“The money the West lends to Africa belong to African and Caribbean countries and the African Diaspora.” – Mutemi wa Kiama
Elizabeth was a mere child slave who was sickly from constant seizures. At one point she suffered a most violent fit that prevented her from rising from bed. She could not work. The young girl was incapacitated and stayed that way for up to four days. But this did not deter her “owners” from selling and reselling her. The child was to become the subject of a court action pitting a number of people with appalling sense of entitlement to her very being.
Hers is a sad story. This was in April 1839. Elizabeth had suffered a series of violent fits that seriously weakened her. When she was taken to a physician, Dr. John M. Jewell, he concluded that she was epileptic after examining her. A year earlier, she had been purchased by one Thomas Williams, who was in a slave trade partnership in Virginia, USA. Williams would transport enslaved people to Louisiana from where he sold them for a profit. Elizabeth was one of the slaves sold by Williams’ partner, William N. Ivy, for $480 to one Ethan Allen. One day later, Allen sold her to John Johnson who later sold her to William B. Lewis for $613 on March 8, 1839. Less than a month later, she was sold yet again to Thomas H. Lewis for $650 who turned her into a house servant.
She had hardly stayed in Lewis’ home for two weeks before she suffered the violent fit that lasted for three hours. From then on, she was to suffer seizures on a regular basis. This made her deranged and forgetful of everything told to her. Young Elizabeth could no longer work. As a result, Lewis saw no value in her. He decided to look for her previous “owners.” When he succeeded, he took them to court on the grounds that her poor health had “diminished her value as a slave.” The case is recorded in the Norfolk County Chancery as No. 1853-008, (Thomas Williams vs. William N. Ivy, etc.). During the case, the plaintiff asked the court to help him recover the cash he had paid for her plus interest.
A few months later, Elizabeth died on October 23, 1839 at the mere age of 13. In death, she was seen as a human being with no value and was described as having been “burdensome to her owner and totally valueless as a slave.”
The young girl’s case is a glaring insight into the thinking of the slave dealers. It provides details of how the whole inhumane business was carried out. It also gives one a birds-eye glimpse of how the entire slave economy was organised. Today, Elizabeth is just but part of the slavery statistics. She was one of the more than 12 million Africans who were violently ejected from their homes and families as slave trade flourished for more than 300 years.
The West has continued to dilly dally in as far as paying reparations is concerned
But rather than see the decency of atoning to their great crime, the West has continued to dilly dally as far as paying reparations is concerned. When not dillydallying, those in-charge of governments there have voiced sentiments that are seen as little-veiled insults to the descendants of the enslaved Africans. This notwithstanding, Britain has gone a step further (in the insult) by erecting an exhibition at the premises of the Bank of England that reflects on how the wealth created through the trans-Atlantic slavery shaped development of the country.
It is a well-known fact that slavery was instrumental to the growth and development of the global economy. The enslaved Africans worked really hard to open up and develop little known countries. Typically, they would be bought in an auction, transported sometimes over long distances, sold or hired out to plantation or factory owners where they would be made to work sometimes for an year or more and later resold for a profit.
It was very clear that the enslaved Africans had no other value. They were regarded the same way their enslavers regarded ordinary goods and services. They were traded publicly in auctions and would be advertised just like normal goods were. For instance, in one of the adverts, the owners of a firm going by the name, Pulliam & Davis Auctioneers and Commission Merchants based in Richmond VA. say that they continued “to offer services in the sale of negroes.” Another firm, Lewis B. Levy located in Wall Street, Richmond VA. advertised themselves as “manufacturers of all kinds of servants’ clothing and that they specialized in supplying clothing to persons bringing their slaves “to the city for hire or sale.” Besides the oddity of businesses that bought and sold fellow human beings, the traffickers who placed the adverts sometimes retained their ownership and would either get them back after some time or eventually sell them.
Proceeds of serious crime
Those involved ended up earning humongous amounts which, when all was said and done, were proceeds of serious crimes against humanity. Those who benefitted were not merely individuals; the royalty, companies as well as governments benefitted immensely. Indeed, slavery was, to say the least, part of the national systems in most European countries such as Spain, England, Portugal, Belgium and others. In the USA, it was at the “very core” of the country’s economic and political life” – according to a National Geographic story published on January 3, 2003.
Without slavery, the European colonial misadventure spanning from 16th to the 19th centuries and especially in the Americas, would not have succeeded. Essentially, Europeans were not able to open up the new lands they forcefully took after killing millions of native Americans. Neither could they rely on the latter. As the National Geographic report says, most European colonial economies in the Americas were entirely dependent on enslaved African labor for their survival. This dependency extended from America to Britain where the country’s textile industry could not have survived or thrived without the cotton shipped to the country via New York.
The fact that slavery built the world economy and that it was a highly productive and economically efficient institution, should be adequate reasons for the West to consider the payment of reparations to the descendants of the people they enslaved. The latter did back-breaking work; were made to put up as many as 18 work hours a day and largely worked in brutal and inhumane environments.
With this in mind, those calling for reparations have heightened the clamour. For instance, an online petition to British Parliament succeeded in securing the endorsement of 20,585 people who asked Britain to pay reparations to Caribbean and African descendants of enslaved people.
This has been a moral campaign with those advocating for it, voicing the view that payment of reparations is about making those responsible realise the moral outrage involved. In an article published in The Conversation, Luke Moffett, a senior law lecturer at Queen’s University, Belfast wrote that this is “not so much about money” as “confronting those responsible with their wrongdoing and getting them to recognize the value of their victims as human beings”.
The continuation of racial violence in the US and elsewhere springs from failure to address the legacy of slavery
A similar argument was made by Michelle Bachelet, the Head of UN Human Rights Commission in an article published by The Guardian in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd. Bachelet said that the continuation of racial violence in the US and elsewhere springs from failure to address the legacy of slavery. “Behind today’s racial violence, systemic racism and discriminatory policing lies the failure to acknowledge and confront the legacy of the slave trade and colonialism,” she said in an apparent attempt to prick the conscience of the West.
Debt forgiveness as part of reparations
In his book, Trade is War: The West’s War Against the World, Yash Tandon ably demonstrates how the West, “despite its rhetoric about ‘development’, has no interest in the development of the rest of the world and is in fact in a relentless ‘war’ against it.” Tandon says that among the instruments of domination used by the West is aid, trade, investment and technology which defines the structure of global governance created by the ‘victor nations’ after the second world war. This created the colonial and financial empires that was consciously designed by the West to benefit their own people not the rest of the world. The “rest” were coerced throughout the colonisation era and even after that to produce raw materials, food and minerals that were processed in the empires.
Reports show that African countries are the most indebted regions in the world. For instance, the average debt to GDP ratio in the Caribbean was 71.4% in 2018. This rose to 90.1% of GDP since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Things are not any better in Africa. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the total debt held in Africa, accrued by public and private sector entities and owed to foreign lenders “surpassed US$1 trillion while the annual debt servicing broke through the $100 billion threshold for the first time ever in 2021. In the same years, the EIU says that Africa used 15% of foreign exchange income on servicing foreign debt.
The effect of the heavy debt burden is worsened by the immense resource spirited out of Africa by the West. For instance, according to the 2016 report by War on Want Organisation, The New Colonialism: Britain’s Scramble for Africa’s Energy and Mineral Resources, some 101 British companies, which have mining operations in 37 African countries, collectively control over $1 trillion worth of the continent’s most valuable resources undermines the ability of African countries. Combined with the heavy debt burden, this greatly affects the ability of most African countries to channel funds into economic and social projects. In other words, servicing debts and the neo-colonial exploitation of her resources leaves a big percentage of Africans poor, deprived, desperate and being unable to withstand a host of inherent problems. This is part of the continuum. While slavery seized millions of Africans from their homes, African countries have been servicing colonial debts that were imposed and transferred to them after “independence.” Consequently, this consequently forces African countries to export more and more of their mineral resources to repay the debts and sustain industries in Europe and elsewhere in the West.
We are paying interest and debt-servicing on money which was ours
It is with this in mind that a world-wide movement has emerged that campaigns for debt cancellation as part of the compensation that ought to be paid to African and Caribbean countries for the historic harm inflicted on their societies. The efforts include the work of Africans Rising, an organisation which wrote an open letter to the late Queen of England on November 13, 2020 demanding debt cancellation and reparations for centuries of exploitation through slavery, colonialism and imperialism. According to Steve Laila, Journalist and Analyst, when European or Western nations, and the global institutions they founded and control (i.e. World Bank and IMF) lend money to African countries “they are in fact lending from capital accrued from the ruthless exploitation” of African labour and natural resources. This is the same view held by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kenya’s renowned writer who says; “we are paying interest and debt-servicing on money which was ours.”
Who to pay
Questions have been raised on who should be the recipient of the reparation payments. This appears to be a welcome complication among the naysayers who conveniently argue that the people directly harmed by slavery no longer exist. The naysayers include Asif Ahmed, the British High Commissioner to Jamaica who publicly responded to the reparation claims in Jamaica Gleaner saying “who do we pay it to?” adding that the people “who were harmed directly are no longer here.”
Although Ahmed argued that the UK government has only paid compensation to living people, this is not entirely true because on March 27, 2015, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, actually paid £2.6 billion historical debt. Documents show that the payments were initially via a loan arranged by banking magnates, Nathan Mayer Rothschild and his brother-in-law, Moses Montefiore, who gave the British government a loan of $15 million to cover the vast sum and that Britain serviced those loans for 182 years from 1833 to 2015. According to David Olusoga, a Historian and Broadcaster, some 46,000 British slave owners were compensated between £16 billion and £17 billion in modern terms. Speaking to The Observer, Olusoga said that this represented “40% of the total government expenditure for 1834.” He adds that the freed slaves received nothing, which the reparation campaigners have called unjust.
As debate rages
As the debate on the pros and cons of reparations raged, some, including black people in the United States, have come out to argue that the very idea of reparations “is insulting or patronizing” and that it perpetuates the narrative and negative image of “victimhood”. Those who hold this view include a Columbia University student, Coleman Hughes, who, in a 2019 testimony to the US Congress, argued that “by definition” reparations are only given to victims. “The moment you give me reparations; you’ve made me into a victim without my consent.” Hughes further argued that this would make one-third of black Americans who voted against reparations into victims without their consent. “Black Americans have fought too long for the right to define themselves to be spoken for in such a condescending manner.”
Some take to the extreme form of this argument and term it a “weird belief” to imagine that centuries of crimes against black people can be undone by reparations. This include Roly Stewart, a former Minister in the British government, who told the Time Magazine in 2019 that it was “some weird belief that we’re going to somehow undo 300-400 years of colonial history by writing cheques to people”. Instead, Stewart argued that aid from the UK should be targeted to help “the poorest people in the world.”, rather than paying reparations.
As the debate continued, nearly everyone agrees that the enslavement of Africans as well as the ownership, buying and selling of human beings was “unethical”. But many in the West and particularly politicians, are not willing to go beyond that mere acknowledgement. Indeed, some have seen nothing wrong with likening, downgrading or equating the severity of slavery and the horrors visited upon the past generations of Africans, and which reverberated to the present generations, with what waves of migrants faced as they landed in America and elsewhere in the ‘New’ world. For instance, a former Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, equated the millions of enslaved Africans with victims of discrimination in the United States. He was quoted by The Economist saying; “if African-Americans received reparations, what about the other victims of discrimination, including America’s many “waves of immigrants”?
The greatest difficulty, it seems, is that Africans in diaspora who seek reparations, have been operating from a point of weakness. Long years of exploitation, serious violations of their rights and a warped geopolitical system has combined with a global trade regime to put them into serious disadvantage. This has rendered Africans in Africa and their counterparts in diaspora weak and easily manipulated.
Respite could be drawn from the global bodies such as the UN Human Rights Commission. But the latter has done little other than officiate in the passing of a number resolutions that are rarely adhered to by the culprits. As a continental body, the African Union (AU) is equally toothless and disadvantaged. Besides its muted ‘complaint’ via resolutions and declarations, the AU has no ‘teeth’ in this matter. For instance, during the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, meeting held in Banjul, Gambia, from 21 October 2022 – 9 November 2022, the AU merely encouraged civil society and academia in the continent “to embrace and pursue the task of conceptualizing Africa’s reparations agenda with urgency and determination.”
However, there have been instances when the not-here-nor-there attitude, that cuts across the world, was replaced by tangible action. For instance, Laura Trevelyan, a member of an aristocratic British family travelled to Grenada to publicly apologise for her family’s ownership of more than 1,000 enslaved Africans. This was on February 27 when Ms. Trevelyan, the former New York-based BBC Correspondent, promised £100,000 in reparations and donated the money to the University of the West Indies in an event attended by Grenada’s Prime Minister, Dickon Mitchell.
Terming the apology, a first step in the process of reparatory justice; Trevelyan said; “we write to apologize for the actions of our ancestors in holding your ancestors in slavery.” According to The Guardian, the apology was signed by 104 descendants of part owners of six Grenadian plantations. The family urged the British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, to negotiate compensation with Caribbean leaders. “We urge the British government to enter into meaningful negotiations with the governments of the Caribbean in order to make appropriate reparations through CARICOM, and bodies such as the Grenada National Reparations Commission”.
Still, this is too little too late. Africans, both in the continent the diaspora, will have to do all within their means to ensure that the West makes an unconditional apology and pays reparations for causing the immense sufferings of their ancestors. The AU should be more vocal on this matter than it has been so far. African in diaspora should also examine whatever aces they have and can use, either on their own or in collaboration with their counterparts in the continent, to demand and ensure that reparations are paid.
Gatu Mbaria is an author and a freelance investigative journalist based in Kenya