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.
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.
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.
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.
Sort of idea.
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.
"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."
On the Williams thesis, Floud and McCloskey concludes:
(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.)
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.