Reparations for slavery?

The legacy of the slave trade lives on and forces us to think about political economy in new and uncomfortable ways

Matthew Bishop
Matthew Bishop

In the mid-1700s, a number of highly overleveraged Jamaican sugar plantations suddenly and unexpectedly collapsed.  Trevor Burnard has recently questioned whether this represented ‘an early warning that West Indian planters were not the masters of the universe in the years before the eighteenth century that they were thought to be by metropolitan Britons, colonial Americans, and by themselves’.

In many respects, this world was completely different to our own: sugar was the global commodity par excellence; slavery was its stock-in trade; the men at the apex of this horrific economic system were, indeed, the ‘masters of the universe’; the Caribbean was firmly at the centre of the vast trade nexus they operated; and what we now know as the USA, the most powerful country in the world, was under the thumb of empire.  Even more striking is the fact that, within 50 years, every aspect of this almost unimaginable world had either been dismantled or was in terminal decline.

There are also some obvious parallels with the contemporary era.  For example, we might mischievously ask what this tale teaches us about the ephemerality of power, the impermanence of systems of political economy, and even the potential impending demise of our own masters of the universe!

Yet the most persistent legacy of the colonial period is slavery, an industry that is currently making a ‘global comeback’.  Today, as many as 30 million people are believed to be in some form of bondage and the numbers are growing in tandem with the restructuring of the global economy.  As the Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho has noted in her fascinating and harrowing book, Slavery Inc., the numbers of people coerced into sexual captivity alone are thought to rival the total number of people forcibly transplanted from Africa to the Americas over three centuries from the early 1500s onwards.

Even in Britain, the shocking discovery in late 2013 of three women held in domestic servitude in south London after decades of trauma only represents the tip of the iceberg.  The Global Slavery Index estimates that as many as 4,600 people in the UK are currently held in some kind of bondage.  Sheffield, home of SPERI, is regularly in the news as an ‘epicentre’ of indoor cannabis farming, an industry that relies overwhelmingly on trafficked, indentured – and even enslaved – Asians.

For the Caribbean, the implications of slavery, both new and old, are acute. The region is today a global hub for people trafficking.  Women and children from Latin America are taken to the tourist centres of the islands to become sex slaves, or are held in transit in the region before being moved on to North America and Europe.  Six Caribbean countries – Barbados, Guyana, Haiti, St Lucia, Suriname, and Trinidad & Tobago – currently find themselves on the US Congressional ‘Tier 2 Watch List’ of states making unacceptable progress towards eradicating human trafficking.

But the painful legacy of the slavery of the past lives on, too, in societies that often remain economically underdeveloped, stratified in terms of race and class, and characterised by social structures – along with a distribution of political power, cultural influence and wealth – which still reflect, both domestically and internationally, the post-colonial inheritance.

The Western states that benefited so fulsomely from slavery have acknowledged neither culpability, nor the enormous amounts of accumulated wealth which drove their development during the industrial revolution, preferring to focus instead on their supposed heroics in abolishing the trade in the early 1800s.  Yet much of the British nobility, including some of David Cameron’s ancestors, enjoyed over £16bn (in today’s money) as compensation for the end of slavery (representing 40% of the Treasury budget at the time).  Note: this came on top of the wealth generated by slavery over hundreds of preceding years.

In a thought-provoking book, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles of the University of the West Indies has recently posed the problem of ‘Britain’s Black Debt’, suggesting that the racist and dehumanising logic that underpinned the genocidal system of Caribbean slavery requires a long overdue reckoning.  At the end of last year, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), under the leadership of the irrepressible Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Dr Ralph Gonsalves, established a Reparations Committee to examine the issue.  Unsurprisingly, the knee-jerk reaction in the UK has been predominantly one of ignorance or outrage (for a flavour of both, see the many ill-informed comments generated ‘below the line’ of a recent article in The Guardian).

It’s impossible to respond to every criticism, but there exist three particularly common and frustrating tropes that do need addressing.  One is the idea that ‘we cannot afford to pay reparations’.   Perhaps this is true, but reparations do not necessarily imply money.  Many Caribbean people would be happy with an apology from the European countries that profited directly from the process.

A second is represented in the idea that the West African slavers who sold people to British and French traders are equally culpable.  However, this simply does not stand up: slavers did not annex huge swathes of the world, nor did they construct the staggering political, legal, social, economic and military edifice of the global colonial economy.  They simply provided a service (within a market) to those who did.

A final one is the dependency argument, which, admittedly, many West Indians themselves hold too: transfers of money are seen to represent hand-outs, with self-reliance, forgiving and forgetting seen as more palatable options.  Yet, as my colleague Dylan Kerrigan has recently argued, financial reparations do not have to be conceptualised as hand-outs.  Many Caribbean countries are heavily indebted, a direct result of their unequal position in the global division of labour inherited from colonialism.  They need, and could be given, urgent relief.

If you’re still not convinced, consider Haiti, a country that bravely overthrew its oppressors and formed the first black republic in 1804.  However, the cost of independence was high: Napoleon imposed a levy of 150 million francs to compensate planters for their loss of property (for which read: plantations and slaves).  It took over 100 years, until 1922, to pay this debt, which today would be worth at least US$21 billion, not to mention tens – if not hundreds – of billions more in foregone development.  Is it really plausible to argue that France – after 200+ years of slavery and the extraction of huge amounts of wealth which directly propelled its development throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries – does not, at the very least, owe Haitians an apology, if not also their money back?

Of course, opening up this particular Pandora’s Box – the recognition of historical debt, the longer-term implications of slavery and the structured inequalities and privileges thereby generated – carries with it a huge number of thorny moral, legal, political and, potentially, financial implications.  Political economy shouldn’t ignore these issues, even if David Cameron can.