Race Matters

Reparations and the war against human nature itself

If you have links with the Caribbean, it’s never been more important to know your history.  Reparations are back on the agenda. CARICOM are staking a claim, indicating the seriousness of their intent by instructing Leigh Day, the high profile UK solicitors who won the landmark case for payments to Mau Mau freedom fighters. The Kenyans’ status as victims of torture by the British Empire’s troops had long been resisted by the UK government but a High Court ruling has opened the way for them to make claims for compensation against the crown.

Put on the back burner, after the election of Barack Obama, the question of reparations for slavery has apparently faded from the consciousness of many in the US.  It appeared to be felt that the election of a black man to the highest office indicated a turning of the corner, recognition that black people were now accepted by the overwhelming majority as being equal to any task.  But CARICOM states have felt little benefit resulting from the arrival of the first black president of the superpower in their neighbourhood.  Any audacious hope that a new world of international fairness and justice would come about by his mere presence has all but died.

Reparations were never explicitly linked to Obama, but his statement in 2008, that the best reparations possible were good schools and healthcare in the inner city were naturally delivered in a domestic context.  But what if the descendants of a nation’s former slaves live not in the neighbourhood but 3,000 miles away from the metropole, as in the European context?  What exactly is the relationship of the former slave states of Europe with the peoples they transported into their colonies?

Unsurprisingly, the reaction of the British government to CARICOM’s move has been to reject even the notion of a debate on reparations.  Its defence has been to assert that the UK Government cannot be held responsible for “acts committed 200 years ago”.

This seems an odd response from a Foreign Office itself already 240 years old.  And especially since the Foreign Office would have detailed knowledge, even an institutional memory, of the major gains in capital accumulation made by the UK from the production of slavery goods.  Profits from cotton, tobacco and sugar were re-invested in the innovations and infrastructure which brought about Britain’s Industrial Revolution.  Foreign Secretary William Hague may well have been sitting at a desk constructed of ebony from a plantation when he looked over his department’s statement.

Hague will also know that the worldwide recession hit smaller countries hard and the Caribbean states are no exceptions.  According to the FT, since 2010, St Kitts and Nevis, Grenada, Belize, Antigua and Barbuda and Jamaica – twice – have had to restructure their debts and enter International Monetary Fund programmes.  Government debts of the Caribbean as a whole amounted to roughly 70 per cent of the region’s GDP in 2012, or $47bn, according to the IMF.  So although the public are talking about the brilliant film 12 Years a Slave, it is the economic imperative that has forced CARICOM’S hand.

Here in the UK, some will be thinking, “How can I be liable for reparations, I wasn’t even born?”  And, “It wasn’t a crime; at the time it was legal”.  To put the “ancient history” objection into context: causing World War I meant Germany agreeing to pay reparations at Versailles.  Slavery was abolished only a few decades before the start of that conflict.  So it certainly isn’t straightforward to see just how far back we are prepared to look.  When it abolished slavery, the UK paid one third of its annual income in reparations – to the slave-owners.  None of this staggering sum was awarded to the survivors of slavery.

The UK finally settled its debt to the USA for aid received in World War II as late as 2006, which means that my taxes helped pay for a debt incurred before my birth.  I have no complaints over that, or the fact that, living in the UK, I could effectively be paying reparations for my own ancestors’ enslavement.  National debts simply aren’t the same as personal ones.

Serious government consideration of reparations will still provoke outrage among the sort of people who already object to any type of foreign aid.  Alongside them, there will be common objections too from those who feel no kinship with Britain’s slave-powered past.  Expect lots of talk about white guilt and bullish repudiations of same.

Because of their geography, today’s governments in former colonies like the US or New Zealand cannot evade their past and have made reparations with the indigenous peoples they attacked and displaced.  In the UK, the Imperial experience felt very different and is remembered now more in terms of class than race.  Soldiers killed in Imperial conflicts could be assured that their families received a pension.  It would have seemed unjust to pay those sums instead to their commanding officers for loss of their services, yet this is what Britain did at the moment of Abolition.

So, can there be a sort of statute of limitations with regards to the crime of slavery?  Leigh Day have indicated they will rebut this argument by stating that the effects of slavery are still felt today.  That, of course, can be demonstrated, but without an official apology and reparations there is no establishment for posterity the idea that New World slavery was a crime against humanity.  This is the nub of the argument.  Extreme cruelty is a crime.  Extreme cruelty justified by skin colour alone is a crime against humanity.  It is this issue that has been evaded by British historians.

Indentureship papers and other forms of identification were of little use back then, because literacy was rare.  Skin colour was a readily available way of marking out the slave from the free man.  Racism was the way the wealthy ensured the loyalty of whites who owned no slaves.  What had been a mixture of quasi-religious nonsense about the “sons of Ham” being born for slavery and infantile superstition was gradually elaborated into a power matrix into which each individual fit.  Plantation owners needed not just the support of their governments but that of poorer whites.  The answer was to create a racialised sense of identity, one which placed white above black people, within a hierarchy.  It served its purpose.  That power matrix still governs our lives in terms of achievement and personal freedom to this day.  The pseudo-science of race did not vanish on Abolition; it lives on into our time, negatively affecting the lives of people of African descent.

In Britain there is a persistent national amnesia relating to slavery.  In this version of the story, it is to be lauded as the country which stopped the transatlantic slave trade, not as possibly its chief beneficiary. Outside these shores, Britain’s involvement has long been seen quite differently:
He (George III) has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.

I was surprised to learn those words were written by Thomas Jefferson, but not just because he was guilty of most of the same evils.  The term “crime against humanity” is commonly cited as first being coined at the Nuremberg Trials, but while Jefferson’s phraseology may have been different, he shows that the concept was widely known and understood throughout the course of slavery and long before Wilberforce was in view.  Although the founding fathers voted to cut these lines from the Declaration of Independence and to persist with slavery, the phrase “cruel war against human nature itself” speaks volumes.

European voices were raised against the barbarity of the slave trade from its inception.  The Spanish crown was petitioned throughout the 1500s by priests and scholars returning from Mexico and Hispaniola to decry the practice.  Although they didn’t all hold to it, the Quaker religion banned its followers from participation in the slave trade from at least the 1650s. Throughout its history and in every country it touched, transatlantic slavery was opposed, not least in Africa, despite the depiction of African rulers as all being complicit.

Time to mention the great Eric Williams, whose 1947 work Capitalism and Slavery revolutionised ideas about the importance of the slave trade to Britain’s economic development. Williams found that despite the worldwide acclaim afforded him he could not find a British publisher for 20 years. Scholars in North and South America stand apart from British historians on the economic benefit gained from slavery.  Even Stanley Engerman, his greatest critic, has accepted that the Williams Thesis is the single topic around which all subsequent related scholarship revolves.  As time passes and techniques and research materials available improve, a growing number of scholars on this side of the Atlantic are becoming willing to accept the centrality of slavery to Britain’s position as the first nation to reach Industrial Revolution.

Here the Foreign Office can help again.  The vast archive they hold at Hanslope Park is thought to contain more details about Britain’s involvement in slavery.  Historians certainly believe they may strengthen support for Williams’ thesis that profits from slavery enabled the Industrial Revolution.  The question is, will this lead to the economic debt being recognised and can it be spurred on by the moral argument for reparations?

Given a proper platform, CARICOM may be hoping to unlock something like the IMF and World Bank’s Highly Indebted Poor Countries programme to be set up for their member states.  Despite these countries’ huge debts and their vulnerability to economic shocks, they do not qualify for the HIPC programme, being classed as middle income states and therefore not quite impoverished enough.  Other middle income countries include Argentina and Brazil, places with markedly different prospects despite some similarity in living standards.

Little appetite for Caribbean local priorities has been shown by the IMF so far, although they have repeatedly offered aid to speed the implementation of Basel II, in support of the developed countries’ pursuit of tax revenues from the super-rich.

Some might feel that the concept of accepting money for the crimes of the past cheapens their meaning.  It’s a view I understand.  But this may prove to be a sink or swim moment for the Caribbean and if so, it may never have been more important to make your voice heard.

This article was first published on http://www.jeffbannis.com/.

Photo Credit: Flickr/spdracerkmw

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