Slavery, Reparation and Restorative Justice

Posted on February 18, 2008

1. Background

Barely two hundred years ago, slavery was common and accepted in the countries of Europe as well as in North America. The hunting ground was, in an overwhelming majority of cases, the African continent. White slave traders, sometimes helped by local Africans, plundered the land for men and women, who were taken away in captivity to work on among other places, plantations, farms and town building projects for white masters in North America, the Caribbean islands and other European colonies.

Slavery and its’ attendant evils rank right at the top of the list on the worst horrors perpetrated by humankind. There are many who believe that the enormity of the crime outweighs the Jewish holocaust and the dropping of the atom bomb. The only comparable evil the world has seen is the persecution of women, the causes of which, however, are very different.

The abolition of slavery took place over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from most parts of the world. “The 1815 Declaration Relative to the Universal Abolition of the Slave Trade 6 (the “1815 Declaration”) was the first international instrument to condemn it. The abolitionist movement began as an effort to stop the Atlantic slave trade and to free slaves in the colonies of European countries and in the United States. A large number of agreements dating from the early nineteenth century, both multilateral and bilateral, contain provisions prohibiting such practices in times of war and peace. It has been estimated that between 1815 and 1957 some 300 international agreements were implemented to suppress slavery. (Weissbrodt & Dottridge, 2002, p. 3)

Greater interest has naturally been taken in American slavery for it was far more extensive and lasted longer. There were many thousands of slave holding families in the US at the time of the civil war. The abolition of slavery divided American society right down the middle and culminated in a great civil war in which thousands of Americans lost their lives.

Slavery has been defined as “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised” (Weissbrodt & Dottridge, 2002, p. 4). Tragically, this “ownership” included the prerogative to behave violently with one’s slaves and it can be said with certainty that the history of slavery in the US would not have been so much of a slur on the white people but for the continuous and horrific violence perpetrated upon the slaves by their white masters.

Even after the formal abolition of slavery, violence continued and even escalated against African-Americans in the US. Lynching, an extreme form of mob violence which took its’ cue from vigilantism and found easy acceptance, was used with telling effect. From the 1880s mob violence reflected white America’s contempt for African-Americans and mob violence became the means of asserting white dominance. African-Americans suffered grievously under lynch law. In addition to lynching of individuals, race riots with blacks as victims happened with periodic ferocity. Furthermore, mobs used especially sadistic tactics when blacks were the prime targets. By the 1890s lynchers “increasingly employed burning, torture, and dismemberment to prolong suffering and excite a ‘festive atmosphere’ among the killers and onlookers. White families brought small children to watch, newspapers carried notices, railroad agents sold excursion tickets to lynching sites, and mobs cut off black victims’ fingers, toes, ears, or genitalia as souvenirs.”(About Lynching, Pg 1)

Incredible as it may appear, extreme forms of violence against African-Americans was commonplace even a century ago and it is easy to understand the emotional scars and disturbed psyches of the Africans and the African Americans.

For most whites slavery is little more than an unpleasant memory of a time gone by. For many Africans and African Americans, however, it remains a festering wound that is kept raw by feelings of oppression and discrimination.

In recent times, there has been much talk of reparation and social justice to recompense for these crimes and to integrate African-Americans with the peoples of the world, to enable them to take their place as people of dignity and respect. “The basic argument is clear as rainwater: Slavery was a crime as horrible as any imaginable. People were tortured, enslaved, and unfairly deprived of the fruits of their labor. They were denied the right to hand down any appreciable assets. And their descendants, who were promised freedom and forty acres, were lynched, segregated, discriminated against, and, in virtually every way, excluded from enjoying the full fruits of freedom, They never got their land. And they only recently have been given the opportunity to earn anything approximating fair compensation. Hence a debt is owed.” (Cose, 2004)

My background as a criminologist and my origins from an ex-slave country prompted me to take up research in the subject area. A number of informative books and articles on the issue, some of which are listed in the bibliography, were available for reference and catalyzed my decision to research the area under discussion in depth. I hope this effort will throw further light on this grievous period of history and enable a deeper understanding of the anguish felt by the millions who have been scarred by these happenings.

2. Definition of Research Question

The vastness of the subject and the scale of the work, already investigated and published in the area, pre-empts the possibility of general research being of specific use. It is essential to establish a particular focus in the area of slavery and reparation.
Violence, physical and emotional, being an intrinsic and important element of the slavery experience, continues to dominate the minds and play upon the psyches of the African-Americans and descendants of erstwhile slaves in other parts of the world. It is thus necessary to try to focus on the best means of reparation, which will largely redress these past hurts and injustices.

There have been many cases of emotional reparation in the recent past concerning people who have been hurt by other communities. The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, apologized to the Irish for the potato famine in the nineteenth century. Pope John Paul II did the same for the Church’s treatment of “heretics” during the Inquisition. Australia continues to apologize for its treatment of the aborigines. In the US, President Clinton has apologized to Hawaiians for the overthrow of their Queen a century ago. Apologies and reparations have been given to the Japanese- Americans, who were placed under detention after Pearl Harbor.

In this context, what sort of reparation will be relevant for the African- Americans in the US? Martin Luther King gave an interview to Playboy magazine in 1965, during the course of which he said, “Can any fair-minded citizen deny that the Negro has been deprived? Few people reflect that, for two centuries, the Negro was enslaved and robbed of any wages – potential accrued wealth which would have been the legacy of his descendants. All of America’s wealth today could not adequately compensate its Negroes for his centuries of exploitation and humiliation.” (Cose, 2004) Others feel that an apology for slavery is mindless mush. Slavery finally is not something where a simple apology makes any sense.

Those who advocate a formal apology believe that such a step would have an ameliorating effect upon race relations, but many others sharply disagree. Professor Thomas Sewell writes, “First of all, slavery is not something like stepping on someone’s toe accidentally, where you can say excuse me.” If the people who actually enslaved their fellow human beings were alive today, hanging would be too good for them. If an apology would make no sense coming from those who were personally guilty, what sense does it make for someone else to apologize … today?'” (Parker, 2000, p. 18)

The Research Question can thus be defined as follows:

• “What will be the most suitable form of emotional and material reparation which will alleviate the traumas being faced by descendants of slaves and achieve a significant disconnect with the history of violence embedded in their psyches?” Along with this, two subsidiary questions will need to be investigated.

• “Who should be responsible for giving the reparation, citizens, companies or state?”
• “How will the reparation be used to benefit the sufferers? Education, benefits, status?”

3. Research Methodology

The Research Methodology will necessarily focus on the study and analysis of the origin, consolidation, propagation and abolition of slavery in the US, the regions where its practice was prevalent and the companies, communities and individuals who have benefited most from the practice.

The harm inflicted on the African-American community will need to be investigated with respect to numbers affected and atrocities committed, pre and post the abolition of slavery. While it is an accepted fact that documented records of atrocities are incomplete to a great extent, the available material, interpreted properly should also throw up some relevant insights into the issue.

The research assignment will also need to focus on the reparation being demanded and being given internationally to other affected communities, namely the Jews of Europe, the Indians in the US, the Irish in the UK, the other castes in India and the aboriginals in Australia as well as recent international thoughts and agreements on the issue.
There is substantial literature available on the subject, some of which have been listed in the bibliography. Statistical data is available from state records for perusal and analysis. It is also proposed to take interviews with a number of people (at least a hundred) with connections ancestral connections to slavery, descendants of slaveholders and slaves. These interviews will necessarily have structured questions, most of which will be open-ended to facilitate qualitative answers.

Too many problems are not expected in the assignment, as a significant amount of data will be available from printed literature and governmental archives. Interviews with white and Afro-American respondents will need a certain amount of search and co-ordination but co-operation should be forthcoming, especially after they are informed of the purpose of the research.

Standard project monitoring tools and simple software will ensure the meeting of planned completion targets and scheduled presentation of the thesis.

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