The past horror of slavery can’t be measured or compensated

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 2, 2013

Someone, somewhere stands to profit from slavery all over again, two centuries after its abolition. Fourteen countries in the Caribbean are suing their former colonial masters for the slave trade, making it a dead cert that populist politicians in the region and an eloquence of lawyers will benefit even if a great wrong of history is never righted – or redressed.

Can it be redressed? The 12 former British colonies, one French (Haiti) and one Dutch (Suriname) believe they have an ethically sound case to claim reparations for the lucrative, dehumanising industry that is variously called the African Holocaust and Maafa (Swahili for great disaster).

It forced at least 11 million – and possibly twice as many – Africans across the Atlantic to the New World between the 16th and 19th centuries. Their descendants live mainly in the Americas, prompting prime minister Ralph Gonsalves of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines to tell the United Nations General Assembly in late September that “the awful legacy of these crimes against humanity ought to be repaired”.

Until that speech, his island country was probably better known to much of the world as the location for The Pirates of the Caribbean films, than as a crusading force seeking the seemingly impossible. That is to say, reckoning up the devastating legacy of colonial misdeeds and rounding it off to the nearest dollar or pound.

But Mr Gonsalves and his fellow Caribbean leaders mean business and to prove it they hired a British law firm that won unexpected success in June on behalf of more than 5,000 Kenyans seeking compensation for British mistreatment during the 1950s Mau Mau rebellion.

The High Court in London judged it fair to offer each Kenyan claimant roughly £2,600 (Dh15,000). In a sign of the high hopes induced by the award in many other former colonies marked by the European passage, The Times of Oman promptly described it as “the first compensation settlement resulting from official crimes committed under imperial rule”.

The triumphal wording is noteworthy. A first settlement suggests there will be others. The implications are simply enormous, though no one has accurately priced the Caribbean claim just yet.

A popular calculation from the late 1990s for the colonial reparations due to Africa as a whole was US$777 trillion (Dh2,854tn) is 10 times the current global GDP.

What might Britain or France or The Netherlands be expected to pay the 14 Caribbean claimants? It would have to be an eye-popping sum considering the immense profit they derived from slavery. Britain, which once rejoiced in the largest empire in the world comprising almost a quarter of the globe’s population, used its gains wisely. All Souls College, Oxford, for instance, gained an excellent library. Banks such as Barclays were built and James Watt, who invented an efficient steam engine, was financially able to try, try and try again until he succeeded.

Similarly, the national budget of 18th century France relied heavily on the income and taxes from sugar produced by slaves in its richest, most prosperous Caribbean colony, then Saint Domingue, now Haiti. French coastal cities such as Nantes and Bordeaux became wealthy by ferrying slaves to the New World. So too The Netherlands’ 17th century golden age and the funding of many of Amsterdam’s most famous canals.

Interestingly, so far, no one has sued Portugal, the first European country to become involved in the Atlantic slave trade. Or Spain, the first to colonise the New World, including Hispaniola, the island that Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. Perhaps the reparations game is all about watching and waiting for results.

What might these results be? Only the foolhardy would prophesy an outcome at this early stage of the proceedings. But Roger O’Keefe, deputy director of Cambridge University’s Lauterpacht Centre for International Law has already pointed out a crucial flaw in the case. The crime of slavery was not internationally unlawful at the time it was committed, he told The New York Times. Even counsel for the Caribbean claimants admit they expect more from a negotiated settlement, achieved through public and diplomatic pressure, than by arguing knotty points of law.

For, the great expectations arising from the Mau Mau case need to take careful note why it succeeded. The potential beneficiaries were alive, the time lag between their victimhood and claim was within living memory, and conclusive evidence of their mistreatment existed in the bowels of the Foreign Office in London, as was revealed by a UK paper.

The UK foreign secretary consequently offered to pay damages for personal injury and losses but not as the first of many automatic agreements that would make UK taxpayers liable for the sins of their fathers (or grandfathers several times removed).

Some would argue that European countries are already providing reparations of a sort to their former Caribbean colonies. The European Union is the largest donor to the region and has agreed to provide US$1.4bn in the next six years.

The money is not classified as reparations but these are an inexact science anyway. It is hard enough to price human anguish, harder still to estimate the way it contributed to a country – or a transplanted culture’s – current woeful state. How far back in time can compensation be claimed? Who should be called upon to pay? Should Liverpool, once a thriving slave port and now home to many African-Caribbeans, stump up? Should the descendants of enthusiastic African participants in the slave trade make reparations? One such was the former kingdom of Dahomey, now in Benin, which grew rich selling slaves to European traders.

In any case, can there ever be any real compensation other than everyone agreeing to learn the moral lessons of the past? And capitalising on the unintentional benefits of the historical association? India, once the most glittering jewel in the British imperial crown, exemplifies this argument.

Despite the occasional surly outburst or justifiable demand for the return of the Koh-i-Noor diamond, it has not sought reparations. In fact, in 2005, more than half-a-century after winning independence, Manmohan Singh become the first prime minister in Indian history actually to commend the British Raj for its “beneficial effects”. At Oxford University, he saluted the British contribution to India’s current system of “constitutional government, a free press, a professional service, modern universities and research laboratories”. At the time, many said it was an unnecessary admission and unnecessarily craven. But, delivered in English, the lingua franca, the speech indicated a self-confident nod to the future rather than a self-pitying attempt to turn back the clock.

The argument against re-fighting yesterday’s battles finds favour even among those intensely sympathetic to the Caribbean’s “cultivated memory” of slavery.

Historian Laurent Dubois’s 2012 book, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, passionately portrayed it as France’s most extreme slave colony with slaves outnumbering freemen by 10 to one in 1789, just 15 years before freedom. But even he seems to agree that the calls for reparations must now serve mostly as a “catalyst for debate … an occasion to delve into history, to mourn but also confront the many ways in which the past continues to shape the present”.

Rashmee Roshan Lall, the former editor of The Sunday Times of India, is now a freelance writer based in Haiti

On Twitter: @rashmeerl