You are here

Bondage, Business, and Blood Debt: The Case for Slavery Reparations

Irrespective of the amount of time that has passed since the official abolition of the slave trade, the debt incurred by slavers remains due and must be paid.

Michael Brooks

Issue #70, October 2004


Scarred back of foster father of Addy Turner (1796-1856)
Scarred back of foster father of Addy Turner (1796-1856),
an American slave originally from Angola.
Courtesy of:


I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life; so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat...I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me.
— Olaudah Equiano, recounting the Middle Passage

The destruction wrought by centuries of the human trafficking of native Africans is a historical legacy that cannot be denied, though some might minimize the plight of slaves, and others attempt to wash their hands of any guilt. Tens of millions of human souls were transported from their homes in Africa under appalling conditions to lives of servitude in the Americas. However, neither the descendants of these slaves nor the societies from which enslaved Africans were expropriated have been compensated for the massive losses caused by the Atlantic slave trade. Even the short-lived "forty acres and a mule" edict issued by Union General Sherman in 1865 was quickly reversed by the actions of President Andrew Johnson. Irrespective of the amount of time that has passed since the official abolition of the slave trade, the debt incurred by slavers remains due and must be paid.

One of the most troubling questions with regard to slave reparations involves the difficulty in deciding on the beneficiaries of any proposed reparations. To simply offer cash to any person who can claim slave ancestors might produce some undesirable results. For example, should a Donald Trump or Bill Gates discover an enslaved ancestor in their respective family trees, would these oligarchs then be entitled to some form of reparation, or would their skin color preclude them from collecting any funds? What level of "whiteness" or "blackness," or what level of income, would be the dividing point between being eligible and not eligible? In addition, the potential for entrepreneurs to exploit the altruistic intentions of slave reparation legislation should could potentially be problematic, and should be evaluated.

The modern phenomena of Native American groups and their links to casinos comes to mind; big-money interests have aligned themselves with Amerindians in order to profit from government efforts to redress the wrongs of neo-European westward expansion in the 16th to 19th centuries. In downtown Detroit, for example, casino interests and representatives from seven tribes convinced the state of Michigan to create petite urban "reservations" for the sole purpose of erecting casinos. The Greektown casino, 90% of which is owned by the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa Indians, is actually a converted warehouse, and total reservation real estate is a mere 75,000 square feet. While the Sault Chippewa derive financial benefit from their casino interests, one cannot help but question the efficacy of a system that simultaneously excludes other indigenous groups, such as the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, who have been shut out from cashing in on casinos. Finally, can such a system of reparations, which largely draws its revenue from working class gamblers, really exact restitution from the groups that benefited from race-based exploitation?

The answer to this dilemma could be found in identifying particular groups and geographic locales that continue to suffer from the cumulative effects of centuries of slavery. Rather than trying to target deserving individuals, reparations should be extended to impoverished neighborhoods in predominately African-American, low-income urban areas and rural counties; the same could hold true for such communities throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. In addition, the African nations that occupy the regions most heavily devastated by the harvesting of humans in the 15th to 19th centuries could also be the beneficiaries of reparations.

Previous legislative attempts in the US to redress the centuries of forced labor have not been successful, as elite interests have repeatedly used race to divide the working class and generate grass-roots opposition to reparations proposals. Congress debated over nine bills in 1890 that sought - via federal pensions - to compensate former slaves, but this legislation failed to win sufficient support from Southern Democrats to become law. Activists attempted to use another avenue of redress, the United Nations, in a 1962 petition that sought to put international pressure on the US to pay slavery reparations. More recently, Massachusetts state Senator William Owens introduced legislation in 1989 that would compel the state to establish a reparations mechanism. Detroit Congressman John Conyers has attempted to use his position on the House Judiciary Committee to push for a federal study that will examine the issue of slave reparations, but his annual reintroduction has never cleared the Committee.

Equally difficult in the evaluation of the merits of such legislation is the determination of parties responsible for paying slavery reparations. Given the fact that the last nation to abolish slavery, Brazil, did so in 1888, there are no longer any living, culpable persons from whom damages could be demanded. Additionally, many of the corporations and organizations that facilitated the slave trade may no longer exist in a legally binding sense.

The solution lies in identifying those nations whose citizens and economies demonstrably profited from the trade. The coastal slave trader in what is now modern-day Benin eked out a living selling Africans into slavery, and the average senhor of a Brazilian engenho wrested a fairly comfortable lifestyle in comparison with that of his slaves, but the vast majority of the dividends of bondage were enjoyed by shareholders in such entities as the WIC (Dutch West India Company) and the French Compagnie des Indies, as well as the principals of international banking houses. These corporations sought to meet the American demand for cheap labor, which Ira Berlin referred to as "the relentless engine of plantation agriculture." Researchers have identified a number of multinationals that have profited from (or purchased firms that profited from) the slave trade. Included among the modern benefactors of forced labor are Aetna, JP Morgan Chase, Lloyd's of London, and Fleet Boston. Additionally, the western European nations most directly involved in the slave trade, along with the United States, should foot the vast majority of the bill for reparations, since the wealth of these nations has been derived, to a substantive extent, from the unpaid labor of millions of African slaves. Finally, the Vatican bears some financial responsibility for issuing the stamp of papal approval to the notion that slavery could be justified if it involved the prisoners of a "just war:"

We grant to you [Kings of Spain and Portugal] by these present documents with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property...and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery.

The exact nature of any proposed reparations is yet another thorny issue that needs to be addressed. Rather than an over-simplified payment scheme to descendents of slaves, reparations should be directed towards both needy communities and socially desirable projects. For example, investments into the school systems and hospitals of predominately African areas would pay much greater long-term benefits than a lump-sum distribution to slave descendants. The financing of much-needed modernization projects, such as water systems, transportation networks, or electrification plans would also help citizens in underdeveloped African nations achieve a higher standard of living and, in some way, compensate for the forced removal of millions of productive Africans from regional economies over the previous five centuries.

Slave pen image from Library of Congress website
Slave pen image from Library of Congress website

The argument for reparations, fortunately, does not lack for historical evidence in its justification for belated action. The above image of the slave pen captures both the brutality of the institution and the economic foundations of the practice. The viewer must confront the appalling conditions into which human beings were herded and housed, as well as the forces of capitalist ideology that drove slave traders into committing and rationalizing acts of utter inhumanity. The narrative of former slave Thomas Hall illustrates this duality of cruelty and profit. Hall argued that the only purpose that slave owners would permit any form of slave matrimony was "to raise more slaves in the same sense and for the same purpose as stock raisers raise horses and mules, that is, for work." Slave women who proved particularly fertile had tremendous profit potential; Hall noted that such a woman would "bring a good price on the auction block."

The seeming incalculability of millions of stolen lives and billions of unpaid hours of labor must not preclude justice from achieving fruition. The nations of Western Europe and the United States owe a significant portion of their enormous wealth to the mostly nameless, faceless African souls who were sacrificed at the altar of capital; the debt of blood is still outstanding, and the passing of time does not somehow bring about a diachronic discharge of this due balance.

When not agitating for the overthrow of the American corporatocracy, Michael Brooks is a graduate assistant in the history department at the University of Toledo. His work has appeared in numerous local and regional publications, and he is currently working on a book that examines the historical effects of social class on the spread of infectious disease.

Copyright © 2004 by Michael Brooks. Images as credited in article. All rights reserved.