when walking into topics involving living people, and felt more comfortable when writing about situations where all involved are long dead.
I also have little idea what my ancestors were doing at the start of the nineteenth century (one was supposedly at the Battle of Trafalgar, my aunt has a portrait).
The truth is, I actually don’t care about my antecedents (an odd thing for a historian to say, I know). At 8 generations back, we each have 512 ancestors. Which means, statistically-speaking, at least a few of them were probably dirtbags. I wouldn’t expect to be held to account for their actions. We are all descended from all of the human experience; victims and accomplices, heroes and villains.
But when it comes from those who profited from the suffering of others there’s a different lens applied. Ms Sandbach seems to be well-off, some discussion has now been made of how much this can be traced back to her slave-owning ancestor’s finances. And this is a trickier question, morally. Is a descendant whose grandparents lost all the dough in the 1930s (for example), less culpable than one who is still living in a house bought on the profits of the sugar trade in 1800? Which flow is being traced back, money or blood?
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