Columns

Anatomy of slavery and reparations

Franklin JOHNSTON

Friday, March 28, 2014    

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IT is time to deconstruct slavery. We must peel the onion layer by layer and examine each without the hype and emotion.

New World slavery was the first global, cutting-edge enterprise — Europe's banking, manufacture, finance, insurance, shipbuilding. Yet men were sold as slaves in Africa and Jamaica, not Europe. Slavery was the model for commodities trading — buy and sell by specs, divert cargo on the high seas, no need to see the goods. A lot of evil was done, but to personalise slavery as "race hate" perverts history and blurs our insight. The enterprise spanned four continents, major nations, and here — the 17th century New World Logistics Hub under Henry Morgan — was the 19th century node of a global triangular trade. The slave trade was risky, exciting, but did not get you entry to exclusive club "Boodles"; owning a plantation did. Reparations came to mind when I examined MSS in the Public Records Office.

I learnt about slavery beyond the insipid local armed struggle and Wilberforce's crafting a weak political solution. I was flippin' angry that Africans traded my Dad for "brass bands, tobacco and beads" — what? Coloured beads? Not even a rifle? An outrage! Sue them! Life is still cheap there. The slave trade was distinct from slavery; both began randomly for Europe, but were a way of life in Africa. We do not have the nous to move slavery from tearful diatribe to cogent analysis, despite Eric Williams' Capitalism and Slavery. Today, barbarity reigns in Jamaica. They rape kids, slash throats, gut women, and hack men into pieces. This makes slavery look good. So weep for yourself, not your ancestors. The slavery chronicles need scholarship as Africa has not told its side of the story.

New World slavery was not social, political, tribal or God punishing black people, it was business. Europe and Africa did not invest to watch men squirm. Europeans worked Tainos to extinction and, while Africa was not their first choice, they found men with a devalued sense of self as substitutes. Europe could not buy men in China or India, but in Africa men were on sale. Slavery went viral when cane farmers' demand for workers exceeded the normal supply of men; prices rocketed. Caboceers — native slave traders — made super margins, so "let's trawl the next village and steal some men!" The rest is history. The slave trade and slavery had different investor profiles. Let's unbundle them.

Trade is a willing buyer engaging a willing seller. The English buyer and African seller were not slavers per se, they were traders; they sold anything. The slave trade was high risk-high gain; an adrenalin rush to some investors. Slaves were a premium — a poor risk profile, short shelf life, disease, injury, robbers; A rapid stock turn given the time value of money. Who in Europe bought goods to trade in Africa? Who in Africa traded people for goods? Who were the investors in Africa and England? Sea captains were fast-talking men who attracted rabid investors. Royals were involved, merchants, MPs, captains and crew, even widows. Just as today's stock market, no investor saw product or factory (did you visit the Salada factory before you bought shares yesterday?), the deal was the thing. The slave trader was a seaman adventurer doing business with likeminded land-based Africans. The captain and the caboceer were united in cash. Ponzi schemes existed long before Carlo Pietro Ponzi and captains exaggerated profits and oversold to entice investors. Will Africans tell us caboceers did the same thing to fund raids on villages? Write the history damn you!

The English slave trader was usually a seafarer and entrepreneur using leased ships and investor's cash. The captain risked his life — ocean, pirates, disease, mutinous crew. In Africa he bought broken people; the French or Spanish might steal his cargo at sea; some died; others were decanted overboard to escape pirates. Caboceers caught or bought people to fill the warehouses. Do you worry that the elephants in the z oo are not happy? Same difference! The trade in fabrics, beads, guns, ammunition, animals, salt, metals, cotton, pots, pans, and people was good. The seafarer made big profit, big loss and some died — high risk. Caboceers profited and lost lives too? What of slavery?

New World slavery was to farm sugar cane. The farming was tedious, the factories cutting-edge; sugar and rum had strong demand, but you could lose given the long wait for a crop. Farming and manufacture is not trade. Farm work varies for planting, crop care, reaping, and despite slave theory, no one cuts cane all year. Reaping and factoring time was short, intense; planting relaxed; crop care easier. In Europe many fought slavery by writing, protest and in Parliament. Will they be excluded from reparations? As today, there was no such activism against slavery in Africa. Why not? Should all Africa pay reparations?

I once thought reparations meant those paid should return their immoral gains. Who should pay? Should those who paid Africa cash for a man pay again? Is the original sinner the African who caught your ancestor? The captain who sold him to a cane farmer within six weeks? The investor (English and African), who sought profit? The cane farmer who used slaves for years? One prime target should be Africans who caught our ancestors and abridged their freedom. This is original sin! Repent! I don't want money, but may accept "mea culpas". Their kids must know truth. The second target is the English trader — his Christian faith condemns him — he knew it was morally wrong. Every English ship's flag to fly at half-staff; a major monument to Africans lost at sea in Bristol, London, every slave port and on the 4th plinth in Trafalgar Square. Or will you trade a race's dignity for cash? Do not allow them to say, "Shut up nigger you took the cash in 2015!" I want slavery seared into Europe's conscience like the Holocaust numbers; monuments down Pall Mall, Buckingham Palace, stately homes "to the nameless Africans who built this land!" Selah!

We need economic scholarship to deconstruct slavery and its the bleeding heart history — slaves in chains and on auction blocks. Don't screw up your kids. Invent a cathartic video game "Ultimate Slave Trader" with ships, lazer spears and have fun. Don't let history freak you out; make money from it, innovate! No European said, "let's invest cash, go to Africa to jerk-up a few black people". Caboceers chasing men for sale through the jungle were not having fun. Africa was the epicentre of slavery — trans-Sahara, Indian Ocean, trans-Atlantic, and their domestic type; up to today! Why Africa? God only knows!

We need research to fathom slavery, but the Africans say nothing so we should help them. UWI needs a Chair in Slavery and Diaspora Studies (African, Chinese, Indian, Jamaican); professors from business, not bleeding hearts. I am all cried out. What's Africa's take on slavery, reparations? Can their oil tycoons, rich entertainers, the diaspora endow a Chair? Most African historians are white; no black writes Europe's history; go figure! "Up you mighty race!" Stay conscious, my friend!

Dr Franklin Johnston is a strategist, project manager and advises the minister of education. Comments: franklinjohnstontoo@gmail.com

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