Thursday, January 18, 2007

Slavery - again

Well, this being the 200th anniversary of the unilateral abolition of the slave trade by the British Empire, it's inevitable I suppose that a rash of articles and comments would emerge. Perhaps the strangest so far has been that by Richard Gott, former KGB man now writing for the Guardian. For starters there is the obligatory reference to the economics of slavery:

The personal and public wealth of Britain created by slave labour was a crucial element in the accumulation of capital that made the industrial revolution possible.

This is simply not the case according to most recent economic historians of empire. John Darwin (who taught me incidentally, and supervised my doctorate) has estimated that the role of slavery in British capital accumulation was in the very low single figure percentages of total capital creation. When I taught history in Zimbabwe the text book contained the phrase: 'according to one historian the buildings of Liverpool were mortared with African blood.' I often wondered who the hell that 'historian' was - but he was talking emotionally rather than historically. The truth is that, though the slave trade was profitable to those involved in it, it was not a particularly significant factor in British industrialisation.

Then there is the rather unstructured call for financial reparation to be given to the descendants of slavery:

Black people whose forebears were slaves, victims of that other Holocaust, are simply asking for the stolen fruits of their ancestors' labour power to be given back to their rightful heirs.

This is bizarre in the extreme - if one of my forebears was exploited in the eighteenth century, should I get the right to compensation now? What if one of my ancestors was a slave? How much compensation should I get - an amount in proportion to the 'slave' blood in me?

More historical inanity is on the way.

Third, in considering the British achievement of 1807, we should remember that other countries got there first. Again, it is customary to record the decision of the French convention to abolish slavery itself, on February 4 1794.

It is also customary, if one is not to be accused of misrepresenting history, to state that this decision lasted less than 10 years, with Napoleon rescinding it in 1801. Slavery was only officially abolished in France in 1848. But wait! there's more.

The vote did not put an end to the international trade by other nations, nor did it terminate slavery.

While Gott is certainly correct that other nations did not recognise the ban on the trade, he is wrong to suggest that the ban did not put an end to the international trade. The Royal Navy unilaterally supervised the ban, ignoring international conventions by boarding ships from other nations if they were suspected to be slavers. The Royal Navy policed West Africa and the South Atlantic trade routes for many decades after the ban was imposed, and the trade was enormously diminished.

The strangest thing of all, and one that Gott might not have had control over, is the title of the piece: Britain's vote to end its slave trade was a precursor to today's liberal imperialism. Does he mean that it was a bad thing that Britain abolished the slave trade? Or that today's liberal imperialism is a good thing and should be praised? I would tend towards the latter, but I doubt Gott is as much of a fan of Niall Ferguson as I am.

One point that was raised in the comments to the piece made me smile, however.

Speaking of context, Richard Gott's former employers were practicing slavery up until 1960 in the form of the gulag system. As a beneficiary of their slave labour perhaps he should be named as a co-litigant in their compensation claim, or at the very least apologise to them.


Anonymous JohnM said...

The argument for restitution derives from Rawlings I believe.

1. If I steal from you then at the least restitution should be sought by restoring what I stole.
2. If I used or disposed of that which I stole, direct restitution is not possible so it must be in kind.
3. If I died after stealing from you and my son inherited before the crime was discovered, then my son should still surrender that which was stolen. It should be returned to you.
4. If we both died after I stole from you and my son inherited before the crime was discovered, then my son should still surrender that which was stolen. It should be returned to your descendants.
5. Slaves had two things stolen from them: their liberty and the produce of their labour whilst enslaved.

I think this argument breaks down in a number of ways.
1. Principally, slavery was not illegal until it was abolished. It is absurd to argue that a crime has occured when entire world thought it a legal thing to do.
2. One might accept that stolen property ought to be returned if it can be tracked down many years after the event. Let us suppose that instead, the events were less straightforward. Instead, the stolen items were sold and the money spent. It may not be clear what the money was spent on. Let's assume it was spent on rent. A child who grew up in that house would have received some benefit from that but it is impossible to remove the gain since it is now intangible. If we take money from him as an adult, we punish him for something over which he had no control. By the next generation, the gain is even more intangible.

I'm also concerned by the apparent assumption that the west only benefited from slavery. Africa was paid for every slave - are they going to give compensation? The arab world over a much longer period took a comparable number of slaves, although they seemed not to start an industrial revolution with the profits. Should they pay compensation?

Finally, its rarely remarked upon by 9 out of 10 slaves were not taken to North America. Should Brazil (which abolished slavery very late) pay compensation? Should Cuba?

In the US, the slave states were in the south east. The north which banned slavery was vastly more successful than the south and grew during the period immediately prior to the war when Southern fears of abolition would have made investment in the north highly unattractive.

If slaves were an infallible route to wealth and success then the north would have lost the American civil war, and South America would be richer than the North. And Mao's great leap forward would have made his country the richest in history.

11:03 pm  
Blogger Tim J said...

Sorry for not picking up on this earlier, and thanks for an insightful comment. I basically agree that the concept of restitution is both impractical, and also ill-considered.

But it amounts principally to a modern critique of contemporary Western politics rather than a genuine address of 18th/19th century ills. As such, it isn't really surprising that it makes up for in emotional vigour what it lacks in coherent ideology.

4:02 pm  

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