Skip to main content

Forbes Magazine "Contributor"



Tim Worstall



       Tim Worstall Contributor


I'm a Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London, a writer here and there on this and that and strangely, one of the global experts on the metal scandium, one of the rare earths. An odd…full bio ⇒

I write about business and technology.



                              The 9-Year-Old Who Vows To End Child Slavery                    <cite class="box_byline clearfix">Devin ThorpeDevin Thorpe           Contributor</cite>
                              In Mauritania, Modern Day Slavery And Health Inequality                    <cite class="box_byline clearfix">Nicole FisherNicole Fisher           Contributor</cite>
                    Legal Prostitution and Sex Trafficking: From The Annals Of Bad Economic Research                    <cite class="box_byline clearfix">Tim WorstallTim Worstall           Contributor</cite>
                    The Messy Link Between Slave Owners and Modern Management                    <cite class="box_byline clearfix">HBS Working KnowledgeHBS Working Knowledge           Contributor</cite>
Tech 7/26/2013 @ 10:15AM 412 views

We British Would Be Delighted To Accept Reparations For The Slave Trade And Slavery


There’s another attempt afoot to collect reparations for the appalling effects of the slave trade and slavery. This time it’s certain of the Caribbean countries demanding that Britain, Holland and France should cough up compensation for those horrors. The unfortunate point about such attempts to collect money being that actually, in the British case at least, the money should be flowing the other way. To the British, not from them that is. Even the most basic economic analysis proves this so I’m always amused by the repeated attempts to make us pay rather than collect.

Before anyone gets too hot under the collar over this subject yes of course slavery was appalling. A gross denial of the most basic of human rights at the very least and yes, most certainly I’m very glad that chattel slavery has ended (although globally there’s still some way to go on debt bondage). We should also point out, in the interests of historical accuracy, that slavery has not been unusual in past societies. Villeins in feudal Europe were arguably slaves of a kind, serfs in Eastern Europe and Russia undoubtedly were, Anglo Saxon society had out and out slaves. There was a thriving European slave market, that is a market in Europeans being sold as slaves, well into the 15th and 16th centuries too. The transatlantic trade was indeed large, encompassed horrors perhaps greater than those of those European markets, but they are differences of degree, not of kind. When the Vikings held Dublin in the 8 th and 9 th centuries the capture, transportation and sale of human beings was all exactly the same in moral terms as anything that happened off the West African coast. And there was Arab slave trading off the East African coast well into the late 19 th century and there are some who insist very much the same is still happening.

None of the above means that I approve of that transatlantic trade: only that I’m trying to point out that it’s not the only incidence of a slave trade that we have or can examine in historical terms.

But on to the specific case that is being argued today:


Leaders of more than a dozen Caribbean countries are launching a united effort to seek compensation from three European nations for what they say is the lingering legacy of the Atlantic slave trade.

The Caribbean Community, a regional organisation, has taken up the cause of compensation for slavery and the genocide of native peoples and is preparing for what would likely be a drawn-out battle with the governments of Britain, France and the Netherlands.

On the subject of the genocides yes, there is an arguable case. Undoubtedly a wrong was done and perhaps someone should pay as a result. Although quite why the people of today should pay for what the people of four centuries ago did I’m not entirely sure. And if such payments should be made then what do we do about all of the wars and slaughters and genocides that weren’t committed by white Europeans? Are the Maori to cough up for the Moriori? The Caribs for the Arawaks? Aztecs for any number of Central Mexican tribal groupings? For it does have to be said that slaughtering the foreigners was a pretty common feature of the past.

Leaving that aside we come to the question of slavery. Specifically, the argument being made today is that the effects of the past slavery have led to the descendants of said slaves being disadvantaged in current society. Thus the descendants of the slavers should pay up to correct this disadvantage. Leave aside the inter-generational problems of this for a moment. Have a look instead at what the law itself says about such wrongs, such torts.

If I do something which causes damage to you then you can, quite rightly, take me to court and insist that I make up those damages to you. And the standard by which those damages must be calculated is that I must place you in the position which you would have been in without my damaging actions. The judgement is not a punishment for my bad actions (that would be a criminal case) but I should and must pay up compensation to cover, and only cover, the damage I have done. And this is where the problem is in slavery reparations cases.

It is undoubtedly true that those enslaved had harm done to them. But it’s not obvious that their descendants have been harmed by their ancestors’ enslavement. As a very simple example, the standard of living of the descendant of a slave in Barbados (GDP per capita, around $16,000) is very much higher than the standard of living of the descendant of a West African who was not enslaved (Benin, GDP per capita $800 or so). It can indeed be true that the Caribbean societies are unfair, that the positions, social status, incomes, of those slave descendants are lower than those of the non-slave descendants in those same societies (and if we want to be frank about it, yes, it is generally true that blacks are poorer than whites in most of these societies). But this is not the correct comparison to be making. To claim damage today from past slavery it has to be shown that the slavery itself has damaged those descendants. And that means comparing the descendants of the enslaved with those of the not-enslaved. Comparing living standards in the Caribbean with those in West Africa. That’s not a comparison that West Africa is going to win anytime this century so it’s very difficult indeed to see that there are any damages to be coughed up, for there’s been no harm done to this generation (as opposed to the obvious harm done to the generations that were directly enslaved).

Another way of putting this is that as the Caribbean descendants of slaves are richer than the West African descendants of non-slaves then how can giving the Caribbeans more money make up for damages caused by slavery?

There’s also another financial matter here. Yes, most certainly, significant profits were made by slave traders during the period of the transatlantic slave trade. But it’s also true that Britain spent more than those profits on the subsequent attempts to stamp out that same slave trade:


In 1807, the UK became one of the first nations to end its own participation in the slave trade, and went on to lead an international campaign to put a final end to the transatlantic trade, and ultimately slavery itself. Following the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, it was the only nation with the political will, the economic strength, and a Navy strong enough to attempt it.

The Royal Navy has a proud history associated with the abolition of the slave trade and the pursuance of humanitarian rights, playing a significant role in the years following the 1807 Act to abolish the Slave Trade, through active policing and enforcement. This campaign which began in West Africa, lasted well into the 20th century and, by then was worldwide. Between 1807 and 1866, the Royal Navy captured well over 500 slave ships and prevented many more from loading their slave cargo.

The abolition was also very demanding for the sailors enforcing the act; the Royal Navy committed up to 13% of its total manpower to its West Africa squadron, which in one year lost 25% of those serving on the station, mainly to disease. Overall, the nineteenth-century costs of suppression were bigger than the eighteenth-century profits.

Note that last line: the net effect of slavery on the accounts of the UK is negative. The country spent more on enforcing abolition than was ever made from conducting the trade. It does somewhat grate to be asked to pay reparations when one is already out of pocket as a result of having already tried to make good previous actions.

But the real killer to this argument about slavery reparations is that Britain should be the recipient of them, not the payer of them.

Look at the logic actually being used in the original claim. Slavery imposes a cost on those descendants of slavery and thus someone, somewhere, should pay up. Let’s arguendo, accept that. It must therefore be true that the descendants of those not enslaved have benefited from that abolition of slavery. And thus also from the subsequent suppression of the trade by that Royal Navy (with valuable assists from the US as well: it’s less than generally known that the US aided in suppressing the trade from Africa long before the Civil War and the country’s own suppression of slavery itself). That is, if the British are responsible for the bad that has happened to the Caribbeans then Britain must also be responsible for the good that has happened to the West Africans. And given that the costs of suppression were greater than the profits of the activity then the accounting must be that the West Africans owe the British more than the British can possibly owe the Caribbeans.

No, one cannot get around this by pointing out that the West Africans are poorer than the Caribbeans: for to do so takes us back to our starting point of given that the Caribbeans are richer than the descendants of those not enslaved then what damages can possibly be payable?

I have to admit that if the West Africans really do want to pay reparations for the money we spent in crushing the slave trade then I’m sure we Brits will accept it and nobly pass along a cut to the Caribbean nations. But as above, the whole idea seems so absurd once you pursue the logic of it that it’s probably better to just forget the whole matter, isn’t it?









"I'm just trying to make a way out of no way, for my people" -Modejeska Monteith Simpkins









Original Post

Add Reply

Link copied to your clipboard.