By Paul Ejime
IF sorrow and condemnation could translate into cash, Africa would be trillions of dollars richer from slave trade, the cruel trade in human cargo, institutionalised by those who uprooted millions of Africans and sold them into forced labour around the world.
There are no accurate figures, but political historians estimate that “tens of millions” of Africans were shepherded into sugarcane, cotton, tobacco and rice plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean by European slavers.
The so-called transatlantic trade lasted for more than 300 years from the 16th century before an Abolition Act was passed in March 1807 in Britain, the then dominant power across the three continents – Europe, Africa and the Americas.
Blacks were ensnared and captured like animals, many of whom were bound and had their mouths padlocked. The sick were thrown overboard moving ships and fed to sharks. A number that made it to plantations were overworked and most of them starved to death.
Even after the official abolition, the criminal enterprise continued largely because the wealth and cheap labour it provided became irresistible to Western powers, which in their “colonial wisdom” also decided to partition Africa at the Berlin (Germany) Conference in 1884.
According to European scholars Robert Paul Thomas and Richard Nelson Bean in their joint essay: “The Fishers of Men: The Profits of the Slave Trade” (The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 34, No. 4 December, 1974): “…slaves destined for export from Africa were supplied in substantial measure from markets organised like a contemporary high seas fishing.”
There has been no shortage of regrets and in some cases, grudging apologies, even as the World this year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the shameful trade in which the State, the Church, the private sector and the Monarch all soiled their hands.
But Europeans were not alone in this trade. Islamic Arab slave traders enslaved Africans from about the 9th to the 19th century, primarily before traders from Europe arrived.
The Arabian enslavement said to involve some 14 million blacks, was dominant in the North and East Africa with slave depots along the slave routes such as in Zanzibar. While “Oriental” or Arab slave trade was extensive and equally as cruel with many of the male slaves castrated and made eunuchs so they could not reproduce, the “British Slave Trade” was in comparison more organised, institutionalised and documented.
It was no coincidence that an elaborate commemorative service was held at Westminster Abbey in London for the abolition of the British slave trade recently. The service was attended by the British Queen Elizabeth II, Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who described slavery as an offence to human dignity and freedom and “the greatest cause of grief to God’s spirit.”
Williams, head of Anglican Church told the congregation: “We, who are the heirs of the slave-owning and slave-trading nations of the past, have to face the fact that our historic prosperity was built in large part on this atrocity.” According to him: “Those who are the heirs of the communities ravaged by the slave trade know very well that much of their present suffering and struggling is the result of centuries of abuse.”
With such strong words of condemnation, many would expect a world which rallied solidly behind Israel and extracted financial compensation for the Holocaust of a much later date (1939-45 World War II), to have come clean of its slave past instead of a criminal denial or lapse into deliberate amnesia when it comes to reparation for slave trade.
But in contrast, all that many beneficiaries of slave trade and their descendants can offer is annoyingly superficial sorrow and regrets, a condemnable lip-service bordering on hypocrisy. It is indisputable that profits from slave trade financed the British Industrial Revolution and the first industrialisation of the United States and till today, modern Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, London and Glasgow owe their opulence largely to wealth from slave trade.
Even the world famous Codrington Library of the Oxford University, the epicentre of British intellectualism, benefited from an endowment by Colonel Christopher Codrington, a colonial governor that owned slave plantations in Barbados.
While big British companies such as Tate and Lyle, Lloyds of London and Imperial Tobacco are still dodging responsibility for their inglorious slave past, all that their American counterparts such as JP Morgan Chase can offer is an apology.
The painful relics of slavery smear the world, from the Elmina Castle slave fort in Accra, Ghana (former Gold Coast), to Maison des Esclaves on Senegal’s Goree Island, Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown, founded in 1792 by African-American former slave Thomas Peters, and Haiti in the western hemisphere.
The Church of England had slaves in its plantations in Barbados, the so-called “Little England” where the European minority of four per cent of the estimated 280,000 population, still dominates and controls the national economy till today.
If slave trade left such a major impact on the historical and economic development of Africa and on the growth of Britain and its empire as well as on the future of Europe and the Americas, why the schizophrenic attitude toward reparation?
And if the slavers were compensated by the State as an incentive to abandon what was generally agreed as a criminal and atrocious trade, why is the world that preaches justice and human rights so indifferent to the call for slavery reparation? Prime Minister Blair regrets the atrocities of slave trade, but falls short of apologising.
The assumption is that an apology connotes guilt and responsibility and will therefore strengthen the argument for reparation. Doubtless, the inability of African leaders to articulate the case for reparation, stemming largely from the continent’s “weak political and economic bargaining position” in a globalised world, has not helped matters.
Unfortunately, the boldest effort on slavery reparation literally died with the sudden death in 1998 of Nigerian millionaire politician and philanthropist Moshood Abiola, who had vowed to internationalise the campaign. His compatriot, President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria is on record to have said “an apology closes the door (on slavery) and does not promote any reprisals or litigations, nor should it,” while President John Kufuor of Ghana, the current African Union (AU) chair, thinks reparation would be “problematic.”
Consequently, various claims being pursued, including a US$777 trillion damages case lodged by the Ghana-based World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission, have been dismissed by African politicians as non-starters.
Granted, slave trade evokes strong emotions. But it is exactly for the same reason that its ugly legacy must not be swept under the carpet. The bi-centenary anniversary of the abolition this year in London actually re-opened the wound, which organisers of the event had thought they were trying to heal. The Black communities in Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean spoke through activist Toyin Agbetu who disrupted the anniversary Church service. He called the commemoration an “insult” on Black people, while House of Lords leader Baroness Amos, one of the guests at the service said: “Toyin’s protest reflected the anger and the pain that still exists.”
For his part, Michael Eboda, Editor of Black newspaper New Nation, felt there was too much emphasis on the role of Europeans such as William Wilberforce, the British parliamentary spokesman for the abolition movement, while the efforts of “great black freedom fighters” such as Nanny Maroon, Yaa Asantewa, Bukman Dutty, Sam Sharpe and Toussaint Louverture, against slavery, were ignored. Africa’s woes cannot be blamed entirely on slave trade or colonialism. Its post-colonial leaders have contributed in no small measure to the continent’s backwardness and must be held to account for their individual and collective failed leadership, characterised by monumental corruption, mismanagement of resources, cronyism and human rights violations.
Anti-reparation campaigners even cite the role of African chiefs who sold their fellow blacks into slavery. While this ignoble role is equally condemnable, the greatest responsibility lies with the “inventors” of slave trade. They wrote the dangerous script and directed the tragic enterprise. And in any case, what did the African accomplices gain from the trade compared to the Europeans? Erstwhile peaceful and stable African communities were destabilised by European slave traders and their African collaborators through the instigation of communal conflicts just to catch as many slaves.
The perceived logistical problems in the determination of which individual or country gets what reparation for slave trade should not stop the payment if the slavers could muster the political will to pay.
There cannot be a more compelling need for reparation than the tragedy of Africa today. An otherwise richly endowed continent, for a combination of reasons, now holds the dubious reputation for excellence in poverty, hunger, disease, humanitarian disasters and debts. These are all indicators of underdevelopment that have direct bearing on the continent’s past defined by slavery and colonialism, and of course the failure of its post-independent leadership. To compound the tragedy, Africa continues to lose its best brains to western countries while its youths are dying in their thousands yearly on perilous journeys of self-perdition to Europe, in effect surrendering themselves to “voluntary slavery.”
Europe is stoutly fighting the mass illegal emigration of Africans, including by erecting border fences. But the best solution is to make life better in Africa, perhaps, one of the reasons that informed the launch two years ago of the Commission for Africa by Britain, even as it refuses to apologise for slave trade let alone pay reparation. The idea of the Commission strengthens the case for reparation for slave trade, which if properly managed, along with total cancellation of Africa’s external debts of more than US$300 billion will go a long way in addressing the needs.
The reparation being proposed can be a mutually agreed payment into a fund to be used for focused need-based pro-poor people-centred programmes to be managed by an international consortium of technocrats with Africa-bias to address the myriad development problems dogging the continent. The scheme will be in the model of a Marshall Plan that was used to prop the economies of Western Europe after World War II depression.
Since defence and security are intrinsically tied to economic development, various peacekeeping initiatives which the African Union (AU) is currently grappling with can be robustly supported through the reparation scheme. Dealing with slave trade may be complex and emotive, but so too was Holocaust. In the name of natural justice, reparation is a minimum requirement at bringing a healing closure to a crime against humanity, an atrocious trade that dehumanised, demonised and decimated the black race.
- Ejime lives in Dakar, Senegal