It has been over a century and a half since slavery was abolished in the Caribbean, but the wide-ranging consequences of one of the most oppressive and intolerable institutions in human history continue to shape life in the region.
Despite a half-century of progress since independence in many of our nations, there is a case to be made that the continuing socio-economic problems in the region can be linked to the colonial era and further that the present-day underdevelopment of the Caribbean is a direct and lasting legacy of the slave trade, which allowed people to be considered as private property, without any autonomy, agency and rights.
“The casual link between the crimes of slavery and the ongoing harm and injury to descendants is everywhere to be found in the Caribbean. The pain of enslavement and the injury of its injustice haunt citizens and weaken their capacity to experience citizenship as equals with the descendants of slave owners,” writes Professor Hilary Beckles in his book, ‘Britain’s Black Debt.’
When Britain abolished slavery in 1830s, slave owners had to be compensated for the loss of their “property” and they received generous reparations from the British government. The slaves got nothing.
Reparations are owed. This is a personal view and the view held by the majority of Caribbean citizens, from the formal discussions at the level of Caricom and regional reparation committees to the informal discussions in our barbershops and market squares.
It is reparations as justice. As Professor Beckles aptly puts it, “Reparations as justice means much to the descendants of enslaved Africans and to millions of other people beyond the Caribbean whose societies were violently colonized by Britain and who live with open wounds caused by the crimes committed against their community.”
The issue gained momentum last year when Caricom set up a Reparations Commission to develop and implement a regional strategy to pursue reparations for native genocide and slavery. Professor Beckles was elected to chair the Commission.
At the time, Caricom said the Commission was constituted to achieve several key objectives, including “to establish the moral, ethical and legal case for the payment of reparations by the governments of all the former colonial powers and the relevant institutions in those countries, to the nations and people of the Caribbean Community for the crimes against humanity of native genocide, the trans-Atlantic slave trade and a racialised system of chattel slavery.”
The notion of reparations offers historical justification for slave trading nations to make massive investments of resources necessary to make a real changes in the region. This is the understanding derived from Beckles’ thesis on the subject.
Of course, the idea has its critics. Some right here at home say slavery happened a long time ago and that we should move on and “not blame Britain for our failings.” Others have been bold enough to argue that slaves were not instrumental to the transformation of several European nations, like Britain and France, into the wealthiest and most powerful in the world.
In ‘Capitalism and Slavery,’ Eric Williams had attempted to show the contributions of Africans on the basis of profits calculated from the slave trade to finance Britain’s industrial process. He argued that African enslavement was an essential element to the Industrial Revolution, and that European wealth is a result of slavery.
In Britain, Member of Parliament Diane Abbott continues to call on her government to acknowledge that Britain extracted enormous wealth from the African slave trade. During a debate in 2007, she observed: “Huge fortunes were made from the slave trade by banks and manufacturers…In London, my city, people sometimes minimize or discount its involvement in the slave trade, but it was longer and deeper than any other part of the British Isles.”
And Beckles summarized it this way: “Power, prestige and profits summed up what the Caribbean was to the British. It gave modern Britain its first successful global leap. Britain took full advantage of the Caribbean opportunities. It maximized the benefits, and it has not looked back.”
Today, the region is looking forward to positive discussions with Britain. The regional movement for reparatory justice is seeking reconciliation and atonement. When Caricom adopted a ten-point plan in March this year, the community signaled its intention to seek compensation, a formal apology for slavery, and a commitment for investment in the region. It also pointed to the need for Britain to address chronic diseases and psychological rehabilitation for trauma inflicted by slavery, among other items.
The framework on which the regional case will rest followed months of extensive consultations and research led by Professor Beckles. At this stage, there is no detailed brief on the cost of the damages and the current manifestations of such damage on the descendants of slaves. However, we have managed to provide examples of how this reparatory justice can work.
Professor Beckles addressed the British Parliament on reparations last month and he outlined two examples of how it can work. He explained:
(1) Jamaica, Britain’s largest slave colony, was left with 80% black functional illiteracy at Independence in 1962. From this circumstance, the great and courageous Jamaican nation has struggled with development and poverty alleviation. The deep crisis remains. Therefore, the British Parliament owes the people of Jamaica an educational and human resource investment initiative.
(2) Barbados, Britain’s first slave society, is now called the amputation capital of the world. It is here that the stress profile of slavery and racial apartheid; dietary disaster and psychological trauma; and the addiction to the consumption of sugar and salt, have reached the highest peak.
The country is now host to the world’s most virulent diabetes and hypertension epidemic. Therefore, the British Parliament owes the people of Barbados an education and health initiative.
As we celebrate 176 years of African Emancipation this weekend, I take the opportunity to join the regional call for a sincere dialogue on Caribbean reparations. I am encouraged that the issue of reparations has made a comeback in our discourse.
Also, after reading ‘Black Debt’ and more recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s piece in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” I believe that the British government and other European states that were the beneficiaries of enrichment from the enslavement of African peoples could start with an apology. It’s a bit hard to grasp that a formal apology has never been issued. It is more than past due.
Have a question or comment? Connect with Iana Seales at about/ me/iseales