The matter of reparations for the descendants of the African slaves whose labour went uncompensated for four centuries deserves to be examined. Even after slavery ended, much exploitation continued, due to rampant institutional racism and the effects emanating therefrom. The economic cost of this may run into the tens of trillions of dollars. The question is whether reparations to these descendants of slaves have to be paid in the coin of the realm, or in kind. I will return to that question later in this column.
How would such compensation be calculated? Researcher with The University of Connecticut, Thomas Craemer, estimated it may cost between US $5.9 trillion and US$14.2 trillion dollars. This was done by estimating the amount of time slave men, women and children worked as slaves on plantations and multiplying that figure by the average wage for such work, then compounding that figure by an average three per cent inflation. This was done for the period 1776 at the birth of the United States to the emancipation of slaves in 1865.
The problem with this estimate is that it fails to take into consideration the more than 150 years slavery was in effect in the United States before its declaration of Independence, and the institutionalized racism which existed after reconstruction from 1877 until 1965. In addition, this estimation only applies to the United States, and not to Great Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal. If the above calculation were used to estimate reparations from these countries that benefitted from trans-Atlantic slavery, the amount owed may very well be astronomical.
Would these countries that benefitted from slavery be able to repay such an amount? This is assuming these countries accepted the fact that this was a crime against humanity, where statutes of limitations to that crime do not apply. Would cash payments be made over a century for example? How would this be financed? Through a tax in those countries that benefitted? Or would countries within the African Diaspora whose African slave descendants who were significantly affected by the slave trade, colonialism and racism, be prepared to accept compensation in the form of money, trade, fairer economic assistance and transfer of technology?
The late Dr Eric Williams and other noted historians have documented the fact that the intensive agriculture in the Americas, may not have been economically feasible without the exploitation of African slave labour. The capital accumulated from profits from the sale of agricultural products such as sugar, tobacco and cotton helped fuel not only the industrial revolution, science and technology, but also financial innovation in banking, insurance and the formation of capital markets. Indeed, it may have provided the means by which capitalism became a self-sustaining process where wealth could be transmitted from one generation to the next.
Walter Rodney in his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, described how the loss of Africans to slavery from the African continent negatively affected its development. At the year 1500 A. D., it was noted that Africa and Europe were at similar stages of economic development. Africa’s slave skills in agriculture were transferred to the Americas, a fact noted by Eric Williams in ‘Capitalism and Slavery’. The transfer of human capital with the attendant skills from Africa to the Americas which ultimately benefitted Europe makes the argument for reparations appear more feasible. There is need for repair to the damage caused by slavery by those who benefitted.
Since the period of decolonization where all the European powers lost their overseas empires, the nations as a group which emerged have not performed well economically over the past 50 years. In fact, most of them are mired in debt and experienced low or no economic growth. While in many newly emerged countries, the cost of poor economic choices and mismanagement have played a significant role in their underdevelopment, the fact remains that the World’s economic system since the end of World War II has benefitted from developed nations. While the political independence has been achieved, the attainment of economic independence is another matter. The trading, economic and financial relationships which existed during slavery and colonialism still exist. As a result, the economic diversification of these former colonies economies has continued to be stymied.
Therefore, it may very well be the moral and even legal obligation of those countries that benefitted from slavery to assist those damaged from slavery. Reparations are not about cash payments alone, but about the transfer of resources to assist those countries which were materially harmed as a result of the practice of slavery. Restoration of the agricultural industries of these countries, creation of sound education and health systems, transfer of technology, and changes to the global financial and economic systems would enable these countries to have access to financial resources to diversify their economies. A more fair and equitable international trading system would also give these countries access to the markets of developed countries to sell their outputs at fair prices.
Countries that benefitted from slavery have lectured and continue to lecture developing nations, including their former colonial possessions, about the benefits of democracy, free trade and the market economy. They rarely, if ever, admit how they were able to achieve their wealth from the blood, sweat, toil and tears of our African slave ancestors; in fact the less said about slavery and its cost to the African diaspora, the better. There is an awakening within the Africana diaspora concerning this matter of reparations. If countries which benefitted from slavery continue to turn a deaf ear to this concern, they may very well rue the day that they failed to address this matter. If world history teaches us anything, military and economic dominance moves in cycles.
Edward Hunte, an attorney-at-law, is the holder of an MBA with concentrations in Economics & Finance. He was also an economist with the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs.