Submitted by George Callaghan…
You don’t want to know. Who wants to know about the satanic cruelty of slavery? The lashings, the abductions, the endless hours toiling under a broiling tropical son, the heartrending scenes of families being ripped apart, the voyage chained up in your own faeces, the rapes and the sadistic murders – all on a gargantuan scale. These are stories as sordid as they are sorrowful. There are myriad tales of the foulness of slavery – of the degradation and of the perverse punishments such as half-hanging someone or forcing one man to defecate in another’s mouth. In one slave narrative I read ‘I saw a negro maiden not yet ten years old ravaged upon the deck of the ship.’ The rapes committed on the hapless victims of this monstrous wickedness were not only committed against women. Sometimes men were raped in a despicable practice called buck breaking. The barbarity and piteous cruelty of slaveholders do not bear thinking about. But do we owe it to generations yet unborn to confront our species’ capacity for evil? How did this happen? How can we prevent it from ever recurring?
Slavery is a sin screaming to heaven for vengeance. The incomparable evil of holding people in servitude it a scar on the conscience of the world. The repercussions of enslaving people are with us still especially when it was justified on a racial basis. The torsion of the minds of the slaveholder and the enslaved. The vile fallacy of white supremacy sadly persists. The insult and the humiliation inflicted on people who were kept in slavery still smarts with their descendants several generations later.
Those who strove with heart and hand to burst in twain the galling shackles of servitude ought to be effusively honoured. They deserve more statues and more films. The least the UK can do is to erect a statute to the Unknown Slave on Trafalgar Square as was suggested by the late Bernie Grant MP. It ought to be a statute of a woman since not a single female is honoured on that square.
The infernal wickedness of slavery was such that in many places it was hard to have a self-sustaining slave population. Conditions on plantations in the West Indies were close to hell on earth.
Genesis chapter 9 provided the rationale for whites enslaving people of African stock. Christian fundamentalists in the United States invoked the story of Ham as a reason to deprive African-Americans of the constitutional rights even in the 1960s.
Slavery has existed throughout the 5000 years of recorded history. It presumably existed before writing was invented in Mesopotamia. Slavery was to be found in almost every country in almost every epoch. It is only in the 18th century that European nations began to abolish slavery and serfdom. India abolished slavery under Ashoka but it was quickly restored. Likewise, Ancient Persia’s abolishment of thralldom was swiftly undone. Only in the Occident has slavery been consigned to the midden never to return. Therefore, the Occident’s record on this most contentious issue is not as ghastly as one might suppose. Yes, some Western European nations and the United States carried out the most unutterable barbarities but they did at least outlaw such deeds earlier than the rest of the world. Further, western nations were in the van of the movement to stamp out the curse of slavery in all quarters of the globe.
La corvee and other forms of involuntary labour were the norm in various European lands as recently as 1861. In Medieval England the Peasants’ Revolt was one of innumerable jacquerie against this form of semi-slavery. In 1381 Richard II promised to outlaw serfdom. Within two weeks he reneged on his solemn vows and felt secure enough to proclaim, ‘You shall be returned to a state of servitude even more vile than that from which you temporarily emerged.’ Not he was frank about the servile status of most of his subjects. Do not imagine that slavery or semi-slavery was only a black experience. But it is true that in the last 200 years or so in the Western World it has overwhelmingly been black people who have been held in chains.
There are very affluent families whose fortunes can be traced to slavery. These people have title deeds and bank statements that prove that their lucre was acquired in the filthiest possible manner. A brigand of a century ago is the forbear of a lord of today. The so-called aristocracy grotesquely inverted the very notion of nobility. There is nothing more ignoble than the unspeakable crimes committed against slaves for millennia. To use the word ‘slave’ seems demeaning and dehumanizing. ‘Slavery victim’ is more apt.
If you inherited millions of pounds and knew that a large fraction of it was built on the flesh and blood of others would conscience not dictate that you should donate at least a little of the money to a worthy cause?
As well as families there are institutions which made a handsome profit from a hideous trade. These companies and other organisations could also choose to pay compensation. Who are these organisations? They include many religious bodies. The Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and the Church of England all owned slaves. It depends how far back you go. The Roman Catholic Church was the first to condemn slavery. But it was a very low priority. The Universal Church was far more exercised about speaking out against things it considered truly repugnant such as eating meat on Friday.
In the British Isles slavery goes right to the top. The monarch expressly authorized the enslaving of Africans. The Royal African Company had the word ‘royal’ in its name for a reason. Its patron was the Duke of York who later became King James II. He is a man still honoured with a statute on Trafalgar Square and in University College Oxford. Monarchs profited personally from the trade in human flesh. Much of this ill-gotten lucre is still in the hands of the Mountbatten-Windsor dynasty. It is a curious anomaly that some of the dynasts are achingly ‘woke’. But when it comes to walking the walk they are oddly palsied. They ought to pony up. They can afford to. The working class cannot afford to pay for the felonies of their distant ancestors.
There are people who feel that their government ought to pay. That might never happen. But if you are the man on the street who believes that your government should pay then voting on that basis is not enough. Take action. Put your money where your mouth is. A bank account ought to be opened for those who wish to contribute funds to this cause. Thereby an ordinary person could donate. Every penny counts. Even if your government never pays then you would have salved your conscience.
The movement for reparations for slavery started in the 1960s. It was a tiny one at first. It has slowly though unsurely gathered pace. It has snowballed and is given a serious hearing in many lands. The trouble is that this movement only focuses on the Transatlantic slave trade. One of the objections to this demand for reparations payments is that these demands are not made of other countries which have also enslaved people. There is an awful lot of what aboutery when it comes to this vexatious question. What about the Ottoman Empire which raided for slaves in Europe as well as in Africa? What about Saudi Arabia which was the last country on earth to end slavery in 1962? What about Japan that had slavery in the 1940s? We all know that the Third Reich enslaved millions of people. Many Holocaust victims were not directly slain by gas or bullets but were killed through slavery. Many of them died due to overwork, malnutrition, insanitation and exposure to the cold. These same causes explain the high morbidity of people held in slavery on plantations in the United States and the Caribbean. Yet Germany was excused paying war reparations after only a few years. Why is it that Germany does not have to cough up for crimes committed within living memory but the UK, for instance, must pay for crimes that ended in 1837?
Slavery in the Middle East involved castrating males to serve as eunuchs in harems. Boys did not always survive such villainous mutilation. Girls were sometimes made into odalisques. They were often subject to female genital mutilation before being confined in a seraglio. In the Occident there is remarkably little discourse about what Ishmaelites did to Africans. Of course, an Arab and an African are not always distinct. One can be both. No nation or no people as whole was responsible for this crime. Guilt is personal not national or racial. White Leftists who demand apologies and compensation to be coughed up often appear to whole certain Western countries guilty for slavery or perhaps the West in general. Funnily they do not seem to apply this blanket approach to Araby.
A textbook issued by the UAE Government is entitled ‘I love Islam’. It sets out the rules for Ramadan – the month of fasting. If a person involuntarily breaks the fast there is penance to be paid. If you accidentally swallow your own saliva during Ramadan you can expiate your crime by freeing a slave. Which is worse: swallowing your own spittle during daylight hours or slavery? Revealingly, this textbook at no point says that abducting someone, whipping the person, branding the person, forcing the person to work unpaid or raping a bondswoman is in the least bit iniquitous. But as for imbibing your own spit – that is the height of impiety!
The very issue of an apology for enslaving people is also tightly fraught. Almost 20 years ago several West African nations banded together to issue an apology to the descendants of people enslaved by fellow Africans and shipped overseas. The African Union now cherishes its relationship with its diaspora. Thus, there is little bad blood between Africa and its exiled children. European nations and the United States have been loathe to follow suit though some states of the US have issued apologies. The US Government itself has not expressed contrition for servitude. The United Kingdom apologized for enslaving people in 2006. But that was the first lord of the treasury Tony Blair who made that statement. Some say that this was insufficient. Her Britannic Majesty must express remorse and penitence for the incalculable cruelty of slavery. The apology issue is freighted with significance which is why governments have been so circumspect about saying sorry for what was and is such a blatant wrong. If one apologises one appears to accept responsibility. That being so then it logically follows that one is morally and possibly even legally obliged to remedy the wrong done. Therefore, a repentant government would have to pay compensation to the heirs of those who were dispossessed, kidnapped, lashed, branded, raped, mutilated and murdered.
By paying reparations for slavery are we overlooking the more urgent problem of contemporary servitude. I am tolerably sure that people are held in slavery within five miles of where I write. In most major Western cities some people are held as slaves to labour or act as prostitutes. Surely that ought to be our priority. Of course, one could do both. But which is more crucial? Surely it is more vital to rescue those presently held in bondage.
Where does slavery lurk today? Anti Slavery International estimates there India has the highest number of slaves in the world. This has been illegal in Hindustan for 180 years. There are many Indians who are as appalled by slavery as I am. The government tries to stamp it out. India’s liberal constitution constrains the police and makes convictions difficult to obtain. The number of thralls in India is so high mainly because the population is the second largest on the globe. How about China? Compiling data there is very much more challenging because it is such an unfree country. In North Korea political prisoners are reduced to penal servitude. Everyone knows certain Gulf countries are entrepots for slavery. Sometimes it is in the guise of bonded labour. Hundreds of hapless Nepali workers died building World Cup stadia in Qatar due to inhumane and unsafe conditions. If that is not slavery then it is very close.
It is quite a thought. Some African-American embraced Islam because Christianity is a white man’s faith that was used to reduced them to slavery. When Malcolm X still preached this in Saudi Arabia people were bought and sold as cattle. It was all perfectly legal in Saudi at the time.
Colin Powell rejected the demand that the United States pay reparations for servitude. He asked whether as an American he should be shelling out or as a person of African descent he should be a recipient of compensation?
Is pecuniary compensation not demeaning? How can one ascribe a financial value to centuries of servile status? How broad does the definition have to be? What about European serfdom? Its derivation is from ‘servus’ the Latin for slave. These were not chained up and were almost never whipped. They had the right to remain as a family and to live in their home village. But they had to perform unpaid menial labour. They required permission to wed or take holy orders. They were not allowed to reside outside the village without the say so of whoever held seigneurial rights over them. Serfs were unfree.
In Ireland the English liberated us from slavery in the 12th century. It is something which does not fit well with nationalist mythology. One Irishmen oppresses another. The oppressed is emancipated by Anglo-Normans – put that in your pipe and smoke it. We never had serfdom.
England had serfdom down to the time of Good Queen Bess. Curiously just as slavery was abolished in Merry England the queen authorized Jack Hawkins to sail to Africa and purchase members of our own species as though they were not human.
The case for reparations is complicated by numerous unresolved issues. How far do we go back? Someone who has been enslaved should surely be compensated. What if your parents were? Or grandparents? Surely almost everyone was a descended from a slave if we look back far enough. Often, we are left to conjecture. There might be documents mentioning a slave with your surname but such documents could be of limited evidentiary value. That does not prove that such and such a person is one’s ancestor or ancestress. Is simply being African-American probative of being of slave stock? Some African-Americans are the descendants of free immigrants. If being African-American entitles someone to compensation then does the amount depend on what proportion of one’s DNA is black?
What good might reparations do? They would help people in poor lands. They might bring reconciliation. Could reparations finally heal wounds that still suppurate centuries later? Or would reparations be unfair and unnecessary? Perhaps they would be divisive and simply reopen old wounds.
What form would reparations take? Would it be a simple bank transfer? Perhaps free medical care in countries where it is not generally available would be more apposite? Or free tertiary education in lands where this is not the norm. Do rich people get as much compensation as the needy? Should a country be held accountable for what it did 10 years ago? Yes. 100 years ago? Probably not. 1000 years ago? Surely not. Where do we draw the line. The situation is rendered into kaleiposcopic confusion by the breakup of countries, empires and polities – call them what you will. There are predecessor states and successor states. It is very unclear to what degree a successor state bears responsibility for a predecessor state of which is was but part. There are countless questions to be resolved.
I do not agree with governmental reparations for slavery or apologies. Having said that neither of these things would be terrible. If you want to see these gross injustice compensated then by all means spend your own money on it and apologise ad nauseam.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.