Ntokozo Qwabe, the young Rhodes scholar crusading for his benefactor’s statue to be removed from its position above the portico of Oriel College, has justified his apparent biting of the deceased hand that feeds him by claiming that his scholarship is no more than he deserves in return for the exploitation of his people by the man in question. We’ll have to leave aside, for the sake of this piece, the question of why he thinks that he, and he alone, should receive this benefit. We’ll have to avoid exploring why he thinks treating a gift for which he has by some process qualified and consequently been awarded, was in some way his birth-right. We’d best not ask him, either, because he might get upset. (If you ask him questions on his group’s facebook page, he tends to get a bit grumpy. It shakes him out of his safe-space.)

The argument that reparations should be made for slavery is not a new one. It certainly isn’t an idea which has been dreamt up by the safe-space students of Oxford University, who would be too offended by other people’s ideas ever to have any of their own. It has probably been around at least since the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Once it has been acknowledged, in the public square, that harm has been done, then it follows, as the night follows the day, that someone will wonder if that harm cannot only be prevented, but retrospectively put right. This is a noble sentiment, and derives from ancient notions of fairness and justice. Wrongs should not just be identified and prevented from recurring. They should also be put right, what lawyers call restitutive justice. This isn’t just nice to have, it’s the principle upon which a large part (though not necessarily the criminal part) of the law is based. It hasn’t thus far, however, been a significant part of international law.

Slavery in the West, by which I mean the slavery of people captured from West Africa and their export to the Americas, along with the automatic enslavement of their children, was a wrong in itself – of that there can be little doubt, at least if the current principles of morality and justice prevalent in ‘the West’ are to be applied. We are given to understand that ‘so-called Islamic State’ has a different view on the rights and wrongs of slavery, but I don’t propose that it should be given any consideration here. The imprisonment of a person, even temporarily, now has remedies in both criminal and civil law – in the UK at least, where severe penalties, including life imprisonment now exist for ‘Modern Slavery’ with the coming into force of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. To enslave a person is to make him no more than a labour-saving device – by transferring the labour onto him, without choice, and for negligible recompense – and to deny him many of the experiences that make life bearable.

At the same time, it also cannot be denied that huge Western fortunes have been built upon slavery. It is argued that much of the architecture of Regency London is the spoils of slavery. Doubtless, some, maybe including Ntokozo and his friends will be extrapolating that argument to propose that it be torn down, rather as the home of Fred and Rose West had to be demolished, in an attempt to expunge memories of the vileness of their crimes. If we are to avoid such a horror, should we not be acquiescing to the demands for Europe, America and Australia to start paying back some of the advantages that they received from forced labour? It seems, on the face of it, a perfectly reasonable demand.

Except, wait. No one is suggesting that anyone still alive was part of the slave trade, or profited directly from slavery, are they? It isn’t something that can be laid at the door of anyone still living, is it? That’s neither here nor there, it will be said, the white races benefit from their earlier injustices. If they are to be taken seriously when they preach to other cultures about justice and human rights, they should put their money where their respective mouths are, and start counting the cost – and paying it back.

But there’s a telling phrase. The white races. Is that what we mean? The white races? Are they the ones going to be penalised? Because I don’t know if anyone noticed, but since 1807, or at least since 1833, slaves and their descendants have actually become significant portions of the slaving nations. Will the black taxpayers of the US and the UK get a rebate on the reparations that have to be paid out? Will the reparations, in fact, be paid to them? And if so, will it be those who are pure African who get a full rebate, or will smaller portions be available to those many people whose parents are of mixed heritage? But is that fair? Because aren’t those integrated black members of UK society also benefiting from our slaving heritage in a broadly similar way to the white ones? A descendant of a slave is as free to walk down Regent Street as a white aristocrat. And those nations from whence the slaves were taken: what was their loss? Was it the loss of their menfolk which needs to be recompensed, or something more? When Kunta Kinte was lifted from the shores of Gambia, his family and kin were deprived of seeing him grow up, which is a grievous wrong, and one that must be put right. But those who suffered the loss are sadly long gone. No one alive could claim that they suffered any harm whatever from the non-existence of systems of cousins and aunts who never came to be. So to whom is the debt due?

Is the loss in fact that of the slave themselves? This certainly seems the most likely proposal. The slave it was, after all, who laboured for free and received nothing for their toils. The owners it was, who benefited from the work which they would otherwise have to pay people to perform. In addition to this, loss of liberty itself is a recoverable wrong in tort law, and sustained over decades would unquestionably deserve considerable financial recompense. In fact, it is surely the loss of the liberty of the slave which is the one factor of slavery that trumps all others. The fact of remuneration is only one of degree. Slaves had to be maintained, and could not have been charged for their food and lodging. Some free workers in Europe worked for feudal masters who ensured they were fed and lodged but received very little else in return for their labours. This is poverty, it may indeed even be exploitation, but it is not slavery.

Let’s be clear, human bondage is a ghastly thing. The very concept of owning human beings as chattels, and commanding them to do one’s will whatever the cost to them, and irrespective of their will, is sickening to all but the tiniest few in the present world. But it is sickening to us as social beings, and because we know that all humans are, in some sense, us.

We treat animals as slaves. We sit on their backs and ride them, we make them discharge milk for our own nourishment, we eat the food their bodies have prepared for their children, and shave them in the spring so we can make clothes. We own pets without a qualm. We constrain and restrain our cats and dogs and mice and fish without a moment’s moral hesitation. We believe dogs are happiest when with their masters. Those of us who own cats know that they wouldn’t stay around if they weren’t enjoying their lives. To that extent, at least, perhaps we do believe that our restraint of those animals is partly from some kind of limited consent. But it is still true that we consider them to be lesser moral beings than us, and behave towards them accordingly. We lock them in at night, sometimes, perhaps preventing them engaging socially with other pets, and when they reach the end of their lives, with heavy hearts, we take them off for to their chemical ends, with no pricey trips to Zurich involved.

Many think – though I am not one of them – that this treatment too, is deplorable; that we have no right to enslave, imprison and kill animals in the way that we do. A time may come when that opinion can be indulged. Until then, my guess is that the desire for beef, pork, wool, milk and eggs will mean that their freedom will have to wait. In any case, I have little optimism that an outbreak of mass Veganism would lead to the freedom to wander of all of our domestic fauna. Who will let cows graze their fields if the only value of the field is to grow maize or quinoa?

So there is the core, encapsulating horror of slavery, the weeping sore on all of our consciences, whatever our racial descent: Humans, not so long ago, of many, if not all races, were prepared to treat other humans as we now treat animals; in some cultures, indeed, prepared to eat them. In the case of American slavery, it is recent enough that some people alive have family tales of enslaved ancestors only a few generations back. Small wonder that a sense of grievance persists. Small wonder that many feel that the ‘white races’ should pay for their transgression, and their profit. But converting that justifiable sense into an actual, transparent, and equitable payment is hard enough, not just in practice, but, I suspect, in principle. It is certainly not a licence for Ntokozo and his ilk to transform a prized bequest into a birthright.

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