In Dark Ghost of the EmpireKris Manjapra puts aside the many myths that surround the historical facts of the emancipation of African peoples and makes a compelling contribution to the evidence base for reparations.
As Manjapra puts it: “Five hundred years of racial slavery have branded people of African descent as devoid of human worth. He stripped them of their personal and family names, erased their kinship ties, and put a market price on them as atomized pieces of human property.
“Slavery engulfed millions of Africans in the bellies of ships, counted and inventoried them, transported them across the seas and spat them out in slave markets across the Americas and Europe.
“It was an incalculably traumatic system of genocide, tearing families apart and alienating people from their own sense of self; forcing them to rebuild life, joy and family again and again. Slavery constituted a centuries-old war against the African peoples. And the emancipations – the acts intended to end slavery – only prolonged the war in time.
Indeed, there is a powerful argument that the legacy of slavery did not end with formal acts of emancipation and continues to reverberate around the world to this day.
It is not just the Black Lives Matter movement calling for racial justice in the United States and elsewhere that we can highlight, but the lasting damage and economic marginalization suffered by descendants of slaves in other former slave colonies. .
Manjapra’s powerful history puts him at the forefront of those who argue for a serious attempt at reparations.
Uprisings and revolutions
He comes to this conclusion by telling the story of slave rebellions in the Caribbean, such as the example of Santo Domingo, now known as Haiti.
This is the western part of the island of Hispaniola, and it was purchased from Spain in the 17th century by the French, who expanded and intensified the slave plantation systems there until hundreds of sugar mills operate across the country.
In addition to sugar, European demand has increased for “nutrients, intoxicants and other chemical compounds from distant lands”. In the 1770s, the author tells us, “Saint-Domingue had more than 800 sugar plantations, 2,000 coffee plantations and 700 cotton plantations.
“It produced about 40% of all the sugar and 60% of all the coffee circulating in the whole of the Atlantic economy, more sugar per year than all the sugar colonies of Britain combined.
“The island’s production of sugar, cocoa and coffee generates more than a quarter of France’s annual income. The wealth of Paris, Bordeaux, Nantes and Marseille came from the accumulated wealth of this slavery.
Unsurprisingly, discontent grew among the slaves as the economy devoured large numbers of African lives and eviscerated the ecology in a frantic quest for greater production. Only 40,000 white owners kept hundreds of thousands of slaves, who were subjected to whipping, torture and other horrors.
There had been a number of uprisings before, but it was Toussaint Louverture in 1793 who led a revolutionary army of African insurgents into the capital, Port-au-Prince, at the time of the French Revolution.
The French governor panicked and hastily declared the abolition of slavery in hopes of suppressing the uprising and averting invasion by competing European powers.
Compensate slave owners
But the hasty abolition was far from the end of the story. Haiti obtained its independence in 1804, but it was not until 1825 that it was recognized by France, and only on the condition that the country pay “reparations” of 150 million francs to the former owners of slaves.
The New York Times estimated that paying this “debt” and associated interest cost Haiti $21 billion over time, locking the country into a cycle of impoverishment and underdevelopment. It took until 1947 for Haiti to finally repay all associated interest, which had been transferred to the National City Bank of New York (now Citibank).
While white abolitionists tended to decry plans for the direct re-enslavement of Haiti, they failed to acknowledge and denounce the indirect ways in which anti-blackness was reconfigured by France’s insistence on a program of compensation for slave owners.
But France was not the only slave nation to link emancipation to compensation for slave owners. Britain did just that too.
Manjapra, writing in the UK Guardian newspaper, recounts how, following a freedom of information request, the British Treasury revealed that in 1833 “Britain used £20 million, 40% of its national budget, to buy the freedom of all slaves in the Empire.The amount of money borrowed for the Abolition of Slavery Act was so large (equivalent to over £300 billion today) that it was only repaid in 2015. Which means living British citizens helped pay to end the slave trade.
This gigantic sum of money was not paid to the victims of slavery, the slaves themselves, but to the perpetrators (the slaveholders).
Manjapra adds: “Other slave states, including France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Brazil, would follow the British example of compensated emancipation in the decades to come. But the compensation Britain paid to its slaveholders was by far the most generous. Britain stood out among European states for its willingness to appease slave owners and to impose on future generations of its citizens the responsibility to pay for it.
Judgment day must come
In the United States, too, true freedom for slaves was seen as a distant ambition rather than a realistic short-term goal, even by abolitionists in the most liberal northern states.
Clarify how the early years of post-Civil War history in the United States shaped this country’s attitude toward race and blackness, Dark Ghost of the Empire illustrates how the injustices of the past affect the present.
Manjapra recounts how the American Civil War is so often seen as the fight against the ruthless slaveholders of the Southern plantations by the abolitionists of the North. But the abolitionists of the North, under the “heroic” leadership of Abraham Lincoln, had a somewhat disappointing vision of emancipation.
For Lincoln and others, the whole issue of freeing African slaves was best seen as a gradual movement toward eventual freedom rather than an overnight break from the shackles of black bondage.
The same goes for virtually every European country, which has long clung to the benefits of slavery and delayed the judgment that many, including Manjapra, believe one day must come.