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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

10 Responses

  1. I copied this – the commandment was for the
    Israelites who had full knowledge from the books
    of Moses.

    Question: “Are children punished for the sins of their parents?”

    Answer: Children are not punished for the sins committed by their parents; neither are parents punished for the sins of their children. Each of us is responsible for our own sins. Ezekiel 18:20 tells us, “The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son.” This verse clearly shows that punishment for one’s sins is borne by that person.

    There is a verse that has led some to believe the Bible teaches intergenerational punishment for sin, but this interpretation is incorrect. The verse in question is Exodus 20:5, which says in reference to idols, “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” This verse is speaking not so much of punishment, but of consequences. It is saying that the consequences of a man’s sins can be felt generations later. God was telling the Israelites that their children would feel the impact of their parents’ generation as a natural consequence of their disobedience and hatred of God. Children raised in such an environment would practice similar idolatry, thus falling into the established pattern of disobedience. The effect of a disobedient generation was to plant wickedness so deeply that it took several generations to reverse. God does not hold us accountable for the sins of our parents, but we sometimes suffer as a result of the sins our parents committed, as Exodus 20:5 illustrates.

    • Charles, if this is god’s world then consequences are punishment.

      • Atticus -The consequences of unrepented sin is punishment as stated in the Bible but the way out
        is 180% repentance and seeking forgiveness by the Blood of Jesus in his substitutionary atonement – this is the gospel.
        But the Bible also teaches that one can be punished in this world as well for their sins as David was. He confessed his iniquity and received
        God’s mercy (psalm 51).
        We also must believe in the gospel , repent and follow the teachings of Jesus.

      • You’re missing a basic premise here, Charles.

  2. […] bizarre Telegraph story about Richard Dawklins’ slave-owning ancestry is taken well to task by Richard Bartholomew. The Guardian steps in on Dawkins’ […]

  3. “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.” says Richard Dawkins. Let’s hope we all agree with him on the first part of that sentence, but I maintain that the second part is simplistic, and interestingly for Dawkins, very unscientific. His ancestor Henry Dawkins amassed a large fortune using slave labour, this was then presumably spent on his offspring, advancing them in life, and then passed on to them after his death. There can only be a handful of generations between Henry Dawkins and Richard Dawkins. We can assume, and I’m sure we can prove, that each generation benefitted in some way from Henry’s slave-produced fortune. This could happen either directly by receiving money, land or goods, or through increased cultural or intellectual capital obtained through buying education. The latest person to benefit is Richard Dawkins himself, who we know went to a quality fee-paying boarding school (Oundle), and we can assume was financially supported, directly or otherwise, through his later studies. There is a fairly clear cause and effect between Henry Dawkins’ profits from slavery, and Richard Dawkins’ assumed position as spokesperson for the atheist critique of religion. In saying that his ancestor’s wealth has nothing to do with him, Dawkins is being unscientific.

  4. Cockney Sparrow – you are making a lot of assumptions – that money stays in all the descendants of a slave-owner over the course of almost two centuries.

    Laws of inheritance often mean inequality of wealth distribution, generally favouring the eldest son, who would inherit the real capital – land, developed property, businesses etc., while other siblings would (only sometimes) gain annuities or money which could easily be dissipated by the next generation.

    Unless you have a family tree and a full record of last wills and testaments, your argument is no more developed than the same arguments made by those malcontents who support “class war”. and engage in the politics of envy

    • I remember reading about rich Catholic converts in the nineteenth century getting guilt trips over family estates acquired from the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Maybe Lord Downton should apologise for his abbey.

  5. If the churches have to apologise for residential schools (which no contemporary Christian was ever involved in, and which they universally regret and abhor), then, yes, Dawky should apologise for HIS (direct, blood) ancestors too.

    • You should take the time to learn the difference between an organisation and an individual. This may be difficult for you if you’re a wingnut yank.

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