Dr. Kwame Nantambu

Question of Apology for Slavery: Global View
Posted: June 15, 2001
By Dr Kwame Nantambu

When in June 1997, Rep. Tony Hall, a Dayton, Ohio Democrat, proposed a national apology by the U.S. government for slavery, mixed public response and/or reaction followed together with some skepticism as to the apology's real intent. For his part, President Clinton has not only put the slavery apology question under consideration but has also adamantly opposed any compensation/reparations for the descendants of those slaves, viz, African-Americans.

Let's now put the institution of slavery in its proper historical context in order to get a more appropriate handle as to exactly who should apologize for this global inhumanity to man.

The first slaves were brought to Portugal in 1441 and this traffic and trade in gold, pepper and ivory, were so lucrative that Castilian (Spanish) sailors began to follow the Portuguese lead in 1453 along the west coast of Africa in search of slaves and financial wealth. It was to overt the danger of fierce competition and possibly war between these two European global powers (Spain and Portugal) that Papal sanction was sought for a Portuguese monopoly. And so it was that on 8 January 1455, the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Nicholas V, issued a Papal Bull titled Romanus Pontifex in which he authorized the Portuguese "to subject to servitude, all infidel peoples". In another Papal Bull, Inter Caetera issued on 13 March 1456, Pope Nicholas V "granted to Prince Henry, as Grand Master, of the Order of Christ in Portugal, all lands (and peoples) discovered or conquered form Cape Bojafor, in Africa, to and including the Indies."

Moreover, on 25 September 1493, when Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) set sail on his second voyage on behalf of the Spanish Crown, he took twelve missionaries along with him "to preach Christianity to the natives of the lands discovered" and by this tactic he assured that the conquered people would "make good Christians and good servants (slaves)".

In 1515, Bartdomé de Las Casas, Roman Catholic Priest of Chiapas in Mexico, suggested to the Spanish Crown "the employment of a limited number of Negro slaves instead of Indians" in the Caribbean. By 1516, "the traffic in slaves was regulated by an order permitting the transport of 4,000 Negroes annually from Africa for sale (and slavery) in the New World". And in 1584, Queen Elizabeth of Britain granted to Sir. Walter Raleigh "such remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian prince nor inhabited by Christian people".

What this historical survey proves quite categorically is that although the two major European global powers, Spain and Portugal, were the first to engage in the enslavement of African people in the 15th century in collusion with the religious authority and sanctioning of the Pope of Rome, it was not until almost two hundred years later that other European nations such as Britain, France and the Dutch also got involved in this global endeavor.

The first slaves did not arrive in the United States of America from Africa until Jamestown in 1619.

The percentage breakdown of the African countries whose people made up the pool of slaves in the New World is as follows: Nigeria 24%; Angola 24%; Ghana 16%; Senegal/Gambia 13%; Guinea 11%; Sierra Leone 6% and other 6%.

When they arrived in the New World, these African people revolted against slavery on the plantations in the following countries: Santa Domingo in 1522; Cuba in 1550 and 1843; Panama in 1531; Mexico in 1537; Honduras in 1548; Barbados in 1816; Haiti in 1804; Guyana in 1763 and Jamaica in 1655-1670, 1673, 1685-1686, 1725-1740, 1760, 1765-1784, 1784-1832, and 1865. There were also slave revolts by these imported Africans on the plantations in the American South.

Let us now answer the question as to who should apologize for slavery and whether compensation/reparations is a valid demand from the descendants of the enslaved Africans who were brought to the New World completely against their will.

At the outset, it should be crystal clear that the order for the global apology for slavery is as follows: The Roman Catholic Pope of Rome, first; second, the governments of Spain and Portugal; in third place, come the governments of Britain, France and the Netherlands; in fourth and last place is the government of the United States.

Now there is an already established "unprecedented act of repentance" for the Pope of Rome to take the lead in this global apology for slavery. In fact, in October 1997, the Roman Catholic Church of France, atoned and apologized for its silence and begged "forgiveness for Catholic inaction as regime sent Jews to their deaths in '40s". This public "act of contrition" was signed by Bishops in France. Ergo, Christians of African descent in all the countries aforementioned in Africa and the Caribbean/Latin America should demand through their Pastor or Bishop that Pope John Paul II issue an apology using the similar medium of a Papal Bull (now called an Encyclical Letter) for the Roman Catholic Church's involvement in the enslavement of their ancestors.

As the world's sole super power, the United States should cajole the United Nations Security Council (consisting of five permanent members with veto power -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China) to pass a binding Resolution demanding that all the European governments who were involved in slavery should issue an apology for their respective government's involvement to the descendants of those victims -- for after all, the descendants of those victims are represented at the official level right next door in the General Assembly. The European Union should also pass a similar Resolution. These are the only acts to bring closure to this global human tragedy.

After Pope John Paul II of Rome and European governments have each issued a bona fide apology, then President Clinton should offer a national apology to African-Americans for the American government's involvement in slavery.

Let us now deal with the question of compensation or reparations.

In the historical survey of global human tragedy the following people have already received either compensation or reparations:

(i) when the Abolition of Slavery Act received royal assent on 29 August 1833 and became law effective 1 August 1834, the British Parliament provided/decreed "a free gift to the (slave) owners (instead of a loan) of 20,000,000 British pounds (or U.S. $91.2 m) to compensate them for the loss of their slaves." The British slave owners received compensation from their government. In addition, Britain is the European government that benefited the most from slavery because the Industrial Revolution and the bulk of its attendant financial/economic/industrial multiplier effects took place in Britain;

(ii) in mid-November 1989, then President George Bush signed a military spending bill that guaranteed $500m in reparations to Japanese-Americans interned in U.S. camps during WWII. This genre of compensation was called an "entitlement" and Congress authorized payment of $20,000 to each of the estimated 60,000 camp survivors in 1990 to a grand total of $1.2 billion;

(iii) in 1996, American POWs were paid compensation for the time they languished in Vietnam's prisons;

(iv) in March 1997, Swiss banks agreed to establish a $5 billion fund for survivors/victims of the Jewish Holocaust; and in October, Swiss banks set up a fund in the sum of $190 million to compensate some 28,000 Jews and other Nazi victims in Eastern Europe who will receive up to $1,000 each,

(v) in June 1997, 200 Holocaust survivors who were U.S. citizens at that time, became eligible for reparations from the German government

(vi) in October 1997, 220 Filipino veterans, who fought for the United States, filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles under a 1946 congressional act, seeking full benefits and back pay, albeit compensation, from the U.S. government

(vii) in South Africa, Black victims of human rights abuses committed during the country's racist, brutal, dehumanizing and violent apartheid era, are due to receive at least $3,640 a year for six years under a reparations plan proposed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on 23 October 1997

(viii) in December 1997, A German insurance company paid seven life insurance claims to heirs of Holocaust victims, after thousands of such families sued for $1 billion from 15 companies. One person in California, another in North Carolina and five in Israel were paid as much as $7,000 each in reparations

(ix) on 12 January 1998, under presure from Jewish lobby groups and the United States, the German government said it would pay $110 million over five years to provide pensions (reparations) to Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe. Divided among the estimated 18,000 survivors, the total would generate pensions in the amount of $128 a month for each survivor

(x) on 7 January 1998, the Canadian government apologized to the country's "indigenous peoples", viz, the Indian and Inuit communities, "for past acts of oppression, including decades of abuse at federally funded boarding schools" beginning in the 1880s and expressed "regret at past treatment" for them. As a solid, functional indicator of national reconciliation, the government pledged $245 million as reparations "to fund counseling and treatment programs for victims of abuse at the schools" and

(xi) in mid-January 1998, the Clinton administration awarded the "Presidential Medal of Freedom" -- the nation's highest civilian honor to Fred T. Korematsu, who not only defied the federal govenment's 1942 exclusion order for the internment of 120,000 Japanee-Americans but also "stood strong against anti-Asian prejudice in the United States during World War II" and in February, the administration was feverlessly notifying about 80,000 interned Japanese-Americans that they are due to receive $20,000 each as a form of compensation/reparations for their inhumane treatment.

This brief survey clearly shows that every people who suffered or were subjected to a global calamity either received compensation or reparations, even including the British slave owners. How can anyone in his/her mind conclude that it is okay to pay compensation to the victimizer/oppressor but it is NOT okay and absurd to pay/compensate the victimized/oppressed/dehumanized/enslaved for their involuntary Holocaust? To suggest that race has nothing to do in this compensation payment question, only begs the question and smacks of ethnocentric, etnocentric and xenophic hypocrisy.

As the world's sole super power, the United States should cajole the United Nations Security Council to pass a two-fold binding Resolution demanding that
(i) all the European governments who were involved in slavery should immediately cancel the official external/foreign debt of all the aforementioned countries. If no such debt exists, then the respective European government(s) should donate a U.N. - determined amount of money as a free gift to these countries for the treatment and eradication of AIDS. And
(ii) that the Euro-American controlled international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, should also immediately cancel the official external debt of these countries. The European Union should also pass a similar binding Resolution. These are the only concrete acts to bring closure to the question of reparations on a global scale.

After the European governments have each taken these actions, then President Clinton should seek authorization from Congress to pay compensation or "entitlement" to the descendants of those Africans who suffered as slaves in America.

President Clinton cannot hope to solve the problem of racism and to contract the racial chasm in America but yet deny due compensation for slavery to African-Americans. He must do the obvious right thing in the name of equal human justice under the law for which this nation stands.

Dr. Nantambu is an Associate Professor in the Department of Pan-African Studies, Kent State University and author of Egypt & Afrocentric Geopolitics: Essays on European Supremacy (1996).


1. Kwame Nantambu, Egypt & Afrocentric Geopolitics: Essays on European Supremacy. (Kent, OH: Imhotep Publishing Co., 1996), 53.
2. Alan Cuthbert Burns, History of the British West Indies. (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1965), 60.
3. Ibid., 70 and 76.
4. Ibid., 118.
5. Ibid., 123.
6. Ibid., 60.
7. Marily August, "Church repents for Silence." The Beacon Journal. (1 October 1997) and John-Thor Dablburg, "French church apologizes for wartime failure to protect Jews." The Plain Dealer. (1 October 1997).
8. Burns, op. cit., 626-627.
9. David Cray, "Canada apoligizes for abuse of Indians." The Plain Dealer. (8 January 1998).
10. Ibid.
11. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, "Statement by the Press Secretary." (15 January 1998), 3.

Shem Hotep ("I go in peace").

Dr. Nantambu is an Associate Professor in the Dept. of Pan-African Studies at Kent State University, U.S.A.

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