In a 2008 biography he wrote of an
antislavery campaigner, Britain’s foreign secretary,
William Hague, described the trade in human beings
as an indefensible barbarity, “brutal, mercenary and
inhumane from its beginning to its end.”
Fourteen Caribbean countries that once sustained
that slave economy now want Mr. Hague to put his
money where his mouth is.
Spurred by a sense of injustice that has lingered for
two centuries, the countries plan to compile an
inventory of the lasting damage they believe they
suffered and then demand an apology and
reparations from the former colonial powers of
Britain, France and the Netherlands.
To present their case, they have hired a firm of
London lawyers that this year won compensation
from Britain for Kenyans who were tortured under
British colonial rule in the 1950s.
Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807, but its
legacy remains. In 2006, Tony Blair, then prime
minister, expressed his “deep sorrow” over the
slave trade; the Dutch social affairs minister,
Lodewijk Asscher, made a similar statement in July.
Britain has already paid compensation over the
abolition of the slave trade once — but to slave
owners, not their victims. Britain transported more
than three million Africans across the Atlantic, and
the impact of the trade was vast. Historians
estimate that, in the Victorian era, between one-fifth
and one-sixth of all wealthy Britons derived at least
some of their fortunes from the slave economy.
Yet the issue of apologies — let alone reparations —
for the actions of long-dead leaders and generals
remains a touchy one all over the globe. Turkey
refuses to take particular responsibility for the mass
deaths of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire, let
alone call the event a genocide, as the French
Parliament has done. It was not until 1995 that
France’s president at the time, Jacques Chirac,
apologized for the crimes against the Jews of the
Vichy government. The current French president,
François Hollande, conceded last year that France’s
treatment of Algeria, its former colony, was “brutal
and unfair.” But he did not go so far as to apologize.
His predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, offered an aid and
debt-cancellation package to Haiti in 2010 while
acknowledging the “wounds of colonization.”
In Britain, in 1997, Mr. Blair described the potato
famine in Ireland in the late 1840s as “something
that still causes pain as we reflect on it today,” but
suffering pain is not the same thing as making a
For some, such comments do not go far enough,
particularly when some European nations, like
postwar Germany, have apologized — the former
chancellor Willy Brandt went to his knees at the
Warsaw Ghetto in 1970 — and paid reparations for
Caribbean nations argue that their brutal past
continues, to some extent, to enslave them today.
“Our constant search and struggle for development
resources is linked directly to the historical inability
of our nations to accumulate wealth from the efforts
of our peoples during slavery and colonialism,” said
Baldwin Spencer, prime minister of Antigua and
Barbuda, in July this year. Reparations, he said,
must be directed toward repairing the damage
inflicted by slavery and racism.
Martyn Day, the senior partner at Leigh Day, the
London law firm acting for the Caribbean countries,
said a case could start next year at the International
Court of Justice in The Hague, a tribunal that
adjudicates legal disputes among states.
“What happened in the Caribbean and West Africa
was so egregious we feel that bringing a case in the
I.C.J. would have a decent chance of success,” Mr.
Day said. “The fact that you were subjugating a
whole class of people in a massively discriminatory
way has no parallel,” he added.
Some Caribbean nations have already begun
assessing the lasting damage they suffered, ranging
from stunted educational and economic
opportunities to dietary and health problems, Mr.
Critics contend that it makes no sense to try to
redress wrongs that reach back through the
centuries, and that Caribbean countries already
receive compensation through development aid.
The legal terrain is not encouraging. Though several
American and British companies have apologized for
links to slavery, efforts by descendants of 19th-
century African-American slaves to seek reparations
from corporations in American courts have so far
come to little. And, unlike the successful case made
in Britain by Kenyans tortured during the Mau Mau
uprising, there are no victims of slavery to present
Even that case was disputed initially by a British
government worried that it would expose itself to
claims from numerous former colonies. And when he
agreed to pay compensation, Mr. Hague insisted this
was not a precedent.
Though Parliament abolished the Atlantic slave
trade in 1807, the law took years to put into effect.
In 1833, Parliament spent £20 million compensating
former slave owners — 40 percent of government
expenditure that year, according to estimates by
Nick Draper of University College, London, who
estimates the present-day value at about $21
Mr. Draper’s work traced recipients of compensation
and showed they included ancestors of the authors
Graham Greene and George Orwell, as well as a very
distant relative of Prime Minister David Cameron.
But the prospects for a modern-day legal case for
reparations by victims are far from clear. Roger
O’Keefe, deputy director of the Lauterpacht Center
for International Law at Cambridge University, said
that “there is not the slightest chance that this case
will get anywhere,” describing it as “an international
He argues that while the Netherlands and Britain
have accepted the court’s jurisdiction in advance,
Britain excluded disputes relating to events arising
“Reparation may be awarded only for what was
internationally unlawful when it was done,” Dr.
O’Keefe said, “and slavery and the slave trade were
not internationally unlawful at the time the colonial
powers engaged in them.”
Even lawyers for the Caribbean countries hint that a
negotiated settlement, achieved through public and
diplomatic pressure, may be their best hope. “We
are saying that, ultimately, historical claims have
been resolved politically — although I think we will
have a good claim in the I.C.J.,” Mr. Day said.
Mr. Hague’s own views add an intriguing dimension.
In his biography of Britain’s most famous
abolitionist, William Wilberforce, Mr. Hague
highlighted many atrocities of slavery, including a
case in 1783 involving a slave ship that ran out of
drinking water, prompting its captain to throw 133
slaves overboard so he could claim insurance for lost
In 2007, on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of
the trade, Mr. Hague spoke of his deep regret over
“an era in which the sale of men, women and
children was carried out lawfully on behalf of this
country, and on such a vast scale that it became a
large and lucrative commercial enterprise.”
But as foreign secretary, Mr. Hague is opposed to
compensation. In a statement, his office said that
while Britain “condemns slavery” and is committed
to eliminating it where it still exists, “we do not see
reparations as the answer.”
In a 2008 biography he wrote of an