Saturday, April 14, 2007

More On Slavery Reparations

1952: Adenauer signs for Holocaust reparations

Last month we blogged the highly emotive issue of reparation payments for slavery.

We were responding to the widely broadcast calls for British taxpayers to stump up £7.5 trillion to compensate descendants of the 3 million Africans whom our ancestors transported across the Atlantic and set to work on British owned sugar plantations in the Caribbean.

We argued that we should not be held accountable for the actions of our ancestors ten generations ago- however indefensible by today's standards- and we rejected the proposition that we are still benefiting from the profits via the funding of the Industrial Revolution. The historic evidence is that while the plantation owners got rich, the overall net benefits to Britain were relatively small, possibly even negative.

Following the blog, I received an invitation to take part in a discussion about it on the BBC. But having no wish to be painted into the BNP corner and ritually humiliated, I declined (see here for the firestorm that engulfed the world renowned economic historian Stanley Engerman after he published his revisionist text Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery in 1974).

I also received a number of heartfelt emails from the Caribbean. They all basically said that talking about an abomination like slavery in terms of financial returns betrays a total lack of humanity. A great wrong has been done, and financial restitution is the least Britain should offer.
So I did a bit more reading, to see if I'd change my mind.

First, slavery really could entail quite extraordinary brutality, and some of the accounts I've read over the last couple of weeks I'd rather not have seen. It's no wonder people today still get so wound up about it. True, my own eighteenth century ancestors were agricultural labourers being worked to an early death on subsistence wages in the West of England. But at least they weren't mere chattels (the men weren't anyway), they were not subject to routine beatings- and worse- from their overseers, and they had not been forcibly transported thousands of miles from their homes.

Second, the amounts Britain made from slavery overall really weren't that great. Even Prof Simon "History of Britain" Schama, who has written passionately about the evils of slavery, discounts the argument, pointing out that "the amounts available for reinvestment [from the profits of sugar] probably did not exceed something like 2 per cent of the capital ploughed into purely industrial undertakings" (History of Britain 1603-1776, p 427).
Third, if slavery was so instrumental in our economic development, how come the other European countries that also participated (including France and Spain) didn't emulate our Industrial Revolution?
Fourth, there is a possible precedent for reparations in the form of the reparations paid by German taxpayers for the Holocaust. Between 1952 and 1966, the German government paid DM3bn to the State of Israel as heir to the victims who had no surviving family. Interestingly many Israelis- including Menachem Begin- vehemently opposed accepting anything lest it signify forgiveness. But the money was paid, and invested in the new country's infrastrusture.
So net net, have I changed my mind?
I still don't see why I should be held responsible for something I don't support, and had no part in.
The evidence does not tell me I've benefited, and I'm not persuaded by the Holocaust precedent. I reckon there's a massive difference between something that happened in the lifetimes of participants and something that happened 200 years ago.
True, 60 odd years later, various Swiss and German companies are still paying funds across to victims' families. But we're still within a lifespan, and the companies involved specifically benefited (eg from slave labour). Moreover, the Swiss banks are actually only returning dormant accounts.
So my view remains unchanged. Slavery was an abomination which I certainly do not support. But I and other present day British taxpayers are under absolutely no moral obligation to pay these reparations.

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