Hilary Beckles on the unique characteristics of racialised chattel slavery

Execution of Participants of the Slave Insurrection, Demerara (British Guiana), 1823

Excerpt from Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide (2013), page 18–19

“The political position of the British government, then, is that all other European governments were involved in slavery, and this made it an international standard which was not considered criminal. The racism of Europe, therefore, that enabled the British (the English and Scots principally) to practice chattel slavery by targeting blacks as the only racial group for lifelong property status has, in turn, become the legal basis of a political position held by the current British state.

None of this, however, stands up to historical, legal or moral scrutiny. It is not a serious legal argument that there was no crime in enslaving blacks since all white people were doing it, and it was a common enough activity for European colonisers. Neither can it be sustained that the African governments were doing it to their subjects, since this is not historically accurate. African states did not define their subordinate workers, political prisoners and others subject to criminal punishment as legal non-humans, perpetual property and reproductive chattels.

In much the same that the English state facilitated the growth of a colonial labour market in white indentured servants — convicts, political prisoners, vagrants, petty criminals and so forth — the African political process generated subordinate, alienated labour. The English did not allow for the chattel, lifelong enslavement of white servants, whose humanity was recognised in legal and moral codes. Neither did African states propose, practise or permit the legal classification of blacks in the slave trade as legal non-humans no different in law from other forms of property.

The early modern world witnessed various forms of slavery and servitude as systems of labour, but neither in Europe nor in Africa did this subservience involve the branding of persons as chattel. This developed in the Caribbean as a special and specific European practice that targeted Africans. No other racial or ethnic group that entered the English colonial Caribbean received this legal classification. This invented brand of property was developed by the Spanish and Portuguese in the sixteenth century and perfected by the English in the seventeenth century. It was a moral and legal break from any African or European tradition of labour. It constituted, furthermore, the most dehumanising, violent, socially regressive form of human exploitation known to human kind.”