Slaving away for Compensation

Boz magazine, 79: 23, October 2001.

Brian J Ford

Any chance of suing the Normans? They were over here a thousand years ago, enslaving everyone. The Durban Conference Against Racism has introduced the idea that we can start seeking retribution for age-old assaults on our forebears. I'd say that the Normans were prime targets for a legal action, and then we'll start on the Vikings.

Mind you, legal action against present-day Europeans over slavery will have to take its place in the queue. The great slave traders were African, and this ancient tradition persists to this day. In present-day Sudan, for example, the Dinka people are regularly captured and sold into slavery. The capture and sale of slaves has been a mainstay of African trade since recorded history began, and there must be millions who could make a claim through the courts. The fact that it is the Arab and the African states who are among those making the most noise in the campaign for retribution shows what magnanimous people they all are, since they are the greatest exponents of the business of slavery, and must owe incalculable sums to their victims.

They say that the Israelis are culpable over the displacement of the Palestinian Arabs, and that seems entirely logical to me. They are still building their properties in Arab territories, which helps prove the point. A successful action wouldn't do much damage to the Israeli economy, when you think of the billions they are due to collect from Germany over the holocaust, and add that to the reparation due from Egypt over their enslavement of the Jews for 400 years.

Then there's the empire of ancient Rome. At one time or another they enslaved much of the rest of Western Europe, and many of us could claim compensation for the trauma endured by our ancestors. As soon as we have a government in Italy that is stable enough to be worth suing, we should all take action against Rome. The case is a sure-fire winner.

And what about Wales? That ancient nation was virtually enslaved by the English, who raided their lands and decimated an age-old way of life. To this day, the reputation of Wales is a cause for merriment and derision in the rest of Britain. Anne Robinson's light-hearted comments were typical of the carefree jokes about the Principality that still abound, all of which perpetrate a negative view of that unique part of Britain. Little wonder that, these days, nobody famous lives in Wales.

There are plenty of Philippine slaves around the world. They are said to abound in the Middle East, but you find them in Britain as well. Nouveau-riche immigrant families buy and sell servants from the Philippines and use them in the ancient traditions of slavery. The Aztec, Mixtec and Inca peoples all have sound claims for dispossession against the Spaniards, and the Spanish themselves should be able to make a claim against the Moorish races of Arabia who occupied their nation and enslaved their people.

There aren't many Aino people left in Japan, but they are the indigenous survivors of the pioneering inhabitants of that prosperous country. They are regarded a throw-back by today's Japanese people, but are surely entitled to claim their birthright. The Aborigines of Australia must be entitled to inherit the wealth of that country, as soon as matters come to court. The best-known Aboriginal contribution to Western culture has been the word 'kangaroo', which entered the language when Captain James Cook sent his men into the bush to identify the new forms of life that abounded in that newly discovered country. One of his men, already trying his hand at the use of an aboriginal language, pointed to a kangaroo hopping past and asked one of the locals what was its name. 'Kangaroo,' was the reply. The word entered our language before anybody discovered that what it actually meant was, 'I'm afraid I don't know.'

Then we get to the United States. The American Indians must be the most dispossessed people in the world. They are now confined to isolated reservations dotted about the country, disregarded by the invading hordes who displaced them, and ousted whole communities from their traditional territories. Once the court cases start, they should be able to claim back the present-day value of their ancestral homelands.

Mind you, we are all aware that slaves exist in the modern world. The sweat-shops in which our training shoes, sports-wear and labelled fashion accessories are made are staffed by slave labour, underpaid, overworked, and disenfranchised. Every time you buy goods from those eastern factories you are putting money into the chain of supply that keeps the slave-masters in business. Globalisation simply means that we become slave-masters at a safe distance, but we in the West are benefiting from slave labour every day.

The time will come when someone will knock on your door, point to a pair of trainers in the hall, and say, 'My grandfather worked an 18-hour day to make those,' they'll say. 'You owe me.'

Just explain that the case will have to wait for yours against the Vikings and the present-day inheritors of Rome. Once we get those sorted out we can all afford to settle up. I did hear that someone near Cheddar had been shown to have a lot of genes in common with our Palaeolithic ancestors. Just think what they did to the Neanderthals. I need to find out exactly who that chap was. He doesn't know it yet, but - the way things are going - he's going to be deep trouble.

When it's all over, I shall retire to the seaside and drink a toast to the Durban Conference. Without their brave declarations, I'd never have jumped on the bandwagon. Cheers.

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