In Accounting for Slavery’s Cost, Figures Vary Widely

Wall Street Journal, October 25, 2013

Fourteen Caribbean nations and a British law firm are trying to find the solution to a puzzle that has eluded many economists, historians and activists: how to put a price tag on the harm wrought by slavery, and then persuade someone to pay.

Members of the Caribbean Community, a regional bloc, have hired London firm Leigh Day to help them prepare a suit for the International Court of Justice. The countries plan to seek reparations from the U.K., France and the Netherlands for the lasting effects of the slave trade, which over four centuries brought millions of people against their will from Africa to European colonies in the Caribbean region.

The legal challenges to seeking reparations are immense: Countries must prove crimes committed by—and against—long-dead people.

But the bigger difficulty may be setting a price tag. Scholars have sought to quantify reparations for as long as activists have sought them—for slavery and, in the U.S., for racial discrimination after the Civil War. There are many approaches, from calculating lost wages over the years to tallying disparities in health that can be tied to slavery. All produce widely varying figures, and the sheer size of many of the numbers has been an impediment to the reparations movement.

Martyn Day, founding partner of Leigh Day, said his clients are working to document the legacy of slavery for today’s Caribbean residents, such as the economic effects of being unable to accumulate wealth over the centuries, and elevated diabetes rates due to the diet imposed on slaves and passed down the generations. “What in the end will all that work out to?” Mr. Day said. “I have no idea.”

French president François Hollande, in rejecting reparations, points to the futility of tallying slavery’s cost. History, he said earlier this year in a speech commemorating slavery’s victims, “cannot be subjected to an accounting process that . . . would be impossible to complete.”


In 1974, economists Julian Simon and Larry Neal ran one set of reparation numbers. They tried to estimate the total wages U.S. slaves might have earned on the free market, then account for what was spent on their upkeep, and then calculate how much the difference might have earned in interest in the years since then. The calculations required many assumptions, including that market wages would have prevailed even with an expanded labor force. The most significant assumption was which interest rate to use: A 6% rate produced a total cost 100 times larger than a 3% rate. Both figures were presented. The authors said the larger one was “so astronomical as to be almost meaningless.”


Perpetrators of more-recent atrocities have paid victims. The U.K. government agreed to pay about $21 million this year to Kenyans tortured in 1950s colonial detention camps. Germany has paid over $90 billion to victims of Nazi crimes.


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