Reparations for those who suffered at the hands of slavery

Activists protest in Pretoria against the slave trade in Libya last year. Thousands of Africans, women and children included, trying to get to Europe, are being kidnapped and sold.

The Spanish King who, 500 years ago this month, initiated the policy of selling slave-trading licences to merchant bankers and industrialised slavery by authorising the transportation of slaves direct from Africa to the Americas did not do the world a favour. Instead, King Charles V notched up slavery to an industrial scale and perpetuated the false thinking of racial superiority that still exists today. Of course slavery existed before the Spanish King’s expansionary system.

The system of enslavement preceded the King’s policy – in Greece, Rome and in Africa slavery was used as a tool to subjugate and profit from the sale of people well before the use of sailing ships to transport millions from Africa to the Americas.For 350 years after the policy was initiated, 10.7 million black Africans were transported between the two continents with at least 1.8 million dying en route. Europeans looked at Africans and regarded them as commodities. Like cattle, to be bought, bartered for and to be used for their sexual gratification.

For slaves transported from Africa, the horrors of the slave ships did not end there. After all slaves had no rights and were to be used and even disposed of as desired by the slave masters. Any revolt by slaves against their masters was put down quickly and led to even stricter and more demeaning legislature aimed at further subjugating slaves and intimidation tactics aimed at preventing future uprisings. Perhaps the most famous of these revolts to take place on American soil was the uprising initiated by Nat Turner. Turner, who became a preacher after being allowed to read, write and practice religion, led a sustained slave rebellion in 1831.  His rebellion led to legislation aimed at further oppressing slaves by prohibiting education and movement.

The Amistad rebellion took place on a ship and the trial of the slaves who rebelled was heard in Hartford, Connecticut, federal district court. Slaves on board had revolted against punishment and torture and had taken the ship’s crew captive. When they eventually made it to the United States, a trial began with abolitionists supporting the 36 Africans who had been stolen from their countries. After over 18 months of incarceration in the United States, not to mention the time spent as slaves, the Africans were finally free and abolitionists paid for them to return to Sierra Leone.

The story of Haiti, the first country to be formed by former slaves, is remarkable as it reveals the extent to which colonial France tried to hang on to the colony but also the depths it was willing to plumb to exact vengeance on the Haitians for daring to revolt and to throw out slave and plantation owners. In the end Haiti managed to get its independence from France but at a price that the country is still trying to recover from. In 1825, France recognised Haiti’s independence but only in exchange for an indemnity of 100 million franc, with a repayment period that ended in 1887. This compensation was for the French farmers who had been stripped off their land during the revolt. Haiti had to comply with the repayment or face the equivalent of economic sanctions from France and other countries.

Today, Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the world. The impact of slavery continued for decades after the practice itself was abolished. Slaves from Brazil to the United States were not granted citizenship and could not vote. It would take decades for this battle to be won. The impact of slavery and the notion of racial superiority would spawn the hatred and bigotry associated with racial discrimination. In turn, the civil rights movement in the U.S and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa sprung up to fight the injustices perpetuated by racial discrimination.

Every aspect of life was based on the premise that racial superiority had been behind slavery and was to continue even after it had been abolished. Sport was not an exception. In 1936, Adolf Hitler, reportedly said: “People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games.” Hitler was referring to American athlete Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games held in Nazi Germany. How ironic that Owens, the grandson of former slaves, had proven to be unbeatable at an event that was meant to showcase Aryan superiority.

Hitler apparently refused to meet with or shake hands with Owens after the four victories and if this was where the story ended it would have suited those who advocated for racial divisions. But history tells a different story. Owens and his United States teammates sailed on the SS Manhattan to Europe for the Olympics – the rest of the white team travelled in first class compartments but Owens and other black athletes did not. After his triumph at the Olympics, Owen returned to a segregated America but president Franklin Roosevelt did not congratulate him and neither was he sent an invitation to the White House. Forty years after his remarkable efforts in Berlin, Owens was finally recognised for his Olympic feat, with President Gerald Ford awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In 1990 he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President George Bush senior. The lack of recognition ánd respect for Owens’ achievements was indicative of the racial discrimination that emanated from centuries of slavery. In modern day sport it is unheard of for athletes to travel separately based on their race. Nonetheless discrimination can still be found on the global sporting stage with monkey chants and the throwing of bananas at black sportsmen commonplace at some venues.

500 Years after slavery, the demand for reparations for those who suffered at the hands of slavery continue to grow louder. Randall Robinson, the founder of the Washington based advocacy group TransAfrica wrote in the New York Times that: “The people who largely constructed the early foundations of the American economy were paid not so much as a cent for their unremitting labor. That they had constructed the White House and the Capitol meant little to the nation’s rulers. That American public and private fortunes were rested upon their unremunerated toil meant nothing at all. That Harvard Law School had originally been endowed from the sale of slaves by its founder, Isaac Royall, for example, remains largely unknown to many who have gone there.”

The profit derived from slavery turned countries into colonial powers and reshaped the world. Half a millennium later, there are those who continue to deny that slavery and King Charles V’s policy, is still having an impact on the modern world.

Kuben Chetty is the Regional Political Editor of Independent Media in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa.