Reparations for Africa?

Posted: Sep 10, 2001 12:00 AM
The recent United Nations conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, raised again the issue of reparations for slavery. This is an idea that was first developed last year by Randall Robinson's book, "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks." Now, it seems, the issue has moved past compensating the decedents of slaves to compensating those who sold them into slavery in the first place. At the U.N. conference, some African leaders said that since slaves were forcibly taken from Africa, they deserve compensation for this loss. Among many problems with this argument are two that are particularly relevant. First, very few slaves were kidnapped by European slave traders. The vast majority were sold into slavery by African leaders of the time. Second, these African leaders were paid very well for the slaves they sold. So to compensate them a second time for their loss is like paying compensation to a thief for robbing you. These are controversial points, to be sure, but are massively documented by historian Hugh Thomas, in his book, "The Slave Trade" (Simon & Schuster, 1997). On the first point, he writes: "The overwhelming majority of slaves were certainly obtained by the European traders in Africa by purchase or negotiation with local rulers, merchants or noblemen. Some were obtained directly through European wars, principally in Angola; except in the first days of the Portuguese on the coast, up till 1448, only a small number were obtained by Europeans by kidnapping. "The Africans from whom the Europeans obtained most of the slaves to be shipped acquired them much as in antiquity in the Mediterranean, or in medieval Europe: first, as a result of war; second, in consequence of enslavement as punishment for the people concerned; third, from poverty, resulting in someone's being constrained to sell his children, or even himself; or, fourth, from kidnapping, which was as frequent among Africans as it was rare among Europeans. "African monarchs also often bought slaves (who might earlier have been obtained in any of these ways) from dealers, in order to sell them again to Europeans (or to other Africans, and especially Arabs)." Thomas even cites a survey of slaves taken by one Sigismund Koelle in Sierra Leone in the 1850s. According to his research, which may not be typical for the whole slavery era, 34 percent of slaves had been taken prisoner in war, 30 percent had been kidnapped by Africans, 11 percent suffered enslavement as punishment for a crime, 7 percent had been sold to pay debts and another 7 percent had been sold by relatives or friends. The rest fell into multiple categories. Thomas notes that kidnapping by Europeans was strongly discouraged for simple commercial reasons. Doing so earned the wrath of African leaders, who saw this as theft of their property. European slave traders who engaged in kidnapping, therefore, often paid a heavy price for doing so. For African leaders, slavery was a huge moneymaker. According to Thomas, they were paid about 50 pounds for each slave in the 18th century. This was a large sum in those days. A person could live for 4 years on it. Of course, prices varied over the years, and slaves were often bought in trade for horses and other goods. Given that about 10 million Africans were sold to European slavers over the years, even a low estimate of the wealth obtained by African leaders would be about 300 million pounds. It is very difficult to put this number into context, but at a 5 percent interest rate, compounded over 150 years, it would equal almost $1 trillion today. Finally, it is worth noting that the United States, against which reparations demands have been strongest, only got about 4 percent of the slaves taken from Africa. According to a careful calculation by historian P.D. Curtin, between 1500 and 1870, 399,000 slaves were brought to the United States. Almost 10 times this number went to the Caribbean and about the same to Brazil. Spanish America got 4 times as many slaves as came to the United States. It goes without saying that slavery is, was and always will be abhorrent. Efforts to root it out wherever it exists should never cease. But making it seem as if only the United States bears responsibility for the past sin of slavery is unfair. There is a great deal of blame to go around, and much of it must go to African leaders, who sold their own people into slavery for a healthy profit. Paying reparations to current African leaders, whose predecessors bear much of the responsibility for Africa's loss, is utterly unjustified.