Sunday, February 21, 2016


[Part 2 will come next month, March 2016.]

There has been a lot of talk recently about reparations for slavery. It is not of course the first time this has been brought up. I recall sometime in the mid-1980s there was a newspaper article about African-American Congressmen raising the issue of reparations. I was on a subway train seated behind two black women, one of whom had the paper opened to that article. She asked the other what she thought about this. Her friend replied, “I don’t know nothing about no slavery. My family was never slaves. We were always free. I got nothing to do with that.” She seemed quite indignant that anyone would associate her or her family with that demoralizing institution. As I recall, that was the end of their conversation on that.

The original hope for reparations was the forty acres and a mule that every freed slave was supposed to get. That never got done. In general, I don’t think there is such a thing as historical justice. The only true justice would be to have prevented the original injustice from happening or to have made a correction very soon after it happened. Once you pass a certain point, justice is a fantasy. But a semblance of it might be worth going after, if only as an acknowledgment that past injustices continue to reverberate into the future.

We forget that British colonies went through this with Aborigines (and, I believe, are still going through it in places like Australia, though I don’t know enough about current proceedings there). Humanitarians had pointed out that colonial wealth was built on stealing land from the original proprietors. Some argued that it would be only right if, say, ten percent of this wealth went back to the natives. That idea never picked up steam. The greed that demanded we take everything from Aborigines was too stingy to allow even a small percent to go back to the first inhabitants.

In testimony before the House of Commons Select Committee on Aborigines in the mid-1830s, one minister thought the best compensation we could offer would be to bring them Christianity and the benefits of western civilization. This would be a fair recompense for the land we took. One member of the Committee pointed out that this was the only compensation we could afford.

Meanwhile, some money was set aside to help new immigrants settle in Australia, but almost nothing went to help the displaced natives. They were very stingy about how they allocated funds. The problem with asking for reparations (which I fully agree with, despite its problems) is that we are asking this of a society that has never acknowledged the extreme greed that led to slavery and colonization in the first place. The dominant culture from the beginning has wanted it all and has been unwilling to share or give up even a small piece of the wealth to be had.

Yet we ask this culture to be more sharing now. What are the chances of success as long as our society refuses to acknowledge how deep are the tentacles of greediness in all that we do?

I don’t think that most 19th century abolitionists ever thought about reparations. They conceived that once slavery was abolished, freedom was the only reparation necessary and white people could wash their hands of it, as Thomas Huxley once put it (which I will get to in a bit).

I don’t see any signs that Charles Darwin thought about a continuing need to address injustice. One slight exception is from his Beagle Diary where he commented, “The Chilean authorities are now performing an act of justice by making retribution to these poor Indians, by giving to each Cacique twelve quadras of land …” This is not at all typical of Darwin’s sentiments, not to mention that it seems almost perverse that he would pick out one case of some justice being attempted, while ignoring the innumerable instances of dispossessing natives without any attempt at compensation.

More typical of Darwin are the following comments from his Diary. Just a couple of months after the above remark, Darwin notes how poor one group of Indians is and writes, “I really think a boats crew with the Spanish flag might take the island of Chiloe.” He can make this observation despite the notorious reputation the Spanish empire had. In the same month, he indifferently observes that many islands in South America are unpopulated: “I should suppose the tribe has become extinct; one step to the final extermination of the Indian race in S. America.”

Then there is this: In Argentina, as General Rosas led a campaign of genocidal slaughter, Darwin opines, “If this warfare is successful, that is if all the Indians are butchered, a grand extent of country will be gained for the production of cattle: & the vallies [of various rivers] will be most productive in corn.” A month earlier, he had written, “The war of extermination, although carried on with the most shocking barbarity, will certainly produce great benefits.” Sad to say, it is thoughts like these which Darwin expresses most often.

These remarks were eliminated from the published version of his Diary. But in the published Journal, he made the same point in a more sophisticated way. On the removal of all the Tasmanian Aborigines from their land, Darwin said, “Van Diemen’s Land enjoys the great advantage of being free from a native population.” He called it a “most cruel step” but “quite unavoidable.”

One advantage of complete extermination is that the invaders/colonizers will never have to think about paying reparations to the descendants because there won’t be any descendants. Darwin and many of his contemporaries believed that extermination of indigenous peoples was inevitable. There were many reasons for believing in this inevitability, which I discuss in my book (perhaps available in a few months). One was just this—that it would obviate the need, even the very question of, reparations. I cannot be sure which person believed in which reasons, since there was such a complex at work here, and so in Darwin’s case, I don’t know all his reasons for believing in the inevitable doom facing Aborigines everywhere, but it is possible that getting rid of any claim for reparations was one of them.

The humanitarians of the age insisted on some reparations. Even more, they were capable of arguing that anyone who believed in the inevitable extermination of any human population was himself a barbarian. In essence, this supposed law of inevitability was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or as Herman Merivale, a professor at Oxford, put it in 1841 or 1842, this was an imaginary law; he identified Darwin as one of those who supported this imaginary law. Another Englishman called the extermination of Aborigines a national crime, the perpetrators of which should be punished.

When I started this post, I had no idea of how long it was going to be. I am going to leave the beauty part of reparations for next month’s post. I will bring up John Locke, Saxe Bannister, and Granville Sharp for the sublimity of their thoughts that rights are never forgotten.

Since I mentioned Huxley above, I should conclude this post by presenting his thoughts on the matter of what, if anything, was due ex-slaves. His answer was basically nothing. Like Darwin and their friend Joseph Hooker, Huxley was an abolitionist. But all three held strong racist beliefs.

At the end of the American Civil War, Huxley was glad that slavery had finally been defeated in the west. He was not hopeful about the future for former slaves. Their own inferiority would keep them down. In a lecture, he stated that there were “good grounds for repudiating half the arguments which have been employed by the winning side,” that is, by those fighting to end slavery. What bothered him most was the argument of equality between the races: “no rational man, cognisant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the average white man.” Whatever happens to the Negro from here on in, “all responsibility for the result will henceforward lie between nature and him. The white man may wash his hands of it, and the Caucasian conscience be void of reproach forever more.” This was “the real justification for the abolition policy”—that is, to give us a clean conscience.

Obviously, there is no room here for anything like reparations. A philosophy that worked against any idea of reparations was built into the system of emancipation from its inception. There must have been some guilt over what slavery had accomplished, otherwise emphasizing a clean conscience would not have been voiced. This clean conscience enabled them to pretend that slavery and colonization had not created disadvantages for ex-slaves and ex-colonial subjects. We are still pretending.

Would Darwin have agreed with Huxley? Most likely, yes, but I have no specific evidence to prove that. He opposed slavery primarily, perhaps exclusively, for one reason—for its enormous cruelties, including the breaking up of slave families. It was not economic injustice that concerned him or even social inequality. He always believed that social inequality was a good thing. He was opposed to trade unions and cooperative societies because they seemed to him to work against the principle of competition; they tried to make everyone too equal. In New Zealand, he noted with some disappointment that slaves and their owners did not always observe the formalities of class distinctions. A slave should not know cruelty, but he should know his social place. I doubt that Darwin would have been concerned with reparations for former slaves, most of whom were now part of the class of poor people, a group that did not concern Darwin very much.

© 2106 Leon Zitzer