Should Arab countries pay reparations for the slave trade too?

Fourteen countries of the Caribbean are seeking reparations from three European nations for the slave trade. While the British responsibility for the Trans-Atlantic trade rightly remains high on the agenda, perhaps there are other countries which should b

The decision of the 14 countries of the Caribbean to engage British lawyers to seek reparations from three European nations for the slave trade has made the headlines. In June the Caricom leaders voted to pursue a claim against Britain, the Netherlands and France.

The firm they have engaged, Leigh Day and Company, had just won compensation for elderly Kenyans who were caught up in the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950’s. As the Guardian reported, Caribbean officials have not mentioned a compensation figure but they noted that at the time of emancipation in 1834 London paid £20m to British planters in the Caribbean, the equivalent of £200bn today.

"Our ancestors got nothing," Verene Shepherd, chairwoman of the national reparations commission in Jamaica said. "They got their freedom and they were told 'Go develop yourselves'." While it is still unclear what the legal claim involves, some are thinking in terms of very large settlements.

The pending action raises a number of questions. For a start one could ask why the United States is not included in the list, since the cotton plantations of the South clearly benefitted from the trade in human lives.

But the issue is far wider. Why is the proposed claim focussing only on the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and only on the past? The role of what is today the Arab world is of far greater antiquity and continues to this day.

In February 2003 a UNESCO Conference on “Arab-Led Slavery of Africans” was held in Johannesburg. The Conference’s final communiqué condemned slavery in all its forms, but went on to declare that “the Arab-led slave trade of African people predates the Trans-Atlantic slave trade by a millennium, and represents the largest and, in time, longest involuntary removal of any indigenous people in the history of humanity.” Since then a silence has descended on the debate.

Professor Robert O Collins, a historian at the University of California, presented a paper describing the transportation of Nubian slaves down the Nile to Egypt as early as 2900 BC.  He says that raids on African communities continued for the next five thousand years.

Leaving aside some of the deeds of antiquity, and drawing on the works of other scholars, Collins concludes that some 12,580,000 slaves were exported from Africa between 800 AD and 1900. This was the human traffic that was taken across the Sahara, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The Sultan of Zanzibar continued the trade until 1873, when the British navy intervened to end all slavery by sea, although the practice continued on the Sultan’s plantations in East Africa.

Collins points out that: “The historic obsession with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the Americas has often obscured the trade to Asia and slavery within Africa.” One look at the UNESCO website on slavery indicates that this bias has not diminished. 

What is far more worrying is the almost total silence from the African Union, the United Nations and almost all other international bodies about the continuing scandal of modern Africa slavery.

A report into the practice in Sudan carried out by Anti-Slavery International (established in 1839 and the world’s oldest human rights organisation) in 2001 spoke of “thousands” of Africans being held in conditions of servitude. The Sudanese authorities bridled at the term ‘slavery’ being applied to their condition. But the report contained interviews with men and women who had been abducted at gunpoint and forced to work for their masters for years on end in the most brutal conditions.

Anti-Slavery concluded by quoting from their statement to the United Nations in 2000. “When women and children have been abducted, whether in the course of civil war or as a result of longer term conflict between different communities, and subsequently forced to work, or forced to marry, in the community where they are held captive, their treatment constitutes an abuse under terms of the UN's conventions on slavery."

Nor is Sudan alone. In Niger, Mali and Mauritania, Anti-Slavery believes the condition is perpetuated as what it describes as ‘descent based slavery’. The organisation says that this is the result of strict caste systems, which place people at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. “Typically people born into slavery are not allowed to own land or inherit property, are denied an education and are not able to marry outside of the slave caste. Any children born are automatically considered ‘property’ of the masters and can be given away as gifts or wedding presents.”

In theory, Mauritania banned slavery in 2007 – the last country in the world to do so. Since then just one person has been successfully prosecuted for owning another human being. Attempts to campaign against the practice have met with repression and campaigners jailed.

Terrible as the consequences of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade have been, and heavy as the British responsibility undoubtedly remains to this day, they should not blind us to responsibility of the Arab community  - both for the past and for the present.

Shackles for slave children on display at the New York Historical Society. Photo: Getty

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt