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The West has a moral obligation to pay reparations

Calls for former colonial masters to pay reparations for their role in the enslavement of millions of Africans and the colonial exploitation of African lands has gained momentum in recent years.

More than any other justification, there is a moral rationale for colonial and imperial powers to right the wrongs of the past, even as they aspire to be citadels of human rights and justice.

Arguments for reparations are not new. In 2014, in a powerful essay on The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates narrated the story of Belinda Royall. 

Belinda, born in modern-day Ghana, was kidnapped as a child, and sold into slavery. She endured the horrors of the Middle Passage and for 50 years lived as a slave owned by Isaac Royall and his son. During the American Revolution, however, Junior Royall, a staunch British loyalist, fled America, leaving Belinda free, for the first time living without the tent of a slave owner over her head, in Massachusetts.

In 1783, Belinda Royall petitioned the commonwealth of Massachusetts for reparations. She beseeched the legislature:

The face of your Petitioner, is now marked with the furrows of time, and her frame bending under the oppression of years, while she, by the Laws of the Land, is denied the employment of one morsel of that immense wealth, apart whereof hath been accumulated by her own industry, and the whole augmented by her servitude.

WHEREFORE, casting herself at your feet if your honours, as to a body of men, formed for the extirpation of vassalage, for the reward of Virtue, and the just return of honest industry—she prays, that such allowance may be made her out of the Estate of Colonel Royall, as will prevent her, and her more infirm daughter, from misery in the greatest extreme, and scatter comfort over the short and downward path of their lives.

The Cape Coast Castle a former slave holding facility, in the town of Cape Coast, Ghana. Photo: Kalyan Neelamraju_Flickr

Though a nascent legislature at the time, Massachusetts awarded Belinda a pension of 15 pounds and 12 shillings, to be paid out of the estate of Isaac Royall. The award, coming after black people had endured 150 years of slavery, was one of the earliest and successful cases of an argument of reparations put to test in a court of law. The award carried the spirit of John Quaker’s words in 1769, who said that: “A heavy account lies against us as a civil society for oppressions committed against people who did not injure us, and that if the particular case of many individuals were fairly stated, it would appear that there was considerable due to them.”

Arguments for reparations are viewed as outrageous and there is no consensus as to what it entails or why the idea should occupy public imagination in the first place

The case, though a bright spot in the dark inhumanity of slavery, did not yield a widespread espousal of reparations. Hundreds of years later, today, reparations remain uncommon, arguments for reparations are viewed as outrageous and there is no consensus as to what it entails or why the idea should occupy public imagination in the first place. 

For a long time, the call for reparations was restricted to the United States and spelled out as a salve for the sores of hundreds of years under slavery. In the 20th century, the movement for reparations grew so much that in 1987, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), an umbrella organization was formed. These calls were endorsed by the NAACP in 1993. However, beyond scattered cases of success, significant widespread payment of reparations remains a dream.

The slavery, as a justification for reparations, has been extended to the case of Africa, a continent that was depopulated and its institutions destabilised by slave trade. Beyond slavery, the imposition of colonialism, altered Africa’s history forever. It infected its modes of thought, destabilised its cultural development, decimated its populations, and destroyed its political structures and orchestrated one of the world’s most audacious economic heist. Oppressions, crimes, and injustices were committed against the African people, hence the call for appropriate measures to right these wrongs. These calls are as present in as they were decades ago.

Oppressions, crimes, and injustices were committed against the African people, hence the call for appropriate measures to right these wrongs

Countries that participated in colonialism in Africa have a moral imperative to pay reparations. These countries benefited immensely from unpaid African labor, committed untold crimes against the African population. They engaged in brutal exploitation of the continent’s resources. Former colonial masters, such as Britain and France can only claim to stand on ethical and moral grounds if they recognise the wrongs they did to African people through chattel slavery and colonialism. These countries can confront their pasts by paying reparations to the victims of their horrific devastation.

Areas of Africa controlled by European colonial powers in 1939. This is a map of Africa on the outbreak of the Second World War. Colonies and protectorates: Dark blue = French Red = British Orange = Belgian Green = Italy Brown = Portuguese Cyan blue = Spanish. Photo: Wiki CC/Brigade Piron/CC BY-SA 3.0

Reparations can ease the systemic impacts of slavery and colonialism on the descendants of the oppressed. The abolition of slave trade through the legislation of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 awarded substantial compensation to slave owners in Britain. A total of 46,000 slave owners were awarded what in modern terms amounts to £16 to £17 billion, but freed slaves received zero compensation. 

Enslavement of millions and colonial exploitation provided the wealth upon which Western nations are built. The advancement of European capitals was fuelled by the theft of mineral resources, cultural artefacts, and black bodies from the African continent. 

Colonial regimes appropriated land for European settlers or plantations, a strategy that served to provide European settlers with cheap and secure control of land, while also forcing Africans to labor, with little or no pay, for European farmers, planters, and mine-owners. It is through such arrangements that raw materials were extracted from Africa to spur rapid development in Europe. 

Colonial regimes pushed to produce certain crops that were of little to no practical use to the local economy. They shifted labor from food production as a way of creating a surplus of labor-intensive nonfood cash crops. Minor crops desired by European populations were prioritised while dietary staples of Africans were cut off leading to inadequate food reserves, and subsequently, chronic malnutrition and famine. Africans were herded to provide hard labor in settler-owned large scale cash crop farms to satisfy industrial demand in Europe. The destruction of free trade with foreigners, that Africans had perfected, for thousands of years, was killed to decimate African power base and make them totally reliant on Europe for their economic destiny. The imbalances of this colonial relationship continue to feature in bilateral and multilateral agreements one hundred years later and continue to exacerbate the suffering of African peoples.

Reparations, formal apologies, and truth-telling mechanisms can amend the negative generational impact of slavery and colonialism

The West may prefer to consign slavery and colonialism to history, these systems of oppression and exploitation, through laws and systems, entrenched a global norm of racial discrimination and inequalities that exist to this day. These systems continue to support the massive transfer of wealth from the underdeveloped world to the developed world, effectively consigning the descendants of slaves and colonial victims to systemic poverty. 

Reparations, formal apologies, and truth-telling mechanisms can amend the negative generational impact of slavery and colonialism, and can refuel the current fight against racial violence, systemic racism, and discriminatory policing. A change in attitudes surrounding reparation can open the door to the pertinent questions on: who will be paid? How much will be paid? Who will pay? 

Europe, which now positions itself as a land of democracy and freedom cannot wish away the lasting consequences of her tragic imperialist entanglements

Europe, in modern history, has positioned itself as a land of democracy and freedom, a standard for human rights and social justice, and a citadel of morality and ethics. It cannot wish away the lasting consequences of her tragic imperialist entanglements. It must re-affirm its lofty ideals by being accountable for historical injustices. The state of post-colonial Africa traces its roots to the deprivation of African polities of its manpower and siphoning of natural resources. Former colonial powers contributed to debilitating economic, political, and cultural damage that modern post-independent African states face today. 

A moral and economic debt is owed to the African people, and just like Belinda Royall petitioning the nascent commonwealth of Massachusetts for reparations, African faces too are marked with furrows of time, and its frame is bent under the oppression of hundreds of years. Africa is denied the utilisation of the immense wealth Europe has accumulated by Africa’s own industry, and in worse cases, her servitude. Today, these former colonial masters have the capacity to pay.

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