When it comes to slavery, nobody should have a clear conscience

I read last week that Jamaica is to seek monetary reparations from the UK for its part in the historic slave trade, in addition to the £300 million in international aid it’s receiving from the UK. Fine. Let’s have this discussion out then. We’ll leave aside the fact that the state of Jamaica itself was built on the slave trade and that the Jamaican state itself should therefore be compensating the descendants of slaves.

The notion of monetary compensation from the UK to Jamaica for the slave trade is absurd, but right at the outset I want to state unequivocally that I am no apologist for any practice of slavery (unlike some others who cling on to certain mythologies I could name).

As a humanist, I abhor all slavery and those who practise it, especially when they justify it using their religion, which is precisely how it was ‘justified’ by many of its practitioners, both historically and to the present day. It is sad that I have to state that, but people have a tendency to bring their own prejudices into discussions.

The Atlantic slave trade was not the ‘whites seize blacks from Africa’ narrative many take away from the good old school syllabus. I’m not suggesting that we’ve been lied to by our educators. The trade was every bit as grotesque and unforgivable as it has been portrayed. Unfortunately, it’s what is not covered in history lessons that is quite important to consider when notions of reparations are bandied about. The clue is in the term itself.

The Atlantic slave trade involved white slave traders trading with black Africans who sold their fellow black Africans. That last bit is the bit which is left out of the usual, easy-to-understand narrative. As is often the case in history, things do not always follow a nice, easy, black and white (in this case, literally) narrative: they’re a little more nuanced.

Africa was not the united nation some appear to imagine it was at the time of the Atlantic slave trade. It isn’t a single, unified country now, so why do people appear to hold on to the delusion that it was in some way a united and homogeneous state back in the days of the slave trade? That seems like a rather patronising, ‘all Africans are the same’ attitude.

The slave trade was not something which was done solely by white people to other races. This is a blatant, cultural Marxist half-truth and underpins the all-pervasive narrative beloved of self-loathers. I would be surprised if the average person has an opinion which varies from this, based on how history has been taught in schools for decades.

Perhaps, a great part of this perception is in part due to our thoughts on this subject being framed by the more recent history of segregation/apartheid in those countries where this was continued after the formal abolition of slavery, and the resulting rise of the civil rights movements.

If we want to talk about the worst excesses of slave trading, Arabs were taking Africans as slaves between the 7th and 20th centuries. It’s estimated that 10-18 million Africans were taken in this way. In comparison, the Atlantic slave trade between the 15th and 19th centuries took between 7-12 million people from Africa across the Atlantic.

As I have already stated, I’m no apologist for the latter, but my own education saw me grow up with the narrative that slavery was the preserve of western nations: a somewhat incomplete and one-sided view, which, when promoted without a more rounded view, is designed to foster this sense of ‘white guilt’, which is somehow handed down from generation to generation and appears to colour the average person’s view of the world and blinds them to injustices perpetrated elsewhere in the world, somehow excusing them under a collective narrative of victimhood.

Following Great Britain’s outlawing of the slave trade in the early 19th century, it was the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron which patrolled the West African coast, seized around 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans. It was British treaties with African leaders at the time which encouraged a shift in African societies away from selling defeated, fellow blacks into servitude and a move instead to legimiate commerical ventures, many of which continue to this day. And it was British sanctions against those African leaders who refused to abandon their enslavement of fellow Africans which brought about the collapse of those African societies which refused to renounce slavery.

As long as the slave trade operated, not just Arab, European, and American, but also African economies were built on this trade in human misery. So, any talk of compensation would necessitate corresponding reparations between African nations and by far the most compensation would be due from Arab nations.

Slavery has plagued humanity throughout history. It was common practice across cultures to take defeated enemies from neighbouring tribes or nations as slaves for use as labourers, for ransom, as concubines, or for use in ‘entertainment’ or ‘religious ceremonies’, which generally didn’t end well for the participant.

Clearly, slavery existed under the Romans and was widespread for centuries within what are now European nations. As in Africa, within Europe, fellow Europeans and fellow countrymen were taken as slaves. However, whereas the taking of fellow countrymen as slaves was outlawed in Europe in the Middle Ages, African kingdoms continued to trade in fellow Africans.

Europe had a form of slavery for centuries – Russia into the 19th century – in the guise of serfdom, and many historians regard this as somewhat close to the type of slavery practised within Africa. Even when serfdom ceased, the lot of the average Briton was hardly comparable to life today. With no state welfare state, if you were fortunate enough to be able to work, you worked hard. If you couldn’t work, you risked starvation, and the lot of the average Victorian child is well known, thanks in large to the work of campaigning authors of the time. There was the workhouse to fall back on, of course, but anyone who thinks the workhouse was anything other than effective forced servitude is self-deluded. It is no coincidence that the great movements of social reform originated in Europe.

It could be argued that what made the African slave trade especially despicable was the shiny veneer of legitimate ‘trade’ about it and the wilful collusion of fellow Africans, although there was no sense of a collective ‘group’ identity within the various black tribes, so one particular tribe would have no particular feeling of solidarity towards another tribe any more than Vikings would have taken any soft view of the fellow Europeans they raided or Romans would have had for their white slaves.

Nor have Europeans been immune from being cast into servitude. When it comes to slavery, skin colour is irrelevant. In fact, whereas most African slaves were bought from their black African slave owners and relatively few seized by mercenaries, in the case of white slavery, the slaves were simply taken in raids

Britain and Ireland, along with Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal, and even the Netherlands and Iceland were raided by the Turks (then a collective term for Muslims, rather than citizens of the modern country of Turkey), who took European slaves back to Islamic North Africa. In Iceland, the collective memories of the early 17th century raids by the ‘Turks’ are documented and still commemorated.

It is estimated that over 2 million white people were taken to Muslim lands as slaves, usually forcibly converted to Islam or often murdered for failing to convert. The mortality rate of Europeans taken slaves by Arabs was roughly equivalent to that of the Atlantic slave trade.

The fledgling USA, which had no qualm with the Muslim world following its foundation as an explicitly secular country, paid increasing amounts in ‘tributes’ to the North African, Muslim Barbary states, as did European countries in order to be able to send trade ships across the Mediterranean – essentially as ‘protection money’ or in ransoms.

Following its independence from Britain, the U.S. no longer enjoyed the protection of the Royal Navy and was initially reluctant to possess a navy with any purpose beyond protecting its own coast. However, the Barbary states attacked American ships on their trade routes across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

In 1784, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams sailed to London to broker a deal with the Barbary states, having obtained permission from Congress for $80,000 in tribute. When Tripoli’s ambassador, Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, was asked what gave the Barbary states permission to seize American ships and crews, the ambassador replied that the Koran mandated that it was the duty of all [Muslim] believers to make war on non-believers. Nevertheless, the ambassador, who may perhaps have considered the payment as jizzya (an Islamic tax levied on non-Muslims), agreed to leave American ships alone.

Jefferson and Adams Letter

Excerpt from letter from Thomas Jefferson and John Adams to John Jay. Grosvenor Square, London, 28th March, 1786.

His word to an ‘infidel’ clearly counted for nothing though. He would have had no hesitation in lying to infidels, based in the Islamic principles of taqiyya, which allows Muslims to lie to non-Muslims for the furtherance of their own faith – a practice clearly demonstrated by the founder of his faith himself when Mohammad signed a ten year peace treaty with the Meccans while he secretly prepared his takeover of the city.

Rather unsurprisingly, the attacks on American ships continued, so Jefferson realised that the only way to bring about the end to the situation (at one point, tributes had risen to 20% of the national budget) was to confront the Barbary pirates, or Corsairs. On becoming president in 1801, Jefferson sent frigates to the Mediterranean and the first Barbary War took place between 1801 and 1805, resulting in the release of U.S. crews who had been taken as slaves and a temporary end to hostilities, until once again, Tripoli broke its agreement and started to attack American ships. The U.S., somewhat preoccupied in the 1812 war against Britain, its native American allies, and its colonies in what is now Canada, was unable to respond until 1815, when it finally sent a naval fleet to Africa to put an end to piracy in the region and the practice of slave-taking from its merchant ships.

Indeed, it was the Barbary Wars and the U.S. fight against the Barbary state’s practice of taking slaves and demanding tribute which gave rise to and established the U.S. Navy and Marines. So, presumably in this spirit of restitution, European countries and the USA are due a hefty whack in compensation from Libya and Morocco too.

Of course, nobody can have seen the news in recent years without being aware that slavery and exploitation is still very much with us. From the human trafficking trade or the plight of foreign workers in Dubai, we have hardly removed exploitation from the world.

So, if we are to determine compensation based on the action of conquerors and their actions toward their conquered, at which point in history do we draw the line, or rather lines, since different countries/regions were affected at different times?

Furthermore, if we are going to place mometary value on everything, what consideration is made in terms of infrastructure, institutions, and scientific advances brought about by conquerors? How much do we British owe the descendents of Vikings and Normans in Scandinavia and France for building our cities and establishing institutions? Indeed, what have the Romans ever done for us?

How much do the countries of the former British Empire owe Britain for construction of railways, civil service, health and education institutions, many of which are still in use today and essential to modern life and many of which form the bedrock of these countries’ subsequent success?

It is no more reasonable to demand that modern British citizens bear responsibility for the sins (or take the credit for the successes) of their forefathers than it is to deny that someone of different ethnicity born in a country is a native of that country.

We can’t atone for the slave trade – it was an abomination. But if modern Jamaicans think it’s morally right to make modern British citizens pay for the sins of their forefathers, effectively punishing someone for a crime they didn’t commit, because make no mistake, that’s precisely what any such notion entails, I think it only fair for us to carry out a full audit of all historic debts.

We can’t put a price on the millions of people of all races who suffered at the end of the slave-driver’s whip.

A heartfelt and humble apology for the sins of our forefathers hardly suffices, but it must.