Sacrificing the Future on the Altar of the Past
By: Kathleen Brush Ph.D.
May 4, 2022
The British royals are used to adulation when they visit Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean. Now they are met with descendants of slaves protesting for reparations. This turn of events took many Britons by surprise. All over the world, people are content for the United States to own any and all of the history of slavery, even though the United States’ participation in the slave trade and slavery was only a fraction of Britain’s.
Britain’s involvement in the slave trade was virtually censored until 2015 when the media reported that there were 46 thousand British slave owners in 1835. These slave owners received reparations for their loss of “property,” and free slaves were forced to work for free for four years to compensate for the cost of freedom. When slavery was abolished, it was common for slaves to pay for their freedom, although this was not the case in the United States.
If reparations are to be paid for slavery, recipients should not be limited to the Caribbean, and payers should not be limited to the British. In the United States, there is a clear case for seeking slave reparations from Britain, France, Spain, and Holland. They all had colonies in the United States, all participated in the Atlantic slave trade, and all permitted slavery within U.S. borders. The United States is a candidate too, but its role was relatively limited. It was a bit player in the Atlantic slave trade, and timewise, its period of slavery was relatively brief: from 1776 to 1865, and just 1.25% of Americans in 1860 were slaveholders.
Prominent non-western parties profited from the Atlantic slave trade, and they are also candidate payers. African nations, like Nigeria and Ghana, played a huge role in acquiring and selling slaves. When law enforcement tackles the drug trade, they seek to punish the source, not the drug users.
If descendants of slaves are to receive reparations, it’s only equitable that descendants of others that endured a similar or harsher level of inhumanity should be paid too. A global list could easily have more than a billion recipients, making it necessary for payers to prioritize recipients.
The British will have to deprioritize African American slave descendants to the descendants of millions of Irish that were mistreated for over 300 years, including a preventable famine that killed 1.5 million between 1846 and 1855. The French must prioritize the descendants of slaves in Haiti. Slaves here were beheaded, tortured, mutilated, and burned alive. After a few years of labor, half of Haiti’s slaves were dead. To add insult to injury, Haitians paid reparations for their freedom to France until 1947. Spain will have to prioritize slave descendants in former colonies in Latin America. Most Afro-Mexicans still live in poverty with negligible sanitation, health, or education services. In Ecuador, the police see their job as protecting Ecuadorians from the ‘danger’ of blacks. Blacks are not seen as citizens but rather as violent intruders that invade the cities.
Most African Americans are descended from Nigeria, but this isn’t enough to make them a priority for reparations, and it’s not because they are 25 times wealthier than the average Nigerian. Ten times as many Nigerians were enslaved in Latin America, and historians agree that slavery in Latin America was far worse than in the United States. It was worse again in the Middle East, where male slaves were castrated, and females were sex slaves. Due to recency, the priority may have to go to slaves from the Osu caste of Nigeria’s Igbo tribe. Their status as slaves ended in 2018. Then again, many or most Africans continue to endure the scars of slavery. In Africa, there is a saying, “Once a slave, always a slave. There is no such thing as absolute manumission; the freeman himself would not claim it.”
In the United States, like so many other countries there are many competing priorities. Any country evaluating its history using a yardstick of acceptable and legal behaviors today yields millions of victims of an unbearable existence.
It may, however, be time to ask, when do reparations stop? Paying reparations to any aggrieved group opens calls for equitable treatment, and not just for today’s descendants. The sins of history won’t disappear because one generation of descendants received a compensatory payment. Reparations will need to be paid to descendants in perpetuity. Now, the future of the United States and all Americans are forever sacrificed on the altar of history. Ditto for the nations and peoples of the other payers.