It’s difficult to insist that someone should pay, now, reparations for what an ancestor did a few hundred years ago. All sounds rather Biblical, going over the seven generations.
But even if we are to insist that the guilt is indeed genetic – becoming rather not Biblical at this point, as if we’re talking about the genetic responsibility of the Joos for killing Our Lord, a part of Christian history that we’d do well not to repeat – it is still necessary to show that those past actions hurt someone now.
Sure, slavery definitely hurt those enslaved. Sugar plantations were not nice places. Imports of slaves were deliberately highly male skewed as no one – near no one, perhaps the Codringtons – tried to grow the next generation. Instead, import a mostly male labour force then work it to death, import another lot 8 years later. This is not an exaggeration either. That was the base practice on the sugar islands. As it was also in those areas of the US (Louisiana perhaps) that grew sugar, not cotton – where the sex ratio was more equal and thus children more common, to the point of a natural increase in the population, not a continual import of more. This does even reverberate down the generations in marriage practices.
An entirely foul part of history.
But, here’s the thing, who has it harmed today? For if reparations are to be paid there must be someone who has been harmed, who the reparations can and should be paid to. So, who?
Last week, leading figures in the Caribbean Reparations Commission (Caricom) described the Drax Hall plantation as a “killing field” and a “crime scene” from the tens of thousands of African slaves who died there in terrible conditions between 1640 and 1836. The Draxes also owned a slave plantation in Jamaica which they sold in the 18th century.
Sir Hilary Beckles, a prominent Barbadian historian of slavery, said Drax must acknowledge the wealth brought to the family by slavery. “If Richard Drax was in front of me now, I would say: ‘Mr Drax, the people of Barbados and Jamaica are entitled to reparatory justice.’”
Beckles, the chair of Caricom and the vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies, said: “Today, when I drive through the Drax Hall land and its environs, I feel a keen sense of being in a massive killing field with unmarked cemeteries. Sugar and Black Death went hand in glove. Black life mattered only to make millionaires of English enslavers and the Drax family did it longer than any other elite family.”
Agreed that it was appalling. But why does that mean you get cash? Have you been harmed by this?
Actually, no, you haven’t. In fact, Barbadans today have been hugely enriched by that appallingness of slavery in the past.
That’s the GDP per capita for Barbados as compared to Ghana – a likely source of much of that slave population.
Add one more fact:
Let us now go back to a more conventionally stated conclusion. First and most important, with only one or two circumstances, GDP per capita and income inequality of country of residence, or simply with country dummy variables,
we are able to account for more than half of the variability
in personal percentile incomes around the world (in only
one formulation is R2 just marginally less than half).
Where you’re born is the greatest single determinant of your income over your life. Being born in Barbados, now, makes you hugely, vastly, richer than someone born in Ghana. Or, as people don’t like to agree, the descendants of slaves of West African origin are hugely better off than the descendants of non-slaves of West African origin. Slavery, in the current generation, benefits people alive now.
What damn reparations?