Telegraph Attempts to Whip Up Bizarre Richard Dawkins Slavery Controversy

A rather bizarre hit-piece in the Sunday Telegraph:

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.

One of his direct ancestors, Henry Dawkins, amassed such wealth that his family owned 1,013 slaves in Jamaica by the time of his death in 1744.

…In an unwitting anticipation of a later Dawkins’s opposition to religion, the Anti-Slavery Reporter also castigated Jamaica’s rulers for making slaves work on Sunday: they couldn’t worship and were condemned to “toil and secularity”.

…He is now facing calls to apologise and make reparations for his family’s past.

Esther Stanford-Xosei, of Lewisham, south London, the co-vice chairman of the Pan-African Reparations Coalition in Europe, said:… “The most appropriate course would be for the family to fund an educational initiative telling the history of slavery and how it impacts on communities today, in terms of racism and fractured relationships.”

This is of course in a long tradition of hacks generating pseudo-news rather than actually reporting anything of interest. The article has appeared à propos of nothing in particular, and the main revelation is hardly new: the details of Henry Dawkins’ estate and slave-ownership can be found in Richard B. Sheridan’s Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British West Indies, 1623-1775 (2000: 225-226), which is available on Google Books preview, and Richard Dawkins’ links to the Dawkins family estate of Over Norton are hardly secret.

Lusher also cites quotes relating to other Dawkins family members who opposed the abolition of slavery; Lusher appears to have found these himself, although the material is again readily available on Google Books. All that Lusher needed to complete the non-story was someone willing to provide the “calls to apologise and make reparations”, and a phone-call or email to Stanford-Xosei provided that.

Lusher’s article also reports Dawkins’ own reaction:

He quoted Scripture – disparagingly – to insist: “I condemn slavery with the utmost vehemence, but the fact that my remote ancestors may have been involved in it is nothing to do with me.

“One of the most disagreeable verses of the Bible – amid strong competition – says the sins of the father shall be visited on the children until the third or fourth generation.”

Audibly irritated, he added: “You need a genetics lecture. Do you realise that probably only about 1 in 512 of my genes come from Henry Dawkins?

Dawkins has given a fuller response on his own website:

…I was ready for yet another smear or diversionary tactic of some kind, but in my wildest dreams I couldn’t have imagined the surreal form this one was to take.

When he persisted with his insinuations I made my somewhat peremptory excuses and left (I was in a hurry because I was about to go on stage in London to give a lecture and wanted to prepare for it).

I’d scarcely had time to re-open my lecture notes when he rang back: “Darwinian natural selection has a lot to do with genes, do you agree?” Of course I agreed. “Well, some people might suggest that you could have inherited a gene for supporting slavery from Henry Dawkins.”

Dawkins goes on to explain the scientific problems with Lusher’s insinuations, although these should be glaringly obvious to anyone who is even half-educated.

UPDATE: The Daily Mail wades in, with a piece entitled “Revealed: How atheist Richard Dawkins’ family fortune came from the slave trade”:

Ancestors of secularist campaigner Richard Dawkins made their fortune from the slave trade, it has been revealed.

…In 2010 Dawkins, an firm admirer of Charles Darwin, spoke of how his father inherited the family estate but never mentioned how his distant relatives had made their fortune.

…Equality groups are now calling on him to apologise for his family’s past.

A caption under a photo of Dawkins adds the detail that:

Richard Dawkins has condemned slavery despite his ancestors making their money through forced labour