Slavery, Abolition, and Reparations

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In 1807 Britain became the first major power to abolish the slave trade.

(In 1802 Denmark abolished slavery in tiny St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John).[1] Eric Williams and others argue that slavery was abolished primarily because it was no longer contributing positively to Britain’s economy. But British West Indian imports and exports were greater during the period of abolition than they were 50 years earlier. And West Indian planters valued their plantations at 50-60 million pounds in 1775 as against 85-100 million in 1807. Indeed the major attack on the British slave trade came during its most profitable period.[2]

Still, economic changes made the abolition of the slave trade possible. Even in 1776, Adam Smith had argued that slavery was uneconomic. The industrial revolution, which started in Britain, shifted resources from agriculture to industry. And in most slave societies, except for a few places like Cuba and Brazil where plantations were still growing, demand for slaves had leveled off and the slave population could now reproduce itself. As William Wilberforce said

“… great political events are rarely the offspring of cool, deliberate systems; they receive their shape, size and color, and the data of existence, from a thousand causes which could hardly have been foreseen, and in the production of which, various unconnected and jarring parties have combined and assisted.” [3]

West Indian planters lost the sympathy of the British people on moral and economic grounds. They repeatedly rebuffed British urgings to improve the conditions of slaves, including the 1830 amelioration directives. These recommended, among other things, that Sunday markets be stopped and slaves be given an extra free day to sell their produce, the use of the whip in the field and the flogging of women be forbidden, and slaves should be allowed religious instruction. The Jamaica House of Assembly refused to revise the island’s slave laws and some members even threatened to transfer allegiance to the United States.

Most West Indian planters were absentee proprietors living in Britain off their profits. They left management to attorneys and overseers who squeezed what they could out of the system by cutting corners on re-investment and over-working slaves. Many plantations slid towards bankruptcy, and nearly all the 6 million pounds Jamaican slave owners received as compensation when their slaves were freed went to English creditors.

This economic mismanagement led to much higher production costs than cane sugar rivals like Mauritius, Brazil and Cuba, while European beet sugar proved a serious threat. To protect her colonies Britain placed a heavy duty on sugar from other sources, and the price rose so high in 1829 that many British people could not afford sugar. To the British public, the only possible justification of slave plantations was cheap sugar. If slavery could not produce this it was clearly unnecessary and might as well be abolished.

Yet none of the other major slaving nations – Spain, the US, Portugal, France or the Ottoman Empire – took the same steps as Britain, which almost single-handedly and at considerable expense carried out a crusade to eliminate the slave trade throughout the world. The compensation to slave owners in the Empire alone totaled the then huge sum of 20 million pounds. And Britain not only maintained an anti-slavery naval patrol for generations, but often unilaterally imposed anti-slavery edicts on other sovereign nations. Not until well into the 20th century was the battle truly won. For instance slavery in Arab dominated Zanzibar was only stamped out in 1922 when the British were in firm control.

This was one of the most remarkable undertakings in world history and modern man’s greatest moral triumph. Thomas Sowell sums it up thus. “The magnitude of this achievement is hard to appreciate without first recognizing that slavery was a worldwide institution, entrenched in every inhabited continent, subjugating people of every colour, language and religion, and going back thousands of years… It would be hard to find anywhere in history a record of any other country going to such efforts, for so long, in a cause from which it could gain so little and lose so much.”[4] In the words of W.E.H. Lecky “The weary, unostentatious, and inglorious crusade of England against slavery may probably be regarded as among the three or four perfectly virtuous pages comprised in the history of nations”.[5]

Yet while Britain’s heroic efforts to abolish slavery somewhat mitigate its own slaving sins, it cannot erase them. Of course other nations are more guilty. Yes, it was other Africans who sold most African slaves into bondage. True, there have been countless uncompensated historical atrocities. And it is possible to argue that merely by being here, present Jamaicans have benefited indirectly from slavery. But the fact remains that Britain benefited hugely from the brutal enslavement of millions of Africans, and surely owes their descendants a still unpaid moral debt.

No price could ever be put on the inhuman suffering slavery caused. Yet when slavery was abolished in its empire in 1833 Britain paid 20 million pounds to slave owners as compensation and gave nothing to slaves. At a very minimum the slaves deserved what they were officially deemed to be worth. And it is not unreasonable to maintain that this amount and an apology are still owed by Britain to its ex-slave colonies.

According to House of Commons Research Paper 99/20 this 20 million pounds would be worth roughly 1.3 billion today. It would be unrealistic to expect any such monetary payment. But suppose as reparation Britain were to establish scholarships of this value spread over say 50 years enabling bright underprivileged West Indian students to study at established British schools?

Unlike the Jewish holocaust and perhaps American slavery, there are probably no known legally enforceable documents relevant to British slavery. And since Britain cannot be forced to pay, reparation in this case really is an issue of moral suasion. But Britain does like to see itself, some say justifiably, as possibly the greatest political force for good the world has known.

Apologizing and making responsible restitution for its worst sin might make others a bit more inclined to agree. And 25 million pounds per year of scholarships is surely not an excessive price for a significant historical atonement. (Sources – see The Reality Of Slavery, Feb 11, 2001) –

[1] Reynolds, Stand The Storm, page 84 || [2] Reynolds, Stand The Storm, page 76 || [3] Reynolds, Stand The Storm, page 74-76 || [4] Sowell, Conquest and Culture, page 154 || [5] Reynolds, Stand The Storm, page 74

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