In 1859 Samuel Wilberforce, whose father led the successful campaign for the abolition of slavery in Britain, revealed his own odd personal philosophy when he told an audience in Cambridge that “England can never be clear of the guilt of her long continued slave trade till Africa is free, civilised and Christian.”

This week, almost 150 years later, the conference on racism in South Africa tabled a motion to demand reparations from mainly Christian European countries for the sins of their slave-trading forefathers. Indeed the same group insisted, at the behest of Muslim countries, that Jewish Israel be condemned as racist.

Have they overlooked that it was Muslim traders who drove the African slave trade and it was European Christian missionaries that put a stop to it? Or that slave trading continues to exist, but it does so mainly in Muslim countries in Africa, where European colonialists have not been seen for 40 years?

So who is going to sue whom? Are we going to act on behalf of Ivory Coast to sue Chad? Notwithstanding the obvious problems with the reparations issue, slavery is alive and well, and, although not public, it still remains part of the economic infrastructure in many countries where bonded labour is only a step above shackles.

Up to the 1870s the huge slave market in Zanzibar was open and flourishing. Some 50,000 slaves were bought and sold each year in Zanzibar under the watchful eye of the local sultan. This trade sickened Anglican and Catholic missionaries, who campaigned vigorously against it.

In 1873, under huge pressure at home from Christian campaigners and influenced by Darwin’s scientific discoveries which changed the tone of humanist debate in England, the British government persuaded the sultan to abandon slavery. Just in case the sultan was not impressed by moral argument, seven British warships anchored themselves off the island.

In the event, gunboat philanthropy worked and slavery was driven underground.

However, because slavery is so profitable, it continues to exist, whether in the fields of Africa and India or the brothels of Europe. Indeed, for a long period, slavery was the cornerstone of a trading arrangement called the Atlantic system, which financed fine buildings in Liverpool, Bristol and London. The Atlantic system emerged from discoveries in the New World which resulted in an explosion in the trade of new goods, foods and medicines. Goods flowed north and people south. Initially the Caribbean was seen as ideal for settlers emigrating from Europe for religious and economic reasons. In 1640 (a decade after the first settlers arrived) the population of Barbados was 30,000 — much greater than Cork at the time.

The Caribbean islands proved to be a hellhole of insects and mosquitoes. Their tobacco and cotton plantations fell foul of tropical weather, and many settlers returned home or headed for the more favourable climate of Georgia and Mississippi. Sugar was one crop that could grow in the Caribbean, but no free man would endure the hardship of harvesting it.

The demand for sugar exploded in tandem with the addiction to the new drinks, tea and coffee. These bitter drinks had to be sweetened for European tastes and sugar did the trick. Unfortunately, sugar was difficult. It was labour-intensive to harvest and the machinery in plantations was expensive to install. But the climate of the Caribbean was perfect for cultivation and as long as there were enough workers, sugar could be processed profitably.

By the late 17th century the native people of the Caribbean had either been killed off by the Spaniards or had died as a result of coming into contact with European diseases. There was no way that even the most destitute European would emigrate to a sugar plantation, so landowners had to look elsewhere for labour.

This is where the Muslims of Africa came in; they helped to round up slaves from the African hinterland and make them available to the British, Dutch, Portuguese and French traders at selected African ports. In all, possibly as many as 10 million souls were transported.

Because the Caribbean was the first port of call to both North and South America, slaves were usually disembarked in Havana, Kingston and Port-au-Prince. The townsfolk of these ports always knew when a slave ship was in port because of the smell, and many ports barred slave ships from docking directly, compelling them to moor in the bay and transport slaves in small boats for the final part of their journey. To lose one slave in every six en route was considered normal.

The Atlantic system was a triangle; the three points were the Caribbean, England and Africa. The slaves toiled in the plantations of the Caribbean producing sugar that generated extraordinary profits. Because the plantations had grown to cover most of the arable land of the islands, some of the sugar was exported to Mississippi and the Carolinas in exchange for food.

Most of the sugar and rum (along with tobacco and cotton) was exported to England, where it was either processed or sold. Goods such as nails, copper pots and cheap fabric were re-exported to the Caribbean. Cash, guns and gunpowder were sent to Africa.

This was used to pay for more slaves, who were then shipped to the Caribbean, completing the triangle. The demand for slaves remained almost insatiable, not because the demand for sugar, cotton, coffee or tobacco rose but because the appalling records show that Caribbean slaves died faster than they reproduced. The system lasted for over two centuries before anyone in enlightened Europe began to question the morality of slavery.

Fastforward to today and we see that the number one backpacker destination in Africa is the medieval city of Zanzibar. With its colonial architecture, the sea breeze coming off the Indian ocean, its spice-trade history and not least its exotic name, Zanzibar is a must see for No Logo travelers on their year out.

The irony is not that these backpackers (with their sometimes holistic, anti-globalisation rhetoric) are marvelling at a city built exclusively on the back of black slaves, but that the demand for cheap and even free labour is still phenomenal.

It will ever be thus. The golden rule of commerce is: if a country can get cheap labour, land or capital, it should flourish. This rule has kept the US motoring for years (despite its present cyclical difficulties) and it was an extreme form of this commercial principle that drove the slave trade.

We all think slavery is abhorrent, but to demand reparations from countries whose citizens were involved in the slave trade seems bizarre, particularly as an even-handed approach would see many African countries suing each other. Who should pay first: Mali, Niger, Mauritania or Sudan?

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