Sunday, March 25, 2007

Reparations For Slavery

Reparations panel
This morning BBC R5 ran a three hour slavery special, giving yet further oxygen to the line that we whities should make amends for the slave trade. And the argument seems to be moving beyond the demand for a "formal apology"- whatever that might involve- towards a quite extraordinary demand for financial compensation.

The figure the campaigners seem to have in mind is £7,500,000,000,000- ie seven and a half thousand billion, or £7.5 trillion. And that's just from Britain.

To put £7.5 trillion in context, it's about six times our annual national income, and amounts to around £300,000 from every household. Or closer to £350,000 if we just levy it on white households.

Now let's take as read the following:
  • the slave trade and slavery were abominations, and cannot be justified by any modern day standard of morality

  • overall, Britain shipped about 3 million African slaves to the Americas, mainly the West Indies, and many then worked on British owned plantations

  • Britain was first to abolish the slave trade- hence the current celebrations

  • it all happened two centuries ago

  • we 2007 whities had nothing whatsoever to do with it

  • lots of other appalling things have happened throughout history, many of them to white Britons

Against that, I wanted to investigate the basis of such a humongous financial claim.

Although it seems to be embedded all round the black activist world as factually based and provable, its origin is actually quite recent. It comes from Dr Robert Beckford, who along with his panel of three "experts" (see pic), cobbled it together in 2005 for a C4 documentary "The Empire Pays Back". And for those that don't know him, Beckford is a controversial lecturer in African diasporan religions and cultures at the University of Birmingham, who has starred in a number of headline grabber TV docs.

Unfortunately I missed the programme, and I can't find the transcript online. So all we know is that he got to his £7.5 trillion by summing three components:

  • £4 trillion for the lost earnings of slaves

  • £2.5 trillion for unjust enrichment of the British economy from profits of the sugar trade

  • £1 trillion for wrongful imprisonment

Absent a transcript or supporting documentation, we can go no further. Except to say that given Beckford's track record in attention grabbing, the strong suspicion is that he originally meant his numbers to be no more than that.

But in any case, his figures are just the latest attempt to attach some financial numbers to slavery. And they all form part of a concerted effort to stick something cashable on us current day British taxpayers- the Big Claim.

The Big Claim is that although we 2007 white Brits may not have been responsible for slavery, we are still its beneficiaries. Because it was the mega-profits from slavery that funded the industrial revolution, thereby lifting Britain from agrarian poverty to the affluence we all now take for granted. So there is a very strong case indeed for paying back all those lost earnings.

You will immediately recognise the Grand Sweep of Marxist history- the Labour Theory of Value, where the exploited workers never get the full value of their output, and the surplus is either spent on baubles for the rich, or invested in yet more worker impoverishing machinery, with the workers made even poorer, the evil capitalists even richer, and the whole rotten edifice continuing in a spiral of grotesque wossname.

In 1944 the theory was specifically applied to slavery by West Indian politician Eric Williams in his influential book Capitalism and Slavery. According to this thesis, slaves are the ultimate exploited workers, so generated the ultimate surpluses for their capitalist owners. The capital was shipped back to Britain and invested in the new industries. Hey presto- Britain got rich and never looked back. And even when the slaves were ultimately "freed", they were left to rot on a capital starved malarial rubbish heap.

What's more, Britain only abolished the slave trade because profits were starting to plummet, and abolition allowed us to use our naval power (only two years after the decisive Battle of Trafalgar remember) to disrupt the trade of continental rivals.

Sort of idea.

The only problem is that Williams was writing before much serious work had been done on the finances of the eighteenth century slave trade. And when it was, it told a rather different story.

For while some slave traders made enormous profits, others did not. For one thing there were risks, and for another it was a competitive business- not least because the (black) African slave suppliers sold to the highest bidders just like any other businessmen. Overall, it seems that the return on capital was in the range 5-10%; perfectly acceptable, but hardly super-normal.

And while individual sugar producing plantation owners made healthy profits, they were not shared by the rest of Britain. Britain's definitive economic history textbook (Floud and McCloskey, since you ask) summarises the research findings thus:

"While sugar production with the acquisition of slaves was profitable to those settlers in the colonies, to the metropolis [ie Britain] the economic gains were considerably smaller, and possibly negative... First, there was the need to pay for defence and military purposes, items important given the great frequency of wars in the Caribbean... second, there was the impact on the prices paid for sugar by British consumers resulting from restrictions on sugar imports from the French islands to protect the sugar production of the British West Indies."

In other words, a big chunk of the profits of Britain's West Indian sugar planters actually came from artificially high prices in Britain rather than the use of slave labour per se. As a result of the government's agricultural support policies, the producers were feather bedded by British consumers (thank God that couldn't happen today).

On the Williams thesis, Floud and McCloskey concludes:

"The general magnitudes of profits or of the trade seem too small to account for those effects on Britain that he claimed."

(If you want more detail on all this, you need to read Floud and McCloskey, The Economic History of Britain Since 1700, Vol 1, Chapter 8; Cambridge University Press.)

The bottom line is that there is no compelling evidence that slavery laid the financial foundation of British prosperity. And arguments for reparations based on bogus calculations suggesting that there is should be given no credence.

So next time the BBC runs a 3 hour slavery guiltathon, maybe they'd point that out.

PS You can buy Floud and McCloskey at the BOM/Politicos bookstore. But be sure to get in early while stocks last- click image. You know it makes sense.


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