Brewers Greene King is to make a ‘substantial investment to benefit the BAME community’ to make up for the compensation paid to its founder after slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833. Lloyds of London has made a similar announcement.
The underlying assumption is that everyone classified today as black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) descended from a victim of slavery. No such assumption can be made by anyone whose mind is open to the facts of the historical record. At the very least, the truth is more nuanced, and in full daylight we can see that portraying all BAME people as victims can only be sustained by ignoring vast swathes of evidence from numerous academic studies.
Some people of African descent will find that their ancestors were on the wrong side of history. Some of today’s well-educated, middle-class campaigners are the offspring of parents or grandparents who came here from African countries. Overwhelmingly the first generation of African immigrants, especially from the West coast, belonged to elite families who in the past would often have owned slaves.
The facts have been readily available for a very long time. Evidence from numerous anthropological studies carried out in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been collected and summarised in Women and Slavery in Africa (1997) edited by Claire C. Robertson, professor of history at Ohio State University and Martin A. Klein, professor of history at the University of Toronto.
They found that there were three main African slave markets. On the West coast, Europeans took slaves to the Americas and took roughly two men for every woman. On the East coast, traders were often Arabs who took mainly female slaves. The internal market was probably the largest and usually involved women and children. If one tribe defeated another in battle, the victors often killed the men and enslaved the women and children. However, in some areas male slaves were more highly valued. On the Zaire river, for example, men were needed as canoe paddlers, whereas the women were kept for food production.
In the African internal market, women usually commanded a higher price than men. In Cameroon, for instance, from the 1860s to the 1890s, twice as much was paid for women as for men. Individuals came to be slaves in a variety of ways. Some were captured in war, but others became slaves as a result of debt foreclosure, and others because of kidnapping, notably along the Zaire river. In East Africa, some tribes were notorious slave raiders. While the Abyssinians raided other African countries and carried away slaves until the early twentieth century. The Tutsi regularly took slaves from the Hutu in modern-day Rwanda, a lingering grievance that flared up in the 1990s in Rwanda and in Burundi.
Many slave owners were women. Slaves were required to carry out work which allowed wealthy women to be more productive. Iyalode Efunsetan was a female trader in Nigeria with 500 slaves. Madam Yoko, a chief in the Kpa-Mende (in modern-day Sierra Leone), had numerous slaves in the 1880s to work her farms and provide domestic labour. These were elite women, but in some societies non-elite women had slaves. Among the Ga and Baule of West Africa ordinary women often had slaves.
In America, there were a considerable number of black slave owners. It has been estimated that one-third of ‘free persons of colour’ in New Orleans were slave owners and that thousands fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Black slave owners were also found in the Caribbean, though in smaller numbers.
The book Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters describes eighteenth century Algiers when newly captured European slaves were paraded through the town and jeered at by locals. Some were captured at sea but there were also raids on coastal towns around the Mediterranean. Algerian pirates captured 350 British ships between 1672 and 1682 and enslaved those on board. Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters estimates that from 1500 to 1800 at least half a million Europeans were enslaved by North African pirates. Many European countries, and for a time the USA, paid tribute to Algerian rulers to be exempt from raids.
Long after slavery had been abolished in the British Empire, some European slaves were still being sold in Egypt in the 1870s. An Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1877 specifically prohibited trading in white, Sudanese and Abyssinian slaves.
So the assumption of today’s campaigners that slavery always involved white owners and black victims is plain wrong. This interpretation is often driven by those whose strategy for gaining political support is to portray ethnic minorities as victims of white oppression. Yet in the UK, is it not the case that most who are prepared to work hard have a good chance of success? If so, real victimhood can be hard to come by. So instead, people who have suffered no discrimination can effectively claim victimhood by pointing to the suffering of other people over a hundred years ago. Greene King and Lloyds have fallen for the ‘victimhood without suffering’ strategy, but no one else should.
We should forget race, which is after all an utterly trivial aspect of each of us, and focus on who is not flourishing in society, regardless of their ethnicity, and ask how we can help, whether in our private lives or through public policies. That way we can ensure social solidarity based on mutual sympathy, as opposed to the solidarity of sectarian racial division that relies on stirring up animosity towards other ethnic groups.
David Green is Director of Civitas