Socialist Worker

Who should pay for slave trade?

Issue No. 1764

New Labour says no to reparations

Who should pay for slave trade?

By Charlie Kimber

PROTESTS WILL greet the United Nations conference on racism which opens this weekend in Durban, South Africa. The demonstrators will denounce the US and European government attempts to block motions demanding full recognition of the suffering caused by slavery and colonialism.

The European Union states, Britain in particular, refuse to accept that slavery and colonialism constitute a "crime against humanity". They have rejected a statement of support for "compensatory measures". A British government source reported, "We do not want to be bogged down in history and recrimination."

Delegates from Britain, Belgium and France have also pushed for a declaration that only "some aspects" of colonialism were damaging. Nobody should doubt the deadly scale of the slave trade. Between 1600 and 1850 about 12 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic from West Africa to European colonies in the Caribbean and North America. The slaves were captured by raiding parties, imprisoned at coastal forts and forced to endure a horrific voyage as human freight.

The "standard space per slave" laid down by the British-run Royal Africa Company was five foot long, 11 inches wide and 23 inches high-for a voyage lasting nine or ten months. Around one in six of the slaves died on the journey. Those who survived were sold at auction into a life of brutal labour on plantations producing tobacco, sugar and cotton.

It was not only the slaves who suffered. African society as a whole was hurled back. The population of Africa stagnated and in places fell. One estimate is that the population of about 25 million in 1850 in West and Central Africa was about a half what it would have been had there been no slave trade.

This whole blood-soaked process was directed by state-backed "adventurers" and bankers who became the pillars of industrial Britain. As one commentator puts it, "There is not a brick in Bristol that is not cemented with the blood of a slave. "Sumptuous mansions, luxurious living, liveried menials, were the produce of the wealth made from the suffering and groans of the slaves bought and sold by the Bristol merchants."

It was not only the capitalists directly involved in the slave trade who gained. The "triangular trade" saw slaves carried to the Americas, sugar, tobacco and other goods then shipped to Europe, and then European products sent to the coast of Africa to begin the triangle again. Each leg of the triangle benefited a group of capitalists. The bankers benefited from them all.

In 1773 the Heywood brothers founded a bank in Liverpool to fund slave expeditions and deposit their profits. Today that firm is part of the Royal Bank of Scotland. The Barclay brothers were involved in the slave trade from 1756. They went on to found what is today one of the world's largest banks. Lloyd's coffee house in London which was the centre for slave merchants and financiers became today's global insurance house.

Go to Liverpool's Sefton Park and you will find a statue of Christopher Columbus. It was placed there by the grateful merchants with the inscription, "The discoverer of America was the maker of Liverpool". The same story could be told of the Glasgow "tobacco barons" and many London traders. Slavery was not a one-off event, a single horror confined to the 18th century or simply to Africa. It was one of the products of the rise of capitalism and in turn it gave a great boost to capitalism's growth. The black historian Eric Williams wrote that slavery "fertilised the entire productive system". Profits derived from the triangular trade as a whole accounted for between a quarter and a third of the entire new investment made by the British ruling class in the years around 1770.

The slave plantations were crucially important as sources of cheap raw materials for emerging industries, as markets for British goods and also as a source of considerable profit. A big portion of the money made from slaves was invested in industrial production, in canals, railways, new ships and new productive techniques. The firm of Boulton and Watt, Britain's most important maker of steam engines, was dependent for a period upon slavery. Colonial conquest was also important.

Robin Blackburn writes, "In the late 18th century Britain was awash with the profits of empire. The profits of the plantations and the slave-based trades probably constituted the largest single source of imperial gains. But Ireland and India greatly swelled the revenues available to Britain's ruling class." Slavery was a fruit of the first wave of capitalist globalisation and a central part of the process which Karl Marx called "the primitive accumulation of capital".

The early British capitalists' use of "free labour" (labour which must sell itself on the market) at home gave a vicious dynamism to their profit making. This meant they could then exploit unfree labour on a totally new scale. This is part of the reason why the slave trade remains an acute embarrassment to our rulers. It was structured into the way their system was born. The Labour minister who defends the European Union position at Durban might have a Barclaycard in his pocket and will certainly have been at a drinks reception with businessmen whose predecessors ran ships packed with African flesh. Slavery also led to racism.

Slavers and traders needed a justification for their non-human treatment of human beings. For the capitalists the fiction that black people were inferior to white "explained" the reality of the slave ships. Over some three centuries racism developed from a supposed reason for slavery to a complete belief system, a system structured into capitalism.

Any discussion about possible reparations for slavery raises the question of who should pay the compensation. Ordinary people in Britain, the US and elsewhere did not benefit from slavery. It simply fuelled the monstrous instrument, capitalism, which exploited factory workers, agricultural labourers, clerks, child textile workers and millions of others.

Slave money financed the massive cotton mills where generations of workers spent a vast portion of their stunted, short lives. The use of big workforces on the plantations was a model for the creation of factories in Britain.

The use of child slaves in the Americas was the template for the use of children who were pressed into wage slavery in the mills. Infant paupers were taken from the workhouses and transferred to textile firms. As an account in 1842 says, "These children are sent off by wagon loads and are as much lost to their parents as if they were shipped for the West Indies." Calling the conditions of early industrial workers "slave-like" was no exaggeration.

In the Barbados sugar cane fields slaves were unlikely to live for more than four or five years. Many died in their teens or early twenties. In Manchester in 1840 the average age at death for labourers was 17. The Irish labourers, the European factory workers and agricultural proletariat were all brothers and sisters of the slave. That is why there was an almost instinctive unity between poor whites and slaves which the ruling class made great efforts to extinguish.

What reparations would be great enough to redress this crime which became one of the foundations of a series of crimes which continue to the present day? A payment will not do away with racism that continues today or the class society of capitalism.

A minimal step that the UN conference could take would be to immediately wipe out unconditionally all the debts that the Third World now "owes" to the banks, Western governments and the great financial institutions. But this would be a drop of water compared to the desert created by slavery and what flowed from it.

Tony Blair and his counterparts could announce that they are going to hand over the wealth of the banks to workers and peasants in the Third World and workers in the West.

Even this would be a tiny part of the redress required. Yet it goes far beyond anything that capitalism will concede. When the politicians balk at small words, they will certainly refuse significant deeds.

Any socialist or anti-racist should certainly demand that this weekend in Durban the Western powers admit the guilt of their ruling classes and begin to pay back what they looted.

But the real reparation will come only when the exploited and unemployed-of all lands, black and white-seize back what was taken from them. Tearing down the system and the institutions which slavery helped to grow is the sole sufficient settling of scores.


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Sat 1 Sep 2001, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1764
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