Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Slavery reparations

This is a story that comes and goes with fairly reliable frequency.
Now [St Vincent & the Grenadines] is becoming the perhaps unexpected centre of a pan-Caribbean move to redress one of the great horrors of the 19th century: the transatlantic slave trade.
I guess that something of a warning klaxon goes off there, in that the translantic trade in slaves was unilaterally abolished by Great Britain in 1807, making this much more of an 18th century horror than a 19th century one. Be that as it may, slavery is certainly a Bad Thing. I'm sure we can agree on that.
"It is the defining matter of our age," says the prime minister, Ralph Gonsalves, as he peers out towards the Atlantic from the veranda of his family's secluded villa, in the grounds of an old plantation, on the main island, St Vincent. 
The outspoken 67-year-old, who often refers to himself as "Comrade Ralph", has been in office for almost 13 years. He says his attempt to seek not only an apology but money from those European powers that built fortunes through the trafficking of slaves across the ocean in front of him is his moral duty.
I don't have figures for all the European nations that were involved in the slave trade but, as a nation, Britain certainly wasn't made wealthy by slave trafficking - it was only ever a peripheral factor in the wider economy.
Stanley Engerman, professor of economic history at Rochester, has calculated that the contribution made by slave sale proceeds to the British economy in 1770 - at the height of the trade - was a mere 0.0054% of National Income.
There is also an inherent problem in litigating the actions of 300 years ago using the laws of the present day. Not only was slavery legal in the 18th century - it was ubiquitous. The Western nations didn't generally go off into the interior of West and Central Africa to capture slaves (although the Arabs did, over to the East) - they purchased their slaves from the likes of the Ashanti and the Dahomey kingdoms in West Africa - for everyone except the unfortunate slaves themselves this was a consensual trade.

If you look back through history, from the earliest beginnings to the dawn of the modern era, slavery was an ever-present. It was with the (extremely high-handed and very unpopular) intervention of the British in the early 19th century that the institution of slavery began to unravel. Working out what the crime is that requires compensation is not as straightforward as it might seem.
But last June supporters of the reparation movement were emboldened by a £19.9m out-of-court payment made by the UK to victims of British colonial forces in Kenya. Lawyers had argued that Britain was legally responsible for the brutal suppression and torture carried out against the anti-colonial group the Mau Mau in the 1950s.
Well, there are three points to make here too. The first (as the article acknowledges) that the victims of whatever torture happened in Kenya were still alive to make the claim and receive the compensation. Slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833, so the last British slave is likely to have died more than 100 years ago. The second problem, not mentioned by the Guardian, is that in the 1950s torture was illegal - if British forces did indeed torture and kill prisoners, then they did so in contravention of their own laws - slavery was legal under most legal systems in the world. The third point is that the allegations in Kenya were made against the British state, for the actions of the state. In the Caribbean, the allegations are being made against the British state (inter alia) but the actions were those of private, non-state actors. They aren't equivalents.
Neither Day, nor Gonsalves, is prepared to speculate about how much they will seek in reparations. But Gonsalves refers to what he sees as a possible precedent. In 1833, after the abolition of slavery, the British parliament authorised a £20m payment to British plantation owners, the equivalent of £16.5bn today. This was deemed appropriate compensation for their loss of "property", meaning slaves. The slaves themselves received nothing.
Well, they received their freedom, which isn't exactly nothing. In fact, there's even a figure given for the precise monetary value of that freedom, to which you have to add the unquantifably greater abstract value of freedom itself. It needs to be remembered that the emancipation of slaves was not seen as some sort of great historical inevitability at the time - the French experiment with manumission had been reversed by Napoleon, and the great slave empires in Brazil and the Southern States were still in full swing.

I should also say that I see the British solution to a potentially very difficult problem, what to do with slave-holders, whose legal 'property' is being taken away, and whose livelihoods are being destroyed, was much better than the possible alternatives.

Slavery was a Bad Thing. The nation that did more than any other to end that Bad Thing (spending more actual money in the suppression of the Atlantic Slave Trade than it had ever earned in the trade itself) was Britain. The world should be ashamed of slavery, but I'm not sure that any nation in particular needs to apologise for it. I'm fairly certain that none of them should be paying compensation.


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