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Tomgram: Greg Grandin, The Reparations of History, Paid and Unpaid

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: What a pleasure to have two writers I admire at this site at once!  TomDispatch regular Adam Hochschild, who has written powerfully on European depredations in Africa (King Leopold's Ghost), the abolition of the transnational slave system in the British Empire (Bury the Chains), and most recently, the war that launched modern global warfare (To End All Wars), introduces today's offering by Greg Grandin.  His new book, The Empire of Necessity, is, according to Toni Morrison, "scholarship at its best."  She calls Grandin's "deft penetration into the marrow of the slave industry... compelling, brilliant, and necessary."  Just the other day, I recommended several books as possible additions to the bookshelves of TomDispatch readers.  Here are two authors whose many books should fill those shelves. As I can testify, they both prove that fine narrative history can keep you reading into the wee hours -- and leave you sleep-deprived but satisfied in the morning. Tom]

When Americans think about slavery, we think about the Civil War, cotton plantations in Georgia, and the legacy that those centuries of bondage left in the United States. But we forget that, 200 years ago, the institution in various forms extended throughout the world: hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indian peasants were in debt bondage to landowners, indigenous slavery was widespread in Africa, and most people in Russia were serfs.

No slaves suffered more, however, than those who were force-marched to the African coast and, if they survived, transported in the packed, suffocating holds of sailing vessels across the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. Here, too, we forget that it was not just to the United States that these ships brought their human cargo.  Far greater numbers of captive Africans in chains were shipped to the West Indies and to Latin America, especially Brazil. There, and in the Caribbean, the tropical climate and its diseases made field labor particularly harsh and the death rate especially high. At one time or another, however, slaves could be found almost everywhere in the Americas where Europeans had settled, from Quebec to Chile.

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Slavery was the cornerstone of the modern world in more ways than we can imagine today. The structure of banking, insurance, and credit that underlies international commerce, for instance, has its origins, at least in part, in the "triangle trade": slaves being transported from Africa to the Americas; slave-cultivated products like cotton and sugar traveling from the Americas to Europe; and trading goods meant to buy yet more slaves moving from Europe to Africa. Because a voyage on any leg of that triangle might last months and risked shipwreck, bankers, merchants, and ship owners wanted systems that both guaranteed payment for losses and protected their investments.   

Historian Greg Grandin is the author of remarkable -- and highly readable -- books like National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist Fordlandia and his most recent work, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World. Today, he vividly suggests just how the bodies of slaves became something on which our world was built, zeroing in on one connection that we seldom think about -- the development of modern medicine. Adam Hochschild

The Bleached Bones of the Dead
What the Modern World Owes Slavery (It's More Than Back Wages)
By Greg Grandin

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Many in the United States were outraged by the remarks of conservative evangelical preacher Pat Robertson, who blamed Haiti's catastrophic 2010 earthquake on Haitians for selling their souls to Satan. Bodies were still being pulled from the rubble -- as many as 300,000 died -- when Robertson went on TV and gave his viewing audience a little history lesson: the Haitians had been "under the heel of the French" but they "got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.' True story. And so, the devil said, 'OK, it's a deal.'"

A supremely callous example of right-wing idiocy? Absolutely. Yet in his own kooky way, Robertson was also onto something. Haitians did, in fact, swear a pact with the devil for their freedom. Only Beelzebub arrived smelling not of sulfur, but of Parisian cologne. 

Haitian slaves began to throw off the "heel of the French" in 1791, when they rose up and, after bitter years of fighting, eventually declared themselves free. Their French masters, however, refused to accept Haitian independence. The island, after all, had been an extremely profitable sugar producer, and so Paris offered Haiti a choice: compensate slave owners for lost property -- their slaves (that is, themselves) -- or face its imperial wrath. The fledgling nation was forced to finance this payout with usurious loans from French banks. As late as 1940, 80% of the government budget was still going to service this debt.

In the on-again, off-again debate that has taken place in the United States over the years about paying reparations for slavery, opponents of the idea insist that there is no precedent for such a proposal. But there is. It's just that what was being paid was reparations-in-reverse, which has a venerable pedigree. After the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the U.S., London reimbursed southern planters more than a million dollars for having encouraged their slaves to run away in wartime. Within the United Kingdom, the British government also paid a small fortune to British slave owners, including the ancestors of Britain's current Prime Minister, David Cameron, to compensate for abolition (which Adam Hochschild calculated in his 2005 book Bury the Chains to be "an amount equal to roughly 40% of the national budget then, and to about $2.2 billion today").

Advocates of reparations -- made to the descendants of enslaved peoples, not to their owners -- tend to calculate the amount due based on the negative impact of slavery. They want to redress either unpaid wages during the slave period or injustices that took place after formal abolition (including debt servitude and exclusion from the benefits extended to the white working class by the New Deal). According to one estimate, for instance, 222,505,049 hours of forced labor were performed by slaves between 1619 and 1865, when slavery was ended. Compounded at interest and calculated in today's currency, this adds up to trillions of dollars.

But back pay is, in reality, the least of it. The modern world owes its very existence to slavery.

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Voyage of the Blind

Consider, for example, the way the advancement of medical knowledge was paid for with the lives of slaves.

The death rate on the trans-Atlantic voyage to the New World was staggeringly high. Slave ships, however, were more than floating tombs. They were floating laboratories, offering researchers a chance to examine the course of diseases in fairly controlled, quarantined environments.  Doctors and medical researchers could take advantage of high mortality rates to identify a bewildering number of symptoms, classify them into diseases, and hypothesize about their causes.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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