When are reparations necessary and how far back should we be going into history to figure it out?
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and soul-searching lately. It has become a regular part of my procrastination between work and macchiato-sipping sessions in my favourite cafe. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is time to pay reparations for the injustices of slavery and colonialism. Hear me out because this makes complete cents (pun intended).
For over 200 years, the Atlantic slave trade brought vast amounts of wealth to the west. America’s slave owners and their descendants built an inter-generational fortune which can be traced to the forced toil of millions of Africans. It is not enough that we acknowledge this historical injustice.
Acknowledgement doesn’t put avocado and toast on the table.
Money does. And the west must pay.
Justice can be served easily through a lump-sum payment to the descendants of the slaves. It might result in a billion dollar loss to the American GDP which means a few less bombs dropped on patchy-bearded terrorists in the Afghan mountains and a few less scholarships for liberal arts students, but isn’t this a small price to pay for justice? The UK can pay too – they abolished slavery well before the US which means they get a small discount. Fair’s fair.
Actually, while we’re at it – let’s follow that paper trail.
Europeans often didn’t need to wage war against the Africans to capture slaves – African tribes and kingdoms were doing that themselves. The kings of Asante in West Africa, for example, subjugated peoples to their North for the purpose of trading them to Europeans’. This supplemented their existing wealth amassed from trade in kola nuts and gold. Conveniently, the Ashanti kingdom survives today as a sub-national, proto-state in modern day Ghana and a bill for reparations running into hundreds of millions of dollars can easily be mailed to the Ghanaian parliament. I am sure Ghana and other modern-day African states will have no qualms about doing what is fair. So what if it means bankrupting some of their treasuries?
But the Europeans and the Africans weren’t the only ones involved in the slave trade. The Arabs had that idea centuries before the Europeans. Historians estimate that up to 17 million people were sold into slavery on the coast of the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, and North Africa with over 5 million African slaves bought by Muslim slave traders and taken to towns and cities in the Middle East by land and sea between 1500 and 1900. As early as 869 AD, there was a slave revolt in modern-day Iraq caused by protests against harsh conditions. Considering that many of these slaves were used as concubines and some of the male slaves were even castrated, it isn’t hard to imagine why.
Considering the scope of the Arab slave trade and that it continued for decades, well into the twentieth century in some parts of the Middle East and North Africa, the bill sent to the Arab League is likely to be quite substantial. Hopefully falling oil prices and political instability in the region doesn’t stop the Middle Eastern states from doing the right thing. After all, Saudi Arabia is on the United Nations’ Human Rights council. I certainly cannot imagine them refusing to pay their half of the bill given the high esteem with which that office is held. A Saudi prince has even openly called for women to be allowed to drive!
And who could forget those Barbary pirates? The ones who raided and terrorised coasts as far south as Italy and as far north as Iceland, Britain and The Netherlands for centuries, often with the blessing of the governments of the time – including the powerful Ottoman Empire which became a hub for European slaves. In his book, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500–1800, Robert Davis estimates that well over a million Europeans were enslaved in North Africa. In Algeria, the trade in European slaves only ended after that country was colonised by the French in the early 1800s. Could some of Europe’s debt for slavery and colonialism be offset by what Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and modern-day Turkey owe Europeans? We’ll need to consider the finest accountants from our universities’ social justice and humanities departments to find out. They might take a while.
Slavery was terrible, but let us not forget colonialism.
Theresa May needs to take a break from post-Brexit negotiations to deal with real problems – such as paying reparations to former British colonies. The crown jewels themselves originated in India and liquidating these jewels is sure to raise a few million pounds to cover a fraction of the amount owed. There was also the matter of Oliver Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland which resulted in widespread deaths and even forced deportation of white Irish indentured labourers to the Caribbean.
But the British government needn’t worry, they can certainly cover some of the cost from descendants of the French – France being home of the Norman kings who invaded the UK. It is estimated that nearly two-thirds of land in the UK is still held by the descendants of Norman invaders even today.
One of these descendants is a little old lady living in a quaint building called ‘Buckingham Palace’ who spends her family’s ill-gotten fortune on indulgences such as charitable tea parties and corgis. Hopefully, she won’t be too annoyed when her eviction notice comes in the mail so her property, Corgis included, can be sold off to make the payments her family owes.
Britain can also claim some payment from the Scandinavian nations that produced Viking invaders and raiders. The money owed by Merkel’s Germany for the harms caused to native Britons by those Anglo-Saxon invaders should also make a juicy bargaining chip in the Brexit negotiations.
No doubt some of this money will flow to the Indigenous peoples of Australia and New Zealand. Some Maori tribes of New Zealand owe a substantial amount to the few surviving descendants of the Moriori –the indigenous people of Chatham Island off New Zealand’s coast. In the 1830s, Maoris armed with European weapons invaded Chatham Island which they proceeded to colonise, inflicting a reign of terror and genocide on the locals that reduced their numbers by over 90 per cent in a few decades. When asked about why they did this, a Maori chief at the time replied: “We took possession … in accordance with our custom, and we caught all the people. Not one escaped. Some ran away from us, these we killed; and others also we killed — but what of that? It was in accordance with our custom.” Rough.
Strangely, this chapter of history is never mentioned when discussions about colonialism or reparations come up.
Of course, it should be quite clear by now that the notion of reparations for historical colonialism or slavery is largely nonsense – defined by an implied ‘statute of limitations’ seemingly dictated by the politics of the person calling for reparations rather than by practicality.
Indian politician and former diplomat Shashi Tharoor recently wrote a book documenting the British Empire’s systematic exploitation of India’s wealth and peoples. Tharoor’s stated aim is to raise awareness so dark, inconvenient chapters of history can be given the acknowledgement they deserve. What Tharoor doesn’t argue for is reparations. “I have no problem with Indian willingness to forgive. What I say to my fellow Indians is let us forgive, but never forget.”
Sounds like a sensible approach to me.
Satya Marar is Director of Policy at the Australian Taxpayers' Alliance
[This article first appeared in The Spectator Australia]