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.