Paying Reparations to Slave Owners and Their Heirs in the 19th Century

No guessing who in this 1864 depiction may have been compensated after slavery ended. / API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

History is full of examples of nations paying out to compensate for slavery. But the money never went to those who actually suffered.

By Dr. Thomas Craemer
Associate Professor of Public Policy
University of Connecticut

Extorting Haiti

A prominent example is the so-called “Haitian Independence Debt” that saddled revolutionary Haiti with reparation payments to former slave owners in France.

Haitians had to pay for their independence. / API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Haiti declared independence from France in 1804, but the former colonial power refused to acknowledge the fact for another 20 years. Then in 1825, King Charles X decreed that he would recognize independence, but at a cost. The price tag would be 150 million francs – more than 10 years of the Haitian government’s entire revenue. The money, the French said, was needed to compensate former slave owners for the loss of what was deemed their property.

By 1883, Haiti had paid off some 90 million francs in reparations. But to finance such huge payments, Haiti had to borrow 166 million francs with the French banks Ternaux Grandolpe et Cie and Lafitte Rothschild Lapanonze. Loan interests and fees added to the overall sum owed to France.

The payments ran for a total of 122 years from 1825 to 1947, with the money going to more than 7,900 former slave owners and their descendants in France. By the time the payments ended, none of the originally enslaved or enslavers were still alive.

British ‘Reparations’

Nathan Mayer Rothschild / Wikimedia Commons

French slave owners weren’t the only ones to receive payment for lost revenue, their British counterparts did too – but this time from their own government.

The British government paid reparations totaling £20 million (equivalent to some £300 billion in 2018) to slave owners when it abolished slavery in 1833. Banking magnates Nathan Mayer Rothschild and his brother-in-law Moses Montefiore arranged for a loan to the government of $15 million to cover the vast sum – which represented almost half of the U.K. governent’s annual expenditure.

The U.K. serviced those loans for 182 years from 1833 to 2015. The authors of the British reparations program saddled many generations of British people with a reparations debt for which they were not personally responsible.

Paying for Freedom

An Act of April 16, 1862 (For the Release of Certain Persons Held to Service or Labor in the District of Columbia). / U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons

In the United States, reparations to slave owners in Washington, D.C., were paid at the height of the Civil War. On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the “Act for the Release of certain Persons held to Service or Labor within the District of Columbia” into law.

It gave former slave owners $300 per enslaved person set free. More than 3,100 enslaved people saw their freedom paid for in this way, for a total cost in excess of $930,000 – almost $25 million in today’s money.

In contrast, the formerly enslaved received nothing if they decided to stay in the United States. The act provided for an emigration incentive of $100 – around $2,683 in 2021 dollars – if the former enslaved agreed to permanently leave the United States.

Similar examples of reparations going to individual slave owners can be found in the records of countries including Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden, as well as Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay, Venezuela, Peru and Brazil.

The French government even set an example on how the government can conduct genealogical research to determine eligible recipients. It compiled a massive six-volume compendium in 1828, listing some 7,900 original slave owners in Saint Domingue and their French descendants.

Originally published by The Conversation, 02.26.2021, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution/No derivatives license.



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