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Caribbean Reparations

Don Rojas Apr 4, 2014

KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent and the Grenadines — It was almost surreal, improbable just a few years ago: a room filled with presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers from the 15-nation Caribbean Community (CARICOM), all listening with rapt attention, several nodding in agreement, as Dr. Hilary Beckles, one of the region’s most distinguished academics, gave a report on the recent work of CARICOM’s Reparations Commission, established last July. Yes, “reparations,” meaning compensation for the crimes of slavery and indigenous genocide at the hands of former European colonizers.

The scene played out in the conference room of the Buccament Bay Resort on the eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent on March 10. The occasion: the 25th Inter-Sessional Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community. Contrary to what a casual observer might conclude, this was not some gathering of radical black nationalists demanding reparations from white society.

There was applause at the end of Professor Beckles’ report. Not a single dissenting voice was heard from a group of leaders whose politics ranged from conservative through liberal to progressive, all of whom find themselves in U.S. imperialism’s so-called “backyard.” Without exception, all are currently on good terms with Washington and all represent countries that were former colonies of one or another European slave-trading power.

Enormous Moral Authority

The economies of CARICOM member states total about $78 billion in GDP, which would place the region 65th in the world if it were a single country. Clearly, this is a region that can’t claim much in the way of economic clout, yet after having suffered over 400 years of slavery and colonialism at the hands of European powers, mainly Britain, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden, its demands for reparations possess enormous moral authority.

The transatlantic slave trade brought over 10 million captured Africans to work as chattel slaves in sugar and cotton plantations throughout the Caribbean and the Americas. It was the largest forced migration in human history. Today, CARICOM nations have a population of 16 million, and the diaspora in the United States, Canada and Europe totals about 4-5 million people.

At the St. Vincent meeting the CARICOM leaders unanimously adopted a 10-point plan that would seek a formal apology for slavery, debt cancellation from former colonizers and reparation payments to address the persisting “psychological trauma” from the days of plantation slavery. The document identifies “the persistent racial victimization of the descendants of slavery and genocide as the root cause of Caribbean nations’ suffering today.” 

The plan also calls for assistance to boost the region’s technological capacity and strengthen its public health, educational and cultural institutions. It even calls for the creation of a “repatriation program,” including legal and diplomatic assistance from European governments to potentially resettle members of the Rastafarian spiritual movement in Africa. Repatriation to Africa has been a central tenet of Rastafari for decades and their followers have consistently advocated reparations.

If the European powers fail to publicly apologize and refuse to come to the negotiating table, the CARICOM nations plan to file a lawsuit against them at the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

European reactions to the CARICOM demands have so far been mixed. In recent weeks, there have been several relatively balanced reports in major British newspapers like the London Times, the Telegraph and the Guardian, and a high-level Swedish official said that his government welcomes the opportunity to have a reparations dialogue with CARICOM. 

But a British Foreign Office official shot down the CARICOM plan, saying, “The U.K. has been clear that we deplore the human suffering caused by slavery and the slave trade, however, we do not see reparations as the answer.”

Meanwhile, the Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave has opened up new conversations in the CARICOM countries, as well as in the large Caribbean migrant communities in Britain, Canada and the United States. Not too long ago, these conversations about reparations would have been considered unrealistic, even Pollyannaish.

Many now buy the argument that the current conditions of underdevelopment in the Caribbean are a direct and lasting legacy of the slave trade and descendants of enslaved Africans should be compensated for contemporary injustices rather than historical suffering. 

Wealth Still in White Hands

Today, the white descendants of European colonizers, who represent a small minority of Caribbean citizens, own most of the English-speaking islands’ wealth. The majority of the largest businesses in the region are owned by families who amassed huge fortunes from plantation slavery and later, when slavery was abolished, from the compensation paid to them by the British government for the loss of their human property (see sidebar).

The Original Reparations

While Caribbean nations struggle to make Europe recognize their claim for reparations, similar compensation has already been paid out once before: to British slave-owners being forced to give up their “private property” upon the abolition of slavery in 1833. The British government paid out £20 million — translating to almost $27.5 billion today, and totaling 40 percent of that government’s spending in 1834 — to more than 46,000 people. Slave-owners that received compensation included the ancestors of prominent Brits such as Prime Minister David Cameron, authors George Orwell and Graham Greene, poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and former minister Douglas Hogg. Freed slaves, meanwhile, received nothing.

— Alina Mogilyanskaya

The CARICOM reparations movement faces plenty of hurdles in challenging Europe. As Dr. Adrian Fraser, historian and retired head of the University of the West Indies Open Campus in St. Vincent, said of the reparations claim, “I am not sure that there is going to be any success down the road, because it is a question of power. We don’t have the power.”

Dr. Fraser’s relative pessimism notwithstanding, the CARICOM governments are forging ahead, establishing national reparations commissions and reaching out to allies around the world, including African-American activists in the United States. Their campaign is an assertive move of resistance. And while the question of whether money will change hands remains, CARICOM’s claim is already challenging the imbalance of power in our postcolonial world.

Don Rojas previously served as press secretary to Prime Minister Maurice Bishop of Grenada, executive director of Free Speech TV and general manager of WBAI.