Britain was the principal slaving nation of the modern world. In The Empire
Pays Back, a documentary broadcast by Channel 4 on Monday, Robert Beckford called
on the British to take stock of this past. Why, he asked, had Britain made no
apology for African slavery, as it had done for the Irish potato famine? Why
was there no substantial public monument of national contrition equivalent to
Berlin's Holocaust Museum? Why, most crucially, was there no recognition of
how wealth extracted from Africa and Africans made possible the vigour and prosperity
of modern Britain? Was there not a case for Britain to pay reparations to the
descendants of African slaves?
These are timely questions in a summer in which Blair and Bush, their hands
still wet with Iraqi blood, sought to rebrand themselves as the saviours of
Africa. The G8's debt-forgiveness initiative was spun successfully as an act
of western altruism. The generous Massas never bothered to explain that, in
order to benefit, governments must agree to "conditions", which included
allowing profit-making companies to take over public services. This was no gift;
it was what the merchant bankers would call a "debt-for-equity swap",
the equity here being national sovereignty. The sweetest bit of the deal was
that the money owed, already more than repaid in interest, had mostly gone to
buy industrial imports from the west and Japan, and oil from nations who bank
their profits in London and New York. Only in a bookkeeping sense had it ever
left the rich world. No one considered that Africa's debt was trivial compared
to what the west really owes Africa.
Beckford's experts estimated Britain's debt to Africans in the continent and
diaspora to be in the trillions of pounds. While this was a useful benchmark,
its basis was mistaken. Not because it was excessive, but because the real debt
is incalculable. For without Africa and its Caribbean plantation extensions,
the modern world as we know it would not exist.
Profits from slave trading and from sugar, coffee, cotton and tobacco are only
a small part of the story. What mattered was how the pull and push from these
industries transformed western Europe's economies. English banking, insurance,
shipbuilding, wool and cotton manufacture, copper and iron smelting, and the
cities of Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, multiplied in response to the direct
and indirect stimulus of the slave plantations.
Joseph Inikori's masterful book, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in
England, shows how African consumers, free and enslaved, nurtured Britain's
infant manufacturing industry. As Malachy Postlethwayt, the political economist,
candidly put it in 1745: "British trade is a magnificent superstructure
of American commerce and naval power on an African foundation."
In The Great Divergence, Kenneth Pomeranz asked why Europe, rather than China,
made the breakthrough first into a modern industrial economy. To his two answers
- abundant coal and New World colonies - he should have added access to west
Africa. For the colonial Americas were more Africa's creation than Europe's:
before 1800, far more Africans than Europeans crossed the Atlantic. New World
slaves were vital too, strangely enough, for European trade in the east. For
merchants needed precious metals to buy Asian luxuries, returning home with
profits in the form of textiles; only through exchanging these cloths in Africa
for slaves to be sold in the New World could Europe obtain new gold and silver
to keep the system moving. East Indian companies led ultimately to Europe's
domination of Asia and its 19th-century humiliation of China.
Africa not only underpinned Europe's earlier development. Its palm oil, petroleum,
copper, chromium, platinum and in particular gold were and are crucial to the
later world economy. Only South America, at the zenith of its silver mines,
outranks Africa's contribution to the growth of the global bullion supply.
The guinea coin paid homage in its name to the west African origins of one
flood of gold. By this standard, the British pound since 1880 should have been
rechristened the rand, for Britain's prosperity and its currency stability depended
on South Africa's mines. I would wager that a large share of that gold in the
IMF's vaults which was supposed to pay for Africa's debt relief had originally
been stolen from that continent.
There are many who like to blame Africa's weak governments and economies, famines
and disease on its post-1960 leadership. But the fragility of contemporary Africa
is a direct consequence of two centuries of slaving, followed by another of
colonial despotism. Nor was "decolonisation" all it seemed: both Britain
and France attempted to corrupt the whole project of political sovereignty.
It is remarkable that none of those in Britain who talk about African dictatorship
and kleptocracy seem aware that Idi Amin came to power in Uganda through British
covert action, and that Nigeria's generals were supported and manipulated from
1960 onwards in support of Britain's oil interests. It is amusing, too, to find
the Telegraph and the Daily Mail - which just a generation ago supported Ian
Smith's Rhodesia and South African apartheid - now so concerned about human
rights in Zimbabwe. The tragedy of Mugabe and others is that they learned too
well from the British how to govern without real popular consent, and how to
make the law serve ruthless private interest. The real appetite of the west
for democracy in Africa is less than it seems. We talk about the Congo tragedy
without mentioning that it was a British statesman, Alec Douglas-Home, who agreed
with the US president in 1960 that Patrice Lumumba, its elected leader, needed
to "fall into a river of crocodiles".
African slavery and colonialism are not ancient or foreign history; the world
they made is around us in Britain. It is not merely in economic terms that Africa
underpins a modern experience of (white) British privilege. Had Africa's signature
not been visible on the body of the Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes, would
he have been gunned down on a tube at Stockwell? The slight kink of the hair,
his pale beige skin, broadcast something misread by police as foreign danger.
In that sense, his shooting was the twin of the axe murder of Anthony Walker
in Liverpool, and of the more than 100 deaths of black people in mysterious
circumstances while in police, prison or hospital custody since 1969.
This universe of risk, part of the black experience, is the afterlife of slavery.
The reverse of the medal is what WEB DuBois called the "wage of whiteness",
the world of safety, trustworthiness, welcome that those with pale skins take
for granted. The psychology of racism operates even among those who believe
in human equality, shaping unequal outcomes in education, employment, criminal
justice. By its light, such all-white clubs as the G8 continue to meet in comfort.
Early this year, Gordon Brown told journalists in Mozambique that Britain should
stop apologising for colonialism. The truth is, though, that Britain has never
even faced up to the dark side of its imperial history, let alone begun to apologise.
Dr Richard Drayton is a senior lecturer in imperial and extra-European history
since 1500 at Cambridge University. His book The Caribbean and the Making of
the Modern World will be published in 2006.