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Enough of aid – let’s talk reparations

Colonialism is one of those things you’re not supposed to discuss in polite company — at least not north of the Mediterranean. Most people feel uncomfortable about it, and would rather pretend it didn’t happen.

In fact, that appears to be the official position. In the mainstream narrative of international development peddled by institutions like the World Bank and the UK’s Department for International Development, the history of colonialism is routinely erased. According to the official story, developing countries are poor because of their own internal problems, while western countries are rich because they worked hard, and upheld the right values and policies. And because the west happens to be further ahead, its countries generously reach out across the chasm to give “aid” to the rest — just a little something to help them along.

If colonialism is ever acknowledged, it’s to say that it was not a crime, but rather a benefit to the colonised — a leg up the development ladder.

But the historical record tells a very different story, and that opens up difficult questions about another topic that Europeans prefer to avoid: reparations. No matter how much they try, however, this topic resurfaces over and over again. Recently, after a debate at the Oxford Union, Indian MP Shashi Tharoor’s powerful case for reparations went viral, attracting more than 3 million views on YouTube. Clearly the issue is hitting a nerve.

A photo taken on May 8, 2015, shows a piece entitled "Slave Chain with Four Yokes" from the Dexue voodoo convent in Adounko, Benin, dating from the 19th century at the Memorial ACTe, the Caribbean Centre of Expression and Memory of Slavery and the Slave Trade, in Point-a-Pitre. (AFP / Nicolas Derne)
A sculpture from the Dexue voodoo convent in Adounko, Benin, dating from the 19th century at the Memorial ACTe, the Caribbean Centre of Expression and Memory of Slavery and the Slave Trade in Pointe-a-Pitre, May 8, 2015. (AFP / Nicolas Derne)

The reparations debate is threatening because it completely upends the usual narrative of development. It suggests that poverty in the global south is not a natural phenomenon, but has been actively created. And it casts western countries in the role not of benefactors, but of plunderers.

When it comes to the colonial legacy, some of the facts are almost too shocking to comprehend. When Europeans arrived in what is now Latin America in 1492, the region may have been inhabited by between 50 million and 100 million indigenous people. By the mid-1600s, their population was slashed to about 3.5 million. The vast majority succumbed to foreign disease and many were slaughtered, died of slavery or starved to death after being kicked off their land. It was like the Holocaust seven times over.

What were the Europeans after? Silver was a big part of it. Between 1503 and 1660, 16 million kilograms of silver were shipped to Europe, amounting to three times the total European reserves of the metal. By the early 1800s, a total of 100 million kilograms of silver had been drained from the veins of Latin America and pumped into the European economy, providing much of the capital for the industrial revolution. To get a sense for the scale of this wealth, consider this thought experiment: if 100 million kilograms of silver was invested in 1800 at 5% interest — the historical average — it would amount to £110 trillion ($165 trillion) today. An unimaginable sum.

Europeans slaked their need for labour in the colonies — in the mines and on the plantations — not only by enslaving indigenous Americans but also by shipping slaves across the Atlantic from Africa. Up to 15 million of them. In the North American colonies alone, Europeans extracted an estimated 222 505 049 hours of forced labour from African slaves between 1619 and 1865. Valued at the US minimum wage, with a modest rate of interest, that’s worth $97 trillion — more than the entire global GDP.

Right now, 14 Caribbean nations are in the process of suing Britain for slavery reparations. They point out that when Britain abolished slavery in 1834 it compensated not the slaves but rather the owners of slaves, to the tune of £20 million, the equivalent of £200 billion today. Perhaps they will demand reparations equivalent to this figure, but it is conservative: it reflects only the price of the slaves, and tells us nothing of the total value they produced during their lifetimes, nor of the trauma they endured, nor of the hundreds of thousands of slaves who worked and died during the centuries before 1834.

These numbers tell only a small part of the story, but they do help us imagine the scale of the value that flowed from the Americas and Africa into European coffers after 1492.

Then there is India. When the British seized control of India, they completely reorganised the agricultural system, destroying traditional subsistence practices to make way for cash crops for export to Europe. As a result of British interventions, up to 29 million Indians died of famine during the last few decades of the 19th century in what historian Mike Davis calls the “late Victorian holocaust”. Laid head to foot, their corpses would stretch the length of England 85 times over. And this happened while India was exporting an unprecedented amount of food, up to 10 million tons a year.

British colonisers also set out to transform India into a captive market for British goods. To do that, they had to destroy India’s impressive indigenous industries. Before the British arrived, India commanded 27% of the world economy, according to economist Angus Maddison. By the time they left, India’s share had been cut to just 3%. The same thing happened to China. After the Opium Wars, when Britain invaded China and forced open its borders to British goods on unequal terms, China’s share of the world economy dwindled from 35% to an all-time low of 7%.

Meanwhile, Europeans increased their share of global GDP from 20% to 60% during the colonial period. Europe didn’t develop the colonies. The colonies developed Europe.

And we haven’t even begun to touch the scramble for Africa. In the Congo, to cite just one brief example, as historian Adam Hochschild recounts in his haunting book King Leopold’s Ghost, Belgium’s lust for ivory and rubber killed some 10 million Congolese — roughly half the country’s population. The wealth gleaned from that plunder was siphoned back to Belgium to fund beautiful stately architecture and impressive public works, including arches and parks and railway stations — all the markers of development that adorn Brussels today, the bejewelled headquarters of the European Union.

We could go on. It is tempting to see this as just a list of crimes, but it is much more than that. These snippets hint at the contours of a world economic system that was designed over hundreds of years to enrich a small portion of humanity at the expense of the vast majority.

This history makes the narrative of international development seem a bit absurd, and even outright false. Frankie Boyle got it right: “Even our charity is essentially patronising. Give a man a fish and he can eat for a day. Give him a fishing rod and he can feed himself. Alternatively, don’t poison the fishing waters, abduct his great-grandparents into slavery, then turn up 400 years later on your gap year talking a lot of shite about fish.”

We can’t put a price on the suffering wrought by colonialism. And there is not enough money in the world to compensate for the damage it inflicted. We can, however, stop talking about charity, and instead acknowledge the debt that the west owes to the rest of the world. Even more importantly, we can work to quash the colonial instinct whenever it rears its ugly head, as it is doing right now in the form of land grabs, illicit financial extraction, and unfair trade deals.

Shashi Tharoor argued for a reparations payment of only £1 — a token acknowledgement of historical fact. That might not do much to assuage the continued suffering of those whose countries have been ravaged by the colonial encounter. But at least it would set the story straight, and put us on a path towards rebalancing the global economy.


  • Having spent the first half of his life in Swaziland, Jason earned a doctorate at the University of Virginia and now holds a fellowship at the London School of Economics. His research focuses on development, globalisation and labor, with an emphasis on Southern Africa. He lives in constant fear of being sniffed out for his counter-revolutionary penchant for bourgeois wine and jazz. Follow him on Twitter @jasonhickel.


  1. Khaya Khaya 7 December 2015

    Wishful thinking. Do you honestly think your future grandkids would be willing to pay for your sins? Let’s be real now.

  2. 1Zoo1 1Zoo1 7 December 2015

    I disagree. Those days are past, we learn from them. That’s all.

    Otherwise give reparations but cut all aid and ask for it back. Cut all trade deals and let those countries fight for trade routes etc.

    Let them stand on their own two feet, and only their own two feet. Maybe that’s what’s needed? No more aid, no more charity. You fail, its your fault now.

  3. Treveshan Pather Treveshan Pather 7 December 2015

    Check your privilege Marty. Your racist attitude is exactly what the author means by ignoring colonialism. The mismanagement of state resources or the theft of your valuable “stuff”, isn’t the fault of the historically oppressed majority, it’s the work of a greedy minority.

  4. Paul Bluewater Paul Bluewater 7 December 2015

    ….and Genghis Khan, Nero, William TC, get real……everyone was enslaved at one point in our very long history and domineering nature.

    Should the English sue the Italians over their enslavement under Rome? Should England sue Morocco because the Moors took thousands off the Cornish coast to fill galleys and harems? Should England sue Scandinavia for the Viking conquests?


    Also, the African and Arabs are at least equally responsible for the slave trade. There are 29 million slaves today according to AI, do they get reparations?
    No, just the european whiteys should pay, because they are the ones who invested their ancestors spoils more carefully….yeah right.

  5. Sankara Sankara 7 December 2015

    Marty I would like to know the “payment” you are talking about because if it is tax, we all pay it and in fact you can go to any country in the world you’ll need to pay tax.

  6. Richard Richard 8 December 2015

    The analysis here is woefully lacking. Take the example of India. If India was indeed responsible for so much of the world’s GDP before British colonisation (how Islamic colonisation had changed it is not discussed), how do we know it was colonisation per se that reduced it? Britain’s soaring economy made many other non-colonised countries’ economies smaller too, by comparison, because of the industrial revolution. The Indian example cited is the work of one economist, not exactly generally accepted, either.

    African slaves were sold by Africans. The people to be sued are the people who deprived them of their freedom, that is to say, the Africans who sold them. They sold them to others, too, not only to Europeans. And Europeans were also enslaved, by the African Barbary Pirates, to the tune of about one and half million people. Should they be compensated as well? How about Bantu-speaking black Africans who decimated the indigenous Bushman population in southern Africa? Should the Bushmen be compensated for the land stolen from them in this manner? How about the people enslaved by Shaka?

    These diversions are simply Leftist ways of trying to hide the failure of post-independence African states, and desperately looking for somebody to blame. Europe did not invent slavery, and Africans were very willing participants. You will also know the resistance Britain faced from Africans and others when it outlawed the slave-trade if you move from ideology to reading sources from the times. History as polemic is just that: polemic.

  7. Green advocator Green advocator 8 December 2015

    The problem when people start looking at those that caused their suffering will end up with them getting use to playing the victim all the time. When will the line be drawn? Will our future generations into the next couple of millennium still be paying for what our ancestors did in the 17th and 18th century? and how many times do we have to “teach a man to fish” before they actually get that charity has a time limit?

  8. Dr Who Dr Who 8 December 2015

    Why only Western nations, and what about going back to time immemorial, why an arbitrary date of 1492 or indeed any other date which fits the sphere of Western influence? The Arabs, Chinese, Japanese, Jews, and many others would and also should face the same reckoning based on the argument proffered here perhaps not to as a great extent but in the interest of fairness it has to be done. This articles smacks of vicarious victim mentality and ignores the complicity of local populations in the plundering of resources by colonial powers. Interesting hypothesis – one can debate ad infinitum about the degree of culpability but it’s time to cast off the chains of victim and slave chain mentality. The world today is a lot more complicated than it was at the beginning of the 20th century let alone 5 centuries ago.

  9. martin martin 8 December 2015

    Colonialism is nothing new.
    Mankind is programmed for conquest of the weak by the strong – especially in terms of intellect.
    Get used to it, it’s here to stay.

  10. realROZZANO realROZZANO 8 December 2015

    “when you’re accustomed to Priviledge, Equality feels like Oppression” Nice article Jason Hickel, Truth is a sour pill to swallow!

  11. Marty Marty 8 December 2015

    you must start paying first

  12. paulcrowle paulcrowle 8 December 2015

    for some people everything is someone else’s fault
    try taking responsibility for yourself

  13. Alan Dean Foster Alan Dean Foster 8 December 2015

    Jason: read Jared Diamond’s award-winning “Guns, Germs, and Steel”.

  14. c waterbury c waterbury 8 December 2015

    Excellent comment. Oh and my distant relatives in Virginia had their farm confiscated and then destroyed by the British in 1781. Surely there must be someone I can sue for some free money!?!? I’ll send the Queen a letter and update everyone on my progress.

  15. Fred Basset Fred Basset 8 December 2015

    Yeah? What do you have to say about the ‘theft’ already perpetrated by China on Africa and the bigger one still to come all with the blessing of various African leaders and, of course, the enrichment of their pockets. A different, more subtle type of colonialism?

  16. Marty Marty 8 December 2015

    Yes but in other countries like – let’s say Norway – tax contribution is firstly by 95 % of the population unlike here and it is used to make a difference and improvements.

  17. Fred Basset Fred Basset 8 December 2015

    Spain was just returning to ‘normal’ after seven centuries of arab occupation just as they embarked for the other side of the puddle.

    I also liked “When Europeans arrived in what is now Latin America in 1492, the region may have been inhabited by between 50 million and 100 million indigenous people” Nobody has any idea, even today, of what that number was and speculations vary greatly depending of the different ‘interested’ parties. The same applies to North America and Asia.

  18. DavyH DavyH 9 December 2015

    That has to be one of the least perceptive comments I have ever read, considering we live in a de facto socialist state where social benefits are more or less denied to those who actually fund the programme.

  19. ian shaw ian shaw 9 December 2015

    Read the Old Testament as to what happened in Jericho after the jews conquered it.

  20. 1Zoo1 1Zoo1 9 December 2015

    Some of my ancestors were destroyed in battle with the British, lost everything to them – about 600 years ago. I don’t want any reparations, why should I get rewarded for my families failure to fight better?

    Given our economic situation though, I don’t want reparations but a British passport might be just the ticket…

  21. aMan Bloom aMan Bloom 9 December 2015

    Though I sympathize with the intent of the article and claim no allegiance to the colonizers, and denigrate the inhumanity, I’m thinking that some of these thoughts require deeper penetration. Among them: (1) so-called precious metals had little real value in first nation economies; their ‘value’ was created by a financial system that used their rarity, technical qualities and exterior uses, so in reality whatever they were worth in Europe was many times their worth back home. No? (2) Where does reparation end? Should Britain be looking for reparation from Rome? What does Germany owe the Jews/Gypsies? Arab slave traders…Etc. (3) Is it governments that owe reparation, or the commercial and financial interests that promoted exploitation? And the role of religion… Just asking…

  22. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 9 December 2015

    Who do I speak to about getting repatriations from the Vikings and the Romans? I have no idea if any of my family were ever targeted by them, but this sounds like a lovely bandwagon to get onto. Maybe we can go back further and I can sue Africa for their hominids being more successful than the Neanderthals and wiping them out?

    The reality is that we could take every cent from the ‘rich’ and give it to the ‘poor’ and it wouldn’t make an iota of difference. Within 10 years, the money would be back with the ‘rich’ and the ‘poor’ would be poor again (well, except for the ‘leaders’ who would all have chalets in Switzerland). If throwing money at the problem actually worked, all those billions of aid dollars would have made a difference. They haven’t. It isn’t about money at all.

  23. Richard Richard 9 December 2015

    “The 10,000 Year Explosion” is a much better analysis, based on science, rather than ideology and polemic. Jared Diamond’s approach to this and other issues is ideological.

  24. Sankara Sankara 9 December 2015

    Let us be realistic. Comparing SA to developed nations is useless and it creates unnecessary expectations. We are a developing nation with a limited tax base. We rely heavily on the people who were privileged by the old regime because the majority is still finding its feet

  25. RodB RodB 9 December 2015

    Getting the people of today to pay for the sins of their father, grandfathers and great-grandfathers is the same as bunging Joe soap into prison today or fining him and giving him a criminal record because his great grandfather nicked a coat from a shop.

  26. Rory Short Rory Short 9 December 2015

    Very well put.

  27. Rory Short Rory Short 9 December 2015

    As is usually the case. Colonialism was driven by an elite.

  28. Rory Short Rory Short 9 December 2015

    Historically humans have been exploiters of both natural resources and other people. It would be great if we could change our ways with respect to other people at least and nurture one and other instead then we would all flourish.

  29. Marty Marty 11 December 2015

    The rest had better roll up their sleeves as well – I see hrs times ahead under the rudderless direction of zuma

  30. Barb Eh Barb Eh 11 December 2015

    This is the most perceptive comment here. Let’s look ahead and limit looking back to some period of time (say the time we should have known better and done better, or agreed to do better – League of Nations, 1920, with its parceling of the world?), while never forgetting and respecting past treaties and laws. Take Vietnam: when we spent three weeks in Vietnam, I was amazed at how little the average people we met could get over the French colonialist period that ended less than a lifespan ago and even less the apparent “getting-over” of American bombings and betrayal. While far from perfect and with a brand of communism that is certainly not ‘to each according to their needs and from each according to their abilities’, it is a country that has achieved considerably more growth than one might expect from a country so destroyed by successive wars. And the one country Vietnam (and Russia, Mongolia… and others) fear is China, playing the long game.

  31. Marty Marty 13 December 2015

    Ironic statement Trev – you seem to have Conveniently forgotten about the Shaiks, Guptas et al ( current greedy minority )

  32. MrK001 MrK001 15 December 2015

    ” It is quite simple to notice that African students would not be
    complaining about decolonising universities had there not been
    colonisation, for there wouldn’t be any universities… ”

    Smug nonsense. And how do you know that? Do you know anything about African history at all? Do you know that these very letters, all alphabets, are based on African writing – Hieroglyphs? There were monastries and Christians in Egypt and the Sudan long before there were any in Roman era Europe. In fact the early history of Christianity occurred in Egypt. There were schools and universities in West Africa long before Columbus showed up.

  33. Waxfoot Waxfoot 18 December 2015

    But this does not fit well with the `decolonisation`narrative, Pierre, so will be rejected with extreme prejudice.

    This is the nub of knee-jerk anti-Western dogma: historical revisionism that feeds some nebulous idea of pan-African nationalism.

  34. Pierre Aycard Pierre Aycard 18 December 2015

    You’re right. And I would add that this narrative is based on the very same racialist assumptions as colonization, therefore it is a prolonging of colonial ideologies and systems, rather than an anti- or post-colonial narrative…

  35. Richard Richard 4 January 2016

    Africans slaves were sold by Africans. Slavery was a normal practice in Africa, and in many areas was what sustained their economies. If you want to see theft, look no further than what blacks did when invading southern Africa and stealing the land from the Bushmen, in order to graze their cattle. Genocide, is the term I have heard used. Genocide by black Africans of the indigenous Bushmen on this whole subcontinent in the service of the greed of the Bantu-speakers from the Great Lakes area. That is what history is all about, winners and losers, killers and the killed.

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