Reparations and the Fight Over Slavery

Geoffrey White

Whites abolished slavery; Blacks still practice it.

Slavery is often spoken of as a relic of the colonial age. Yet this week [in 2001] brought news of the mysterious journey of a ship suspected of carrying hundreds of child slaves from Benin, as well as horrifying accounts on the kidnapping and imprisonment of child laborers to work on cocoa plantations in Equatorial Africa. As a government official in Mali acknowledged: "Africans are selling Africans."

It is curious then, that in the richest country in the world, the fight over slavery is not about saving human chattel who are, at this moment, forced to work against their will in Western Africa and Sudan. Rather, it is about getting the American government to pay compensation for centuries-old injustices. Organizations such as the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America as well as city councils in Dallas, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland are agitating for federal hearings into reparations of up to $8-trillion for the costs that slavery imposed on black Americans.

There is no question that slavery is, was and always shall be an abomination. But the time and effort being wasted demanding reparations in the United States would be put to better use if they were applied to fighting slavery in Africa and elsewhere today. The preferred official term for U.S. blacks these days is "African-Americans," which is intended to signal solidarity with the continent from which the race was transported. Allowing modern African slavery to continue without demur, let alone action, is hardly solidarity. But campaigning to stop it would require acknowledging that slavery was never simply a phenomenon of white-on-black oppression. No doubt it is more convenient to fight for a big check than to end an ongoing evil.

Slavery in Africa in 2001? This incongruous turn of events clashes with carefully laid plans by African bureaucrats to extract trillions from the West in reparations for slavery. These demands, which will be raised at a $21-million United Nations conference on racism late this summer in Durban, South Africa, hang upon the proposition that slavery constituted a white attack upon blacks. Africa's misery only ended, by this theory, when Britain and the United States abolished the slave trade in 1807.

Africans certainly were miserable when they heard the news. Citizens of the Gold Coast (now Ghana) rioted at the foreigners who had arbitrarily decided to suppress their ancient trade. The Christian move was seen as an attack upon Islam. The king of Bonny (now in Nigeria) assured the British, "Your country, however great, can never stop a trade ordained by God himself." This week's events seem to prove him right. We should also take note of the king's contempt for the subhumans from other tribes whom he cheerfully sold in bulk. That contempt makes anachronistic the claim that "Africans" as a group -- slaves and slavers alike -- were wronged by the West.

U.S. blacks planning a colossal reparations lawsuit also cling fondly to the idea the world was neatly divided between rapacious white slavers and their innocent black victims. To maintain the purity of this view, more than 100 American university newspapers recently refused to run an anti-reparations ad that hinted at a truth darker than their editors could ever imagine: The entire world kept slaves -- until they were freed by British gunboats, French bureaucrats and Yankee bluecoats.

Censoring that fact is a full-time business. One recent book reprinted a slave's account of his youth in 18th-century Africa with the innocuous opening: "My father ... had a numerous family." Hidden by the ellipsis are the words: "besides many slaves." Yes, the West African Olaudah Equiano was born into a family owning many slaves, was kidnapped by Africans and passed through a long series of African owners before being sold to Europeans. Millions of Africans endured the torment of slavery centuries before any European dared set foot south of the Sahara.

Making people into property is viewed today as a despicable crime, but our ancestors simply didn't see it that way. English sailors thought nothing of kidnapping a Dutch boy off a beach in 1740 and selling him in Maryland. (He ended up in what is now Ontario, where his descendants still live.) In the 19th-century United States, freed slaves saw nothing wrong with acquiring slaves of their own. In Barbados in 1803, former slaves fought off an attempt to end their ownership of slaves by pointing out that without the right to enjoy property such as this, "liberty is but an empty name."

And today, although the West has renounced slavery, thousands of Africans still refuse to accept that rejection of slave-owning and slave-trafficking -- as evidenced by Mauritania, Sudan, Ghana, Benin, Gabon, Mali and Ivory Coast.

That should give pause to activists who reinforce the black victim/white slaver dichotomy by minimizing the achievements of the Western anti-slavery movement. White abolitionists such as William Wilberforce took a world with millions of black slaves and re-formed it. They forced anti-slavery treaties on hundreds of remote rulers, blockaded distant ports and rivers, boarded foreign ships at risk of war, bribed oriental chiefs and sultans, spent billions in today's funds, spent years on monotonous patrols and died in their thousands of malaria and yellow fever.

A Black Conservative Comments on Abolition

In short, slavery was ultimately destroyed morally, though the chief instrument of this destruction was the overwhelming military power of the West, combined with the prestige of Western civilization, based at this juncture in history on its economic, scientific, and technological achievements.


When the total cost of Britain's naval and military efforts against the slave trade for more than a century are added up, they are comparable to all the profits ever made by Britain from the slave trade in earlier times.


The staggering sweep of slavery over thousands of years, and the enormous variety of forms it assumed at different times and places, are almost as remarkable as the scant amount of moral concern it aroused until the late eighteenth century in Britain and the United States. How and why this particular juncture in history produced a moral revulsion against slavery is much less clear than the confluence of circumstances which permitted this moral revulsion to drive a policy which resulted in the stamping out of slavery across most of the planet in a period of a century and a half. The mobilization of this moral concern into a political force that was both powerful and tenacious was historic in its consequences because of the military predominance of the countries in which these anti-slavery movements developed. More specifically, it was European imperialism which stamped out slavery over most of the world. Even in parts of the world which retained their independence or autonomy, the indelible stigma that slavery acquired in European eyes made abolition a policy to be pursued for the sake of national respectability, even in societies which had no strong feelings against slavery itself.

The irony of our times is that the destruction of slavery around the world, which some once considered the supreme moral act in history, is little known and less discussed among intellectuals in either Western or non-Western countries, while the enslavement of Africans by Europeans is treated as unique -- and due to unique moral deficiencies in the West.

Excerpted from chapter 7 of Thomas Sowell's Race and Culture: A World View (New York: Basic Books, 1994).

The trade was stamped out on the Atlantic. But it was a different story on the slave routes criss-crossing the Sahara, Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Across them, Arab caravans and dhows had carried millions of slaves to exile for centuries before the first African landed bewildered in the New World. Notes Yale University slavery scholar David Brion Davis, "the Arabs and their light-skinned converts from Morocco to Iran were the first modern people to create a continuing demand for large numbers of foreign slaves, a demand that persisted from the seventh century well into the 20th."

That's one reason the British and American abolition of the slave trade had little effect on slave prices in Africa. But the main reason was the enormous demand for slaves in Africa, particularly females. Peter Frost, an anthropologist at Quebec's Université Laval, says African women contribute more than men to the food supply, so the cost of taking a second wife is virtually nil. As a consequence, single men raid neighboring tribes for women. "This, however, creates a lot of unwanted male prisoners, so they're sold as slaves -- often to places where polygyny [multiple wives] is rare or non-existent," he said. As polygyny was practiced more widely in Africa than in the West, slavery proved far more difficult to eradicate there. As he traveled in 1860s Africa, British anti-slavery crusader David Livingstone could hardly walk a mile without stumbling across traces of the trade. Sometimes literally. "We passed a slave woman shot or stabbed through the body and lying on the path. [Onlookers] said an Arab who passed early that morning had done it in anger at losing the price he had given for her, because she was unable to walk any longer." He was petrified, in 1871, to witness Arabs laughing as they fired their blunderbusses into a central African marketplace, killing hundreds and enslaving the rest.

These atrocities were more than compassionate Europeans could take. After Livingstone's death in 1873, his yearning that "this open sore of the world" be healed was fulfilled by admirers such as Frederick Lugard. As a young man, he was badly injured leading a private attack on an East African slavers' fort. He then pushed for a temporary European occupation of the entire continent as the only way to end the trade. He himself lived to complete the conquest in 1903, with the seizure of Sokoto, capital of West Africa's slave-holding and slave-trading Fulani people. Seventy-seven years had passed since a Fulani sultan had first rejected Britain's request for a treaty ending the slave trade.

Africa was conquered, but not liberated. Millions remained enslaved across the continent, including more than 30% of French West Africans, according to historian Martin Klein of the University of Toronto. The same year Lugard took Sokoto, the French subdued enough of their vast new territories in West Africa to put a virtual end to slave caravans and slave raiding. Two years later, Paris issued an anti-slavery decree prompting probably a million slaves to leave their stunned masters, according to Klein. The bureaucrat directing slavery policy in French West Africa, future governor general William Merlaud-Ponty, pressed lower officials to free slaves, saying: "Let us not forget that it is in the name of Liberty and to combat such barbaric customs that European powers have come to the territories of Africa."

That kind of remark is mocked unmercifully these days, but to black Africans it was no joke. Recalled one wondrous shepherd, "When the white man entered this land, they called a meeting of the [Fulani] and the slaves and said that from that day slavery was over." Former slaves sang in praise: "The children of the slaves will be eternally grateful. Thanks to you they are men."

Unfortunately, Africa's slave-trading elites never really understood the Western passion for abolition. Their descendants still have problems with the related Western concepts of "equality" and "racism." Two decades ago, a Fulani college student said Zaire's whites deserved the massacres inflicted upon them because they were white and hence racist. A listening British anthropologist asked him if he would marry a Dowayo, referring to a pagan people that Fulani had long deemed fit only to be slaves. The student looked at Nigel Barley as if he were insane. A Fulani such as himself could not marry a Dowayo, he pointed out. They were dogs, mere animals. What had that to do with racism?

In January, Senegal's President sparked consternation by saying racism against Africans in places such as Europe was "marginal" when compared to ethnic and fratricidal conflicts in Africa. Abdoulaye Wade told a Dakar conference that the three million people of Burkino Faso origin living in Ivory Coast are "treated in a way that a black person would not be treated in Europe." He described campaigns to demand compensation for slavery and colonialism as childish. Delegates were furious, as they were busy at that very conference laying plans to make such demands. As if to prove Wade's point, citizens in Ivory Coast set about looting Senegalese-owned shops.

Not far from the Dakar conference site stands an old French slave market. Western dignitaries are regularly taken there, and reporters dutifully scribble down the government version of history, including claims that 20 million slaves had been processed at this one market.

No one mentions that academics estimate the West imported 11 million from all of Africa over the centuries, while Arab trade routes carried another eight million. The number of slaves who lived and died in Africa over the same centuries was likely in the hundreds of millions. No one mentions that Senegal was 35% to 40% slave, by Klein's estimate, until the French liberation of 1905. No one mentions that some 90,000 slaves remain today in that part of French West Africa that became Mauritania in 1960. No one mentions that Westerners are the only ones who care enough to purchase the freedom of slaves in Sudan -- even as African leaders count the trillions of dollars they hope to gain in reparations for slavery. No one asks how African leaders could fight Western abolitionists for a century -- and then blame slavery on the West.

And no one mentions that if European imperialists had not occupied the continent, millions of black slaves would still toil under the African sun.

The preceding article was originally posted on Usenet. I have added the excerpts from Sowell. For a recent report on slavery in Black Africa, see Born To Be A Slave in Niger from BBC News -- also mirrored here.


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