Horrible but not unique

There’s sadly a large amount of ignorance concerning slavery. The Atlantic Trade was large, yes, historically concentrated as well. But there really wasn’t anything at all unique about it. Not even that it was Equatorial and sub-Saharan blacks being enslaved – the Arab slave trade utilised the same source.

What’s very much worse than this lack of historical knowledge is the perversion of the truth usually on offer:

When will Britain face up to its crimes against humanity?
After the abolition of slavery, Britain paid millions in compensation – but every penny of it went to slave owners, and nothing to those they enslaved. We must stop overlooking the brutality of British history. By Kris Manjapra

Yes, we can tell how this is going to go. Unless we today cough up lots of money for people with better melanin content than ourselves we’ll not have faced up to those historical truths. Which is to be deeply stupid of course.

For who did abolish the slave trade? Why that’s our pinkish forefathers, isn’t it? The compensation being the necessary price of getting the ownership part abolished that couple of decades later after the trade part.

And who did then spend more on the Royal Navy’s anti-slavery patrols than anyone had ever made out of slavery over the next century and a bit? Why, that’s our rather pinkish forefathers again. And guess what? The first people to note that slavery is wrong, the first people to abolish it, the first people to actively campaign against it with those gunboats and all? No, those aren’t the people you can go around insisting the’re not facing up to their crimes now, are they?

“Err, yes, that was a bad idea, we’ll stop and we’ll expend our efforts making everyone else stop too” is not a refusal to face up to anything.

Not a single shilling of reparation, nor a single word of apology, has ever been granted by the British state to the people it enslaved, or their descendants.

Guess what? The British state didn’t enslave anyone. It was a private, market, institution.

Slavery had certainly been practised in many parts of the world since ancient times. But never before had a territory’s entire economy been based on slave labour for capitalist industry.

That’s just historically ignorant. The Roman latifundia were slave driven plantations. OK, so we call them farms because they were in Europe, not plantations which is of the Americas. But there’s really nothing at all unique about this Atlantic trade nor economy.

Britain could not have become the most powerful economic force on earth by the turn of the 19th century without commanding the largest slave plantation economies on earth, with more than 800,000 people enslaved.

That’s economically illiterate to boot. Slavery existed, most certainly, but the accumulated capital from it was not what fueled the Industrial Revolution. Sure, some say it was but sadly for their argument it wasn’t.

Eric Williams, a historian of slavery who also became the first prime minister of independent Trinidad in 1962, has argued that slavery in the British empire was only abolished after it had ceased to be economically useful.

That’s actually not a bad argument. Economics is called the dismal science precisely because it was pointed out to Carlyle that paid labour was more efficient than slave. But if that is true then it does rather mean that it wasn’t making a great deal of money, doesn’t it?

Many mainstream abolitionists felt uncomfortable about the compensation of slave owners, but justified it as a pragmatic, if imperfect, way to achieve a worthy goal.

That’s probably the right attitude to have had as well. But again we get to ignorance:

It is hardly surprising, then, that the British establishment has been so resistant to hearing calls for reparations for slavery. In 1997, manacled human remains were found on a beach in Devon. It was soon determined that the bones were those of enslaved blacks who had probably been kept in the hold of The London, a vessel shipwrecked in 1796. The enslaved people, who were probably from the Caribbean, were supposed to be sold on the British slave market.

There was no British slave market. Slavery didn’t exist in Britain. The legal case which decided this – in effect insisting that slavery had never been legal in England at least – was before 1796. There just wasn’t such a market slaves could be sold into.

But then we leap off into nonsense:

He anchored his demand for reparations in the need for the British state to admit its role in forcefully extracting wealth from the Caribbean, impeding industrialisation and causing chronic poverty. The Caribbean, by the late 20th century, became one of the largest centres of predatory lending, orchestrated by the IMF and World Bank, as well as by European and American banks. Even today, the economies of Jamaica, Barbados and Antigua find themselves dangling precariously between life and debt, suspended by their historically enforced dependence on foreign finance.

What has this to do with slavery? Why should anyone who did benefit from slavery – if any such exist today – be paying for predatory lending?

And that’s where the modern reparations argument really falls down. Back with that common law argument of what compensation is for, what it’s about. It is to make you whole from the damages caused to you. To put you back into the position you would have been before the tort. The people in the Caribbean are very much richer than the descendants of the not enslaved in West Africa. There’s no compensation due even if we accept all the rest of the various arguments.

The slaves weren’t better off than the not enslaved. But their descendants are. And we don’t pay compensation, reparations, for making today’s people better off now, do we?

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37 COMMENTS

  1. Yes, if a “reparations” payment were contingent on the recipient moving back to his country of origin, then we could talk. Although, of course, he is not the problem but the many white people claiming to be speaking in his name.

    The same reparations blather is heard in the US, notably by Obama and surely by the one million clones of himself he says he wants – a country where we not only ended the institution but endured a ruinous war to end it. (Yes, the war was about an agrarian South being chronically ill-served by a Congress dominated by the industrial North, but a key reason the North didn’t just let them secede was the allure of ending slavery.) Dwelling on the past tends to weaken the motivation of individuals toward self-betterment, about which see today’s post on Global Justice Now.

  2. Eric Williams, a historian of slavery who also became the first prime minister of independent Trinidad in 1962, has argued that slavery in the British empire was only abolished after it had ceased to be economically useful.

    There is a great deal of evidence that this is not true. It is discussed by the absolutely outstanding Eugene Genovese (presumably Roll Jordan Roll) and more comprehensively by Seymour Drescher’s Econocide. As the latter title suggests, Drescher does not think that abolishing slavery did the British a world of good. This is obvious if you think about the economies of the Caribbean. If slavery was so uneconomic, no doubt places like Guyana and Jamaica became economic power houses once slavery was abolished – right?

    The slaves weren’t better off than the not enslaved.

    Define better off. They ate much better. Better than Southern Italians. As Time on the Cross rather crassly pointed out.

    • The counterexample is unpersuasive (like the assertion nearby that, since gun confiscation did not immediately turn Australia into a tyranny, it is a good thing). All other things being equal, that a plantation can obtain one economic input solely for the cost of feeding and housing it, is more advantageous to the plantation owner than competing in the market for labor. Guyana and Jamaica needed much more than to not have slavery.

      Whether or not slaves were “better off” is immaterial. Caged animals are better off than those facing the predation in the wild. Bunkhouses were more comfortable and secure than thatched huts in Africa then, and than housing projects in a modern African kleptocracy (though there was no accumulation of wealth to worry about keeping secure).

      • All other things being equal, that a plantation can obtain one economic input solely for the cost of feeding and housing it, is more advantageous to the plantation owner than competing in the market for labor. Guyana and Jamaica needed much more than to not have slavery.

        But no slave society can rely on the labour of anyone costing no more than that of feeding and housing. There is also capture and prevention of escape – or for America, the cost of rearing a slave from childhood. This is usually prohibitively expensive. Which is why slaves so rarely have families. The labour of free men – as Marx and Adam Smith agreed – is usually the most costly labour of all. So much so that some have argued that southerners kept slaves for basically prestige purposes – they wanted to be counted among the Virginian gentry and that meant slaves. I do not believe this myself.

        Whether or not slaves were “better off” is immaterial.

        We are talking about reparations. It soon will be material.

        Caged animals are better off than those facing the predation in the wild.

        A rather large number of animals, especially those raised in captivity, disagree with you.

  3. However none of this matters. Black people in Britain are poor. White people are not. Pretty soon White people will be a minority. A third of the under 15s in the UK are not British.

    Then we will face Zimbabwean-style economics. No doubt slavery will be the excuse. It hardly matters. You import African voters, you get African politics. Within the lifetime of some of the grandchildren of the people reading this, Britain will have no White people at all.

  4. When will the Beardies be starting the reparations for the tens of millions of blacks they took as slaves–including castrating most of the males to ensure that their lands would not get the same demographic takeover they are trying on us.

  5. And is it proposed that the descendants of the West Africans who actually did the enslaving, prior to selling the slaves on to various Europeans pay any of this compensation? They should have the money after all, they were compensated by the British Government for loosing the right to sell slaves.
    Perhaps Brazil should be supplying compensation, after all they bought far more slaves than the British and Americans.
    And as above, part of the compensation deal should be their return to Africa with the same standard of living currently enjoyed there. Which should make the cost of compensation pretty low, as all the descendants of slaves enjoy a higher standard of living than the average African, as evidenced by the vast number of Africans seeking to move to our allegedly racist society.

  6. “The slaves weren’t better off than the not enslaved.”

    There were slave revolts and many efforts to escape. Frederick Douglass’ means of escape is an interesting tale. The slaves certainly didn’t like being slaves even if they may have eaten better than southern Italians.

    However, with a few exceptions (such as perhaps Haiti), the descendants of slaves in the Western Hemisphere are often better off than west Africans today.

    • I don’t know what that “many” is doing there. There may have been some attempts at escape. The Maroons for instance. But given returning to Africa was pretty much out of the question except for those that worked to free themselves and then earn a lot of money, was there a lot of point to escaping? Joining the Seminoles? As for slave revolts, what is interesting about slavery in the US is just how little effort there was at revolt. There were virtually none in the Caribbean – again, not because it wasn’t a dire system, but what’s the point? What could you do even if you succeeded? There were about three in the US in the 19th century. Perhaps half a dozen in all. So nothing like the violence of the Union struggles against the robber barons.

      • If you read Frederick Douglass’ third autobiography he discusses how freed blacks might give their Freedom papers to slaves that had similar physical descriptions for their use in escaping north. The escaped slaves would then mail those papers back, evidencing great trust in the post. Douglass himself used the identity papers of a black sailor to pass himself off as a free man while he made his way north. He wrote that he was recognized by a white man who knew his owner but who chose to look the other way. Washington had slaves escape during the Revolutionary War, and he made efforts to get them back, sometimes unsuccessfully. Then there was the whole underground railway thing.

        In fairness to your point, Douglass did note that escaping to the north from Maryland or Virginia was a much different matter than trying to escape from Alabama or Mississippi. Joining the Seminoles? Blacks did intermarry with Indians, notably the Cherokee (and some of the Cherokee were slaveholders).

        • The Underground railways is a great example of politics trumping history. Just as Jewish historians have reacted to the passivity of the Jews during the Holocaust by talking up every possible act that might be called resistance, so too have Leftists argued that every time a Black man raised his voice it was a rebellion – and that the Underground Railway was actually important. Harriet Tubman made a dozen trips down south and that made her such a legend people are still talking about her today. Which suggests it was irrelevant.

          Slaves, especially young male slaves, often wandered off the plantation. Many wandered back. In the same way a soldier that is AWOL has not necessarily deserted.

          This is not to say slavery was nice. But it has become too political for really sensible discussion.

  7. Blacks of West Indian origin are not a major problem for the UK. They are not out-breeding the native population.

    But our dear bearded friends and sub-Saharan imports must be halted–not cut back– halted. And the subsidised breeding program ended also.

  8. I found Kris Manjapra’s Guardian thought-piece rather interesting. Based though it is on those erroneous and dubious assumptions which you have neatly exposed, it develops the argument eruditely and employs emotionally coloured language sparingly. It’s a welcome change from the illiterate “Gimme free stuff” narrative of the great unwashed.

  9. Slavery had certainly been practised in many parts of the world since ancient times. But never before had a territory’s entire economy been based on slave labour for capitalist industry.

    I love how he snuck that word “capitalist” in there. As if hacking rocks for a few years until you are dead from exhaustion is so much better. As only White people can be capitalists, only White people can be evil. Neat.

    • I’ve never understood why capitalism only came about in the last few hundred years and so the Phoenicians weren’t capitalists. Someone had to pay to build those ships and acquire the trade goods before they set sail.

  10. As to whether slaves were or were no better off than the free I think a time reference is needed.
    At a time, say 1700, when the bulk of free men lived at subsistence level there can have been little material difference. The slave that didn’t work got beaten, the free man that didn’t work starved.
    The free man of say 1800 was likely to be above subsistence level, the free man of 1850 was likely to be well above subsistence level, the slave being at subsistence level throughout.
    Hence the potential benefit of freedom increased over time.

  11. ‘Many mainstream abolitionists felt uncomfortable about the compensation of slave owners, but justified it as a pragmatic, if imperfect, way to achieve a worthy goal.’

    This is the heart of the problem for the USA in the 1850s. Compensation would have to come from the government; government got it’s money from tariffs; tariffs were paid by slave holders.

    Supersized Catch 22.

    • Tariffs are paid by people who buy from abroad, not, for instance, farmers who sell abroad. So the implication that the slaveholder pays the government to pay him is as bogus as the town librarian saying we have common interests because she pays taxes just as I do. The slaveholder would receive more than he paid; the net effect is that those who didn’t have slaves would be paying to “make whole” those who did.

      • “Tariffs are paid by people who buy from abroad, not, for instance, farmers who sell abroad.”

        In the Antebellum South, they were the same. Planters sold their cotton in Europe, bought European goods, paid the tariffs that financed the United States of America. 20% of the U.S. expenditures were in the South; 80% were in the North and West. The South wasn’t getting much for their money.

        “So the implication that the slaveholder pays the government to pay him is as bogus as”

        You are wrong.

  12. It’s certainly true that the transatlantic slave trade was not especially unique.

    Indeed there is an important history of the white slave trade in North Africa for those interested (reviewed in the Guardian believe it or not), which was far larger than most people realise. Britain fought the wars that abolished this trade too.

    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/aug/21/featuresreviews.guardianreview3

    Through history, the biggest enslavers of sub-Saharan blacks was sub-Saharan blacks . The slave ships were rarely in the business of rounding up villages themselves, after all. Not that they should escape condemnation, but we shouldn’t forget the actual enslavers in the rush to pillory the slave traders and owners.

    The Berber/Arabic North Africans get an honourable mention in all categories as well.

    We all know reparations for deep history is a stupid idea. Where do you stop? WW2? WW1? The reformation? The Norman Conquest? The Roman invasion?

    But I guess the grievance industry will be here longer than any of us will be.

  13. I dunno, but I reckon, that nobody genuinely gives a shit about the Atlantic slave trade. Not even black people whose great-great-great-great-granddaddies were forced into the organic farming business.

    And why should they? We don’t still cry about peasant serfdom, the plague, or even the Spanish flu.

    Slavery narratives exist for two main reasons, neither of which has anything to do with slavery:

    * To explain the multigenerational socioeconomic failure of blacks compared to other racial groups. Blacks are never to blame for their own problems, it’s always white racism or the history of colonialism or 1970’s Northern comedians or Helen Bannerman who are at fault.

    * Because whites – and it’s always whites who are the targets of this sort of aggressive begging – are seen as gullible idiots who might just pay up if they’re presented with a sad enough story. You’ll notice these repamarations demands are never aimed at the Arabs or the Israelis or the Mercedes-driving elites running modern black African countries.

    The correct answer, in either case, is: piss off – we are not the bruthas’ keepers.

  14. After WW2 the UK nationalised the railways – but every penny spent went to railway shareholders, not the poor oppressed railway workers and passengers.

    Geez! For MILLENNIA people have been freeing slaves by buying them then setting them free. The mid-19th-century slavery abolition was using the methods of the day to abolish a particular industry – buy it out of existance. And, yes, when you buy something out of existance you do yes pay the EEEVULLL owners of the industry you are buying out of existance.

  15. Only country I’ve ever been to in Sub-Saharan Africa, Sierra Leone. Thankfully, briefly. A commensurate shithole. Don’t know about reparations. Retrospective charging of tickets for the boat ride out of there would be more appropriate.

  16. I think it is time to take this argument to its logical conclusion – Blacks in America and in Britain are vastly better off than Blacks in Africa. For that matter Blacks in Jamaica are better off than Blacks in Africa.

    So if there is a question of reparations, Blacks should be paying White people. White people took them in. Shared the benefits of their civilisation – which they have largely rejected. And given them lots of money. In fact we are largely paying reparations now. The average Black American gets $750,000 of government benefits from White people in the course of their life. That is not a trivial sum. Trillions have been handed over. But it is looking at it the wrong way. They benefit from being among us. We should charge a rent.

    • America’s pre-eminent black economist, Dr. Thomas Sowell, has said that blacks benefitted (over the course of generations, some of whose individuals might not have, but that is how migrations work) from being brought to America.

      If America exacted reparations from everyone it benefitted, then Latino border-jumpers might pay America for teaching them a work ethic. If one is only interested in payback, then it is that Latinos live to see their offspring forget the ways of the old country and achieve the assimilation they refused to pursue, in some cases asking, Why would I wire some of my earnings back to Mexico?

  17. The traffic in the opposite direction brought maize to Africa, a crop bringing vastly superior yields, so much so that it was adopted widely and quadrupled the population of Africa before explorers, let alone colonists penetrated the interior(sorry can’t remember citations but I think from a Cambridge series on precolonial African history). If so then slavery was a net benefit to those who remained.

  18. @Theo
    Important point. Europeans bought slaves. They did not enslave. Somewhat like blaming the motorist for VW’s dodgy diesel emission tests. Consumer not producer.
    With hindsite, maybe the Arabs should have opened a chain of Reed Recruitment offices across Central Africa. Got the Africans to complete 18 page CV’s.

  19. I think Steve has it right. This is aggressive begging and ‘piss off’ is the appropriate response.

    Of course there are lots of logical arguments against – e.g. the foreign aid we’ve thrown at Africans, should that be offset? … or whatever. But it’s a mistake to engage. Just piss off.