Slavery, guilt and grievance

The debate over reparations for slavery is a lot more complicated than I once thought
April 28, 2007

When the reparations for slavery movement was launched a few years ago, I wrote a light-hearted article dismissing it as yet another Nigerian scam. Since one of the movers behind it was Nigeria's richest crook, Chief Moshood Abiola, that seemed a reasonable argument. And legally speaking, since almost all African slaves were captured by fellow Africans before being sold to European traders, it would be the successors of the old west African kingdoms—modern west African states—which would be responsible for reparations. That would mean the people of Sierra Leone—average per capita income $900—would be paying reparations to the people of Barbados—per capita income $18,200.

Most of my work focuses on Africa, where the Atlantic slave trade is almost completely forgotten—except by those who live near the west African slave forts. And as cynically and brutally as their ancestors sold the forebears of today's African-Americans, they rip off their descendants returning to find their roots. They boast about it and joke that African-Americans are the stupid ones; they got caught. It seems the equivalent of Brits jabbing at Australians with jokes about their criminal past.

But I have learned from many painful discussions that Americans, Caribbeans and Britons who have African ancestors do not see slavery as something to joke about. They do not see themselves as descendants of Africans who happen to have been enslaved in Africa and taken to America. They see themselves as the latest link in a chain. They often feel their slave history is part of the way they live now—particularly in America.

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It is easy to "move on" if you have been successful. Less so if you are mired in poverty or frustrated by racism. This is not necessarily indulging in grievance politics. Successful black people who have no sense of inferiority often find themselves on the end of overt or covert racism from time to time. Is racism against black people more than the rejection of otherness? Does it have historical roots in slavery?

If this chain of disadvantage exists for the descendants of former slaves, is there an equivalent chain of advantage, imperceptible but real, for the descendants of the slave traders? I searched my soul extensively for a shadow of guilt from the slave trade. I could find none.

But is there not a tiny twisted thread of power and wealth that still links us with Britain's slaving past and tugs at our sense of who we are today? I began to read more and more about the slave trade. The argument continues about just how much it fuelled the industrial revolution. Many people who put money into building canals, railways and trading companies had made that money from sugar in the West Indies. But industrial take-off would have happened anyway—it is clearly not the case that we are rich today simply because of the slave trade, any more than Britain is successful today simply because it defeated Napoleon.

But there is another thread, which leads to the nation's most important institutions. These institutions, which we see today as the essence of our national identity, were born when the slave trade was at its height. Consider the royal family. From James II to George IV, the monarchs were large shareholders and on the boards of the biggest slaving companies: the Royal Africa company and the South Sea company. Can their descendants absolve themselves by claiming it was legal at the time? George III vigorously supported the slave trade and helped to defeat the 1792 attempt to abolish it. William IV, as the Duke of Clarence, did the same, telling the House of Lords in 1792 that slaves were not treated badly but "lived in a state of humble happiness."

Admiral Nelson, a national hero by any standard, vigorously opposed the abolition of the slave trade, believing that to stop it would mean handing it over to the French. He declared he would defend the rights of the slave owners and traders "while I have an arm to fight in their defence, or a tongue to launch my voice against the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies." His Royal Navy dedicated immense resources to protecting slavers.

I was taught about the slave trade at school, but my impression was that it was conducted by pirates mostly beyond the control of the British state. I was shocked to learn how deeply it was entwined in British institutions. And in America's too. Simon Schama's new book Rough Crossings confirms what others have hinted at: that the prospect of the abolition of slavery in the colonies by Britain in the 1770s was a—if not the—reason for the American war of independence. So the nation that celebrates its birth as freedom from oppression was created for the exact opposite reason. Then we discover that most African-Americans who fought in the war of independence willingly fought for George III in the belief that he would grant them freedom. That is what Britain promised, but never quite delivered.

Suddenly, a part of history is not as comforting as it was. But we are liberated from the urge to be defensive towards those who ended up on the losing side of that history. The threads can lead back to a better understanding of what happened and who we are today, an empathy that may be deeper and more reconciling than an apology demanded in anger and given in ignorance.