Words by Nandini Gosine-Mayrhoo

The issue of reparations for the injustices of slavery has long been considered here in the United States. At the end of the Civil War in 1865, General William Sherman promised compensation of 40 acres of land and a mule to each ex-slave.  Land in Georgia, Florida and South America was earmarked for distribution to freed slaves, but the decision was reversed by President Andrew Johnson after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.  The argument for reparations has rumbled on since then.

In 1993 at the first Pan-African Conference on Reparations held in Nigeria, Jamaican lawyer Anthony Gifford argued that African slavery was a crime against humanity and that international law recognizes that the perpetrators of that crime should compensate victims. International debate on the issue gained momentum at the World Conference on Reparations to Africa in 1999. New impetus was gained in 2001 at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, where there was strong support from UN member states for nations to pursue “adequate reparation and satisfaction for any damage as a result of [racial] discrimination.” However, the tragic events of 9/11 soon after that Conference, with the ensuing hysteria and xenophobia that swept across the U.S., inadvertently led to a full retreat of the reparations movement in this country.

This retreat lasted for more than a decade, until July 2013, when the Caribbean Heads of Government at a summit in Trinidad and Tobago, agreed to establish a CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC). The CARICOM nations agreed that the CRC was necessary to push forward the long overdue repair and restitution that European countries, who benefitted handsomely from slavery in the Caribbean, owed to the descendants of those slaves. The forming of the CRC brought fresh momentum to the reparations movement here in America. Since its inception, the CRC has been working to engender global cooperation for its cause. Guadeloupe and Martinique, who sit outside of CARICOM, have established their own Reparations Commissions in support of the CRC. The National African-American Reparations Commission (NAARC) was launched in April 2015, inspired in no small part by the establishment of the CRC.  It is anticipated that Brazil will set up its own national commission in the very near future.

The CRC has outlined a Ten-Point Action Plan which calls for, amongst other things, financial assistance with education and healthcare, technology transfer and debt cancellation. The boldest claim is for repatriation of descendants of slaves to their homeland of Africa (it should be noted that the Rastafarian community holds repatriation to Africa as a spiritual goal). Sir Hilary Beckles, Caribbean Historian and Chairman of the CRC, addressed the British Parliament in July 2014, outlining the CRC’s argument for compensation. Sir Hilary pointed out that at the time of emancipation, not only were ex-slaves not compensated, but instead were cruelly required to pay for their emancipation through a program of forced apprenticeship. Sir Hilary noted that the then British Parliament assessed the value of Caribbean slaves at £47m, but paid cash compensation of only £20m to the slave owners. The remaining £27m was ‘repaid’ to the slave owners through a forced apprenticeship of between four and six years.

Sir Hilary Beckles.

Sir Hilary Beckles.

“It was a cruel and shameful method of legislating Emancipation by forcing the enslaved to pay more than 50% of the financial cost of their own freedom”, expressed Sir Hilary. “The £20m paid to the enslavers by this Parliament was less than the £27m paid by the enslaved to the enslavers.” He went on to tell the British Parliamentarians that they could not morally and legally turn their backs upon the past and “walk away from the mess they left behind”.

Sir Hilary gave the British Parliament two examples of how reparatory justice can work. He cited Jamaica, the largest British slave colony, which was left with an estimated 80% black functional illiteracy at Independence in 1962. His view was that this illiteracy has seen Jamaica struggle with development and poverty alleviation. Sir Hilary told the British Parliament that they owed the people of Jamaica an educational investment initiative.

His second example drew on the island of Barbados, Britain’s first slave colony, which has been called the “amputation capital of the world”. Sir Hilary explained the country’s virulent hypertension and diabetes epidemic as being the result of the stress profile of slavery and racial apartheid, dietary disaster and psychological trauma and the addiction to the consumption of sugar and salt. He told the British Parliament that they owed the people of Barbados an education and health initiative.

34th Regular meeting of CARICOM Heads of Government. Photo Credit: Sandra Prince/OP.

34th Regular meeting of CARICOM Heads of Government. Photo Credit: Sandra Prince/OP.

Although there was significant coverage of Sir Hilary’s speech in the Caribbean press, POTENT could find no reference to it in the British press. Prior to Sir Hilary’s address, there was some press coverage of CARICOM nations suing their former colonizers over the slave trade, but POTENT has been unable to obtain up to date information on this. It seems safe to assume that the issue of reparations is not one that is troubling the British public. On the other hand, Sweden has said it is “open” to the demands for reparations, although it must be noted that this country played a small role in Caribbean slavery compared to the British, Spanish and French powers.

The work of the CRC continues, with meetings planned next year in the Caribbean and in 2017 in Europe. The CRC has stated that it does not rule out resorting to the International Criminal Court in The Hague if its demands are ignored by the European powers.

In 2008, the then U.S. Presidential hopeful Barack Obama stated that he was opposed to offering reparations to the descendants of slaves. What he does support however, is improvement in schools and health provision that would benefit all. This thinking is not at odds with many of the issues raised in the CRC’s Ten-Point Action Plan, which calls for investment initiatives in health and education. The CRC recognizes that to build momentum and further its cause, it must engage with the current generation of descendants of the African slave trade. Young people between the ages of 16 and 24 make up a quarter of the world’s population and can play a key role in advancing any cause. Engaging with this generation of youth and helping them to understand the long term effects of slavery, is high on the CRC’s agenda.

The Caribbean Diaspora is another group that the CRC is seeking to engage with, recognizing the considerable influence that the Diaspora could bring in building a global network of reparations commissions.

POTENT will keep track of the work being undertaken by the CRC and its affiliate global reparations commissions. In the meantime, we would like to hear your views on reparations for slavery and the demands being made by the CRC.

Comment below or contact the writer at nandini@potentmagazine.com