Ross Clark

Banned Wagon | 9 November 2002

A weekly survey of the things our rulers want to prohibit

Text settings

One of my wife's ancestors was consumed by cannibals in the South Seas in the mid-18th century. I don't think the government of Tonga, or wherever the meal took place, would be terribly impressed if a lawsuit arrived on its desk demanding reparations.

If you are descended from a black American slave, on the other hand, it may well be worth your while dropping a line to the city authorities in Chicago where a law has just been passed demanding that any company seeking a contract from the city will have to declare any profits that they may have made from owning, insuring or trading in slaves. They now face having to pay levies to the survivors of slaves - no matter that the recipients themselves will never have known forced labour.

Chicago's move is but the tip of a global industry in slavery reparations. A body called the African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission has demanded that the West pay $777 trillion in compensation to the descendants of black slaves. 'We feel the figure is very fair,' says its co-chairperson Debra Kofie, although others have pointed out that such a sum would swallow the entire GDP of the West's richest nine nations for the next 52 years.

In fact, no amount of reparations to the descendants of slaves would be fair, for the simple reason that most have benefited from their ancestors' misfortune in that they have ended up living in rich Western nations. It is the descendants of black Africans who were not sold into slavery, and so have remained in Africa, who are now the disadvantaged. The West could make a lot of difference to poor Africans, not by attempting to put right misdeeds of two centuries ago, but by abolishing the subsidies and trade barriers that prevent their selling agricultural produce to the West. But, as Western leaders have long discovered, it is easier to make magnanimous gestures regarding wrongs of distant history than to admit to the injustices of the present.