At this epoch of Mankind’s evolution, where democracy and respect for human rights are being immortalized as indispensible virtues which every society must possess and are universal yardsticks by which the actions of governments are measured, it is almost inconceivable that there are still those who continue to reject the idea of reparations for descendants of African slaves. Recently, a book on the subject by Professor Sir Hilary McD. Beckles, pro-vice chancellor at the UWI Cave Hill campus a leading activist and economic historian was published. Entitled Britain Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide, it sets out a compelling case for Reparations from Britain which cannot be counteracted by any of the sophisms and specious reasons posited by cynical detractors.
Due to the formidable case put forward by the distinguished Professor and others as well as the almost ubiquitous acceptance of current definitions of concepts such as justice, democracy and equality, a further detailed rehearsal of the opposing arguments in the reparations debate is not required. For those interested in a detailed analysis of the various aspects of the Reparations debate, you are invited to make reference to the abovementioned book by Professor Beckles.
For those who wish to quickly dispose of the arguments against Reparations for descendants of African Slaves, this can be done with a few introductory remarks:
With respect to the moral arguments, out of respect for human dignity, it is self-evident that the descendants of African Slaves should be compensated for generations of their ancestors being born into servitude. With respect to the legal arguments, unless one’s juristic interpretation of law and legal systems is that they are not, by their nature, justice-oriented, then there is no legal basis upon which compensation can be denied. Based on the rhetoric of the former Colonizers and other Western powers that the law and legal systems, in particular the international rule of law are the means to the ends of achieving democracy, justice and equality; such means should never be used to defeat those ends and the law should evolve if necessary so that such ends are served.
Therefore in this discussion we move beyond the Reparations debate and focus on the recent political consensus reached among Caricom members on the subject of Reparations and explore some of the difficulties going forward, in particular the impediments to compensation caused by a new global social order and lingering Imperialism and possible practical ways to overcome such difficulties
An Emergence of interest and Political consensus
Since independence from Britain 41 years ago, the call for reparations has been echoed by politicians, academics and cultural personalities throughout the region. However, the past calls for Reparations during the tumultuous independence era of the 1960’s and 70’s, coming from small, newly independent nations seemed to lack a unified political will and the unequivocal clarity and persistence required to generate any reaction. Politically, the call for Reparations may have been too uncompromising and unapologetic for some.
After the independence era, the momentum behind the revolutionary movements throughout Africa and the African Diaspora began to wane and along with them related concepts such as Reparations for the descendants of African slaves. By the early 1990’s, decades had passed since the passing of the Civil Rights Act in America and the granting of independence to European Colonies in Africa and the Caribbean. In South Africa apartheid was abolished and Nelson Mandela was elected President. With Aid from Western nations pouring into Africa, the fight for equality for descendants of African Slaves and independence for Africa seemed all but won, avoiding the need for further repair through reparations. Though there were a few isolated voices, such as the British-Jamaican lawyer, Lord Anthony Gifford and the late Dudley Thompson supporting the case for Reparation, these were generally lost in the whirlwind of other geopolitical events.
Recently however, there has been an emergence of an intellectual and political interest amongst members of the Caricom States to address the subject of Reparations and a momentum of political support for reparations which was devastatingly absent during the independence era. In 2013, Caricom member states made a commitment to support the establishment of a high-level commission to address the modalities of compensation for slavery and genocide by the trio of former colonisers—Britain, France and The Netherlands.
Presently, the regional reparations commission has also been formed, Reparations Committees exist in St. Vincent, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Jamaica and Suriname and the remaining Caricom member states pledged to form reparations committees of their own. Barbadian Prime Minister Freundel Stuart currently leads the commission. Other members of the commission include Gonsalves, Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar, and the presidents of Haiti, Guyana and Suriname, Michel Martelly, Donald Ramotar and Desi Bouterse respectively.
These efforts have not gone unnoticed by the critics. On one side of the spectrum, there are the commentators who reject the idea of Reparations and claim that Caricom is refusing to take the blame for the Caribbean’s languishing economy. Such criticism is expected from those who continue to deny the brutal legacy of slavery despite all evidence to the contrary and for the sake of avoiding wasted time and effort, such criticism should be ignored.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are the proponents of Reparations who remain suspect of the efforts by Caricom. The Pan Afrikan Reparations Coalition in Europe has warned Caricom that a “top down approach” to reparations would not aid the Caribbean’s indigenous and African descendant populations. A “top down approach” seems to have been suggested by President Gonsalves of St. Vincent when he said that “any money received is not going to be handed to individuals, but will go towards economic, social and cultural programmes.
Also, at the Kingston-leg of the Rastafari Studies Conference and General Assembly 2013, held at the University of the West Indies (UWI), a contributor was even more skeptical of Caricom's efforts saying "What is going on now is just the same slavers trying to benefit. Tell me, who do the governments of Caricom represent? The slaves or the slavers?”
While the validity of such criticism will be explored, the political consensus reached by Caricom leaders on the issue of Reparations is long overdue and must be applauded. Now a clear and unambiguous position has been taken, it would be important to analyze possible practical approaches to making the dream of Reparations a reality.
A Pragmatic Approach
In terms of an overall approach to the quest for Reparations, at a commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the 1763 Berbice Slave Revolt in Georgetown, Guyana, Sir Hilary Beckles urged Caricom countries to emulate the position adopted by the Jews who were prosecuted during the Second World War and have since organised a Jewish reparations fund. The position adopted by the Jewish Community is an interesting case and may very well be a pragmatic approach for the Caribbean Community but important distinctions must be made.
“The Position adopted by the Jews”
While there is no reason to doubt that the Caribbean Community, Governments and regional organizations can muster the same firmness in resolve and the persistence as the Jewish Community, materially the Caribbean Community is at a serious shortfall. Unlike the Jews, the Caribbean Community does not wield the economic and political power in Europe and the United States which the Jews possessed in the aftermath of World War II. At the end of World War II, Europe and America had very powerful pro-Jewish and pro-Zionist elements in their political and economic structures and with the defeat of the Nazis in Germany and the more extreme forms of right-wing politics in the rest of Europe; support for Reparations for the Jewish Holocaust was non-controversial and politically expedient for the former Colonizers.
However the subject of Reparations for descendants of African Slaves remains controversial as it highlights the aggression of the former Colonizers and it is not a topic that they are willing to be engaged on. This is evidenced by the fact that there has never been any formal acknowledgement by European and American governments of the injustice of slavery and more specifically its legacy; the severe impairment of the capacity of millions of Africans for advancement.
Consequently, apologies from the Colonizers have been few and far in between. In 2006, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed deep sorrow for Britain's role in the slave trade but stopped short of offering an apology. The injustice of slavery is sometimes even portrayed as a figment of the imagination by the political and intellectual class of Europe and America. Milton Friedman, described as one of most the influential economists of the 20th century and the engineer of Reaganomics, addressing a question posed by a University student in a seminar in the 1970’s stated that “it's simply untrue that the wealth that arose in Western countries was due to slavery…When the West colonized Africa they brought with them technology that greatly improved the condition of the people that lived there and actually made them better off.
The wheel for example had not even been invented in Africa in the 19th century. As a result of Africa's contacts with the West their condition improved greatly from what it previously was. …..it has always cost the mother country more to maintain its colonies then what was ever received in direct or indirect economic benefit. In the famous case of India, conclusive studies have shown that it cost Britain far more to maintain India then if it had never had it. Furthermore, many Western nations never possessed colonies yet became wealthy despite that fact”.
Apparently the issue of reparations for descendants of African slaves contradicts his belief in the superiority of Western civilization and capitalism and so history is simply rewritten by the economist.
Therefore when emulating the position adopted by the Jews it would be important to always make the distinction that the call for reparations for descendants of African Slaves, in stark contrast to the position adopted by the Jews, is being made against the tide of still dominant imperialist tendencies and attitudes. To make matters even more difficult; for over the past 150 years Western Imperialism has been always masked under the veil of goodwill. At the time of slavery and colonialism they were using brutality to civilize Africans and other inferior races around the world.
In the aftermath of World War II, the Allied powers took the opportunity presented by their victory against Nazi Germany, to conveniently veil themselves as the pioneers of democracy and human rights while simultaneously pursuing their imperialist policies in third-world nations. From 1947 to 1989, during the independence era, countless atrocities were committed by United States of America, Britain, France, Portugal and Spain in South America and Africa in their fight against the “new evil in the world”, Communism. It was also during this era that the most devastating consequences of the divide and rule policy implemented in Africa after the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 materialized. From all indications thus far, nothing has changed. Today we still see imperialism being masked under a veil of goodwill; this time the veil of national security and the fight against another “new evil”, terrorism.
To overcome this impediment, there is only one option: The call for Reparations must be tied in with the wider fight against imperialism which is being waged on many fronts around the world. Networks must be formed between all proponents of Reparations within the African Diaspora and the call for Reparations must gain international support. There must be correspondence and consultation with advocates in the African Union and organizations in the U.S., such as the NAACP, the Caribbean Rastafari Organisation and EWF. Relationships of reciprocity must be formed between Caricom and other Governments that are similarly taken steps to address grievances caused by Western Imperialism.
Caricom must look to its neighbors in South America, countries which have suffered equally heinous crimes under imperialism, from the era of the conquistadors to the era of U.S.-backed Operation Condor and are now today securing their sovereignty free from Western Hegemony. Forming linkages with the international community is an absolutely essential step for the Caribbean Community, a small region to amplify the call for reparations on the international stage.
Additionally, to emulate the position adopted by the Jews it will be crucial to mobilize and engage the local populace to support the Reparations movement. Khafra Kambon, head of the Emancipation Support Committee of Trinidad and Tobago spoke to this fact when he said that without grass root support the initiatives of Caricom would not bear fruit. Therefore a lot of ground work must be done to engage the grass root community and civil society. Generally, in countries with a substantial population of the African Diaspora, the Caribbean, the United States of America and Brazil, the topic of reparations is not given the critical consideration it deserves, there are limited mediums for effective communication and as a result there is an acute lack of awareness on the subject.
The younger generation seem to be completely alienated from the importance of the concept and regrettably, among the older generation, there are still many uninformed mental slaves who hold the view that slavery took us out of Africa, (the country of war and poverty as portrayed by the mainstream media), gave us Christianity and consequently it was for our own benefit. The wealthy upper class within countries of the African Diaspora must also be engaged; a large part being direct descendants of former colonizers (some firmly ingrained with a psychology of privilege) or non-African were never predisposed to support black empowerment ideals and related concepts such as Reparations. To compound matters, we are constantly bombarded by images and information from the mainstream media where the subject of reparations is scarcely even mentioned.
In an advancing technological and industrial world, the script for the International political scene is apparently already written for more important issues and there is no room for anymore discourse; the subject of reparations may not even appear as an extra in the background.
Furthermore, one of the most powerful motivating factors for the local populace in the Caribbean and the rest of the African Diaspora may also be lacking; that of morality. The call for Reparations has not received any widespread commitment from the spiritual community and religious groups in the Caribbean (apart from the Rastafarian movement). It is not in any specific way a part of religious discourse and so many of the faithful do not see the request for reparations as part of “their mission in this world”. This is in stark contrast to the Jewish Community, where the distinction between political and religious issues is often blurred and sometimes non-existence. Therefore, as a practical step, it may be necessary for proponents of Reparation to engage the religious community.
A coalition of the Catholic Archbishops from each Caricom member state, sympathetic to the cause, could petition Pope Francis, a so-called “champion of the poor” and the Vatican to support the call for Reparations. If the Roman Catholic Church made pursuing reparations for slavery part of their mantra, this could mobilize members of the African Diaspora and even cause Europeans and Americans to throw the full weight of their support behind the idea and eventually bring some political pressure to bear on Governments.
There is also the financial factor. The Jews had access to vast amounts of capital and found no difficulty in financing the work of scholars, intellects and experts whereas the Caribbean economy still remains weak and Governments are running deficits. A reparations commission established in 2009 by the Jamaican government, to conduct hearings among Jamaicans and research as to what forms reparations should take, was stalled due to lack of financial support. Though the commission was revived in 2012, the situation highlights the loss in time and effort due to lack of finances.
Political and legal tactics
It has been reported that Caricom has hired Leigh Day & Co., the legal firm which recently won the case for compensation for the Kenyan Mau Mau rebels, who were tortured by the British government in the 1950s and 60s, wherein the British government agreed to pay £19.9 million to thousands of Kenyans survivors. Again, this case illustrates the British government’s customary reluctance to accept liability for their past wrongs. At first, the British government claimed the issue was the responsibility of the Kenyan government on the grounds of "state succession” for former colonies, relying on an obscure legal precedent relating to Patagonian toothfish[and the declaration of martial law in Jamaica in 1860. To avoid disclosure, the Foreign Commonwealth Office attempted to destroy much of the evidence documenting the crimes of the former colonial governments in Kenya.
After the litigants were granted the right to sue, the British government made what was described as the “morally repugnant” decision to appeal the ruling. The agreement to compensate the Kenyan victims only came after it was clear that the crimes of the British colonial government were going to be aired out and fully exposed in the court of law. Mr. Justice McCombe, the Judge who ruled that the Kenyan litigants had standing to sue the British government had this to say:
“ It may well be thought strange, or perhaps even dishonourable, that a legal system which will not in any circumstances admit into its proceedings evidence obtained by torture should yet refuse to entertain a claim against the Government in its own jurisdiction for that Government's allegedly negligent failure to prevent torture which it had the means to prevent. Furthermore, resort to legal technicality . . . to rule such a claim out of court appears particularly misplaced”
Besides seeking a judicial remedy, there is also the legislative route which will be essential if similar legal technicalities resorted to by the British government succeed in preventing compensation via a judicial remedy. The use of a legislation to provide reparations has precedent in the United States. On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed H. R. 442 that authorized the payment of reparations to Japanese Americans who were illegally imprisoned in American concentration camps during World War II. During World War II, the United States government imprisoned nearly all Japanese and Japanese Americans residing in the United States simply because they were Japanese and considered, as a community, a threat to the security of the United States. In 1997, Congressman John Coyers attempted to use the legislative route to provide reparations for descendants of African slaves in the Usbut the bill he introduced failed.
Generally, while the law may provide redress, the case for compensation must be firstly pursued with the use of shrewd political tactics. In all cases where reparations were actually received, the individuals involved, consistently agitating and operating in solidarity as a lobbying group, made others politically conscious of their plight. In the case of reparations for the Jewish Community; their political potency in Europe and America has already been noted. In the case of reparations for the Japanese Americans; ten years of trials had garnered almost nothing. Litigation had proved costly and, ultimately, fruitless. Fortunately however, the Japanese Reparations Movement began relentlessly pursuing their case for reparations using political tactics since 1976. In the case of reparations for the Kenyans, in the years following Kenya’s independence, there was no possibility of the Mau Mau building a case against the British government.
The Mau Mau Uprising was suppressed as a subject for public discussion in Kenya during the periods under Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi. In April 1963, Jomo Kenyata, the then president of Kenya stated in a speech that “Mau Mau was a disease which had been eradicated, and must never be remembered again”. However by 2001, Mau Mau sites were turned into national monuments by the Kenyan government and since 2010, Mashujaa Day is celebrated as a time for Kenyans to remember and honour Mau Mau and other Kenyans who participated in the fight for African freedom and Kenya's independence. The BBC documentary Kenya: White Terror which aired on 17th November 2002 was based on Harvard Professor, Caroline Elkins' research on the Mau Mau Uprising detailed in her 2005 publication, Imperial Reckoning.
Similar to the way the Mau Mau Uprising was not discussed publicly in Kenya, the subject of reparation for descendants of African slaves was politically untouchable in the Caribbean in the years following independence. Though Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller of Jamaica has since come on board; her statement in 2012 before a visit from Prince Harry that she would not join the calls for Reparations is typical example of the lack of tenacity shown by political leaders to address this issue in the past. However now political leaders have taken up the call, no opportunity must be wasted in sensitizing the world to the idea of reparations. Political leaders must be committed and unafraid of taking positions which may seem controversial.
All political channels must be utilized. Political channels through International groups such as the Rotary International, whose stated purpose is to bring together business and professional leaders in order to provide humanitarian services, encourage high ethical standards in all vocations, and help build goodwill and peace in the world. Some of the Masonic Lodges in the Caribbean still maintain ties with lodges in the UK, most notably the United Grand Lodge of England and they should advocate for reparations within their secret chambers. Though, because of their secrecy, there is no evidence of the scope of their influence in Caribbean politics; there is documented evidence of their extensive political influence in Africa.
In 2013, Maurice Robert, French Ambassador under General De Gaulle and member of French Secret Service stated in an interview for the Aljazeera news network that President Mitterand’s Chief Adviser, Guy Penne, used his freemasonry network to gain influence in Africa and that most African leaders belonged to a Masonic lodge. France used this secret network to secure access to oil and maintain a firm grip over its former colonies. In the decades following independence, France supported the lavish lifestyles of African dictators while their people endured extreme poverty. A complicated network of government and non-government employees laundered money through the country's public oil company, Elf Aquitaine. Despite the egregious crimes of their counterparts in Africa, there is no reason to ascribe ill-intent to the Masonic lodge in the Caribbean and hopefully they can utilize any secret political channels they may possess to push for the idea of reparations.
Efforts to shape public opinion are critical as public interest usually has some bearing on legal processes. The potential judge or legislator who will preside over a claim for reparations will not make his decision in a vacuum but within the context of social expectations and where a decision hangs in a delicate balance (e.g. a decision to uphold a legal technicality barring compensation), he may just be swayed by public opinion.
There are a myriad of ways in which the former Colonizers may provide compensation and many practical methods have been suggested. Admittedly, providing compensation for 400 years of slavery, genocide and unpaid labour to millions of people scattered around the globe is by no means an easy task. The following is a non-exhaustive list of practical means by which of compensation can be made:
- Free education
- Free healthcare
- Land grants
- Interest-free loans
- Rehabilitation centers
- Cultural and Social programs to instill solidarity among the members of the African Diaspora.
Though there may be many other specific ways of providing compensation, ultimately reparation has to become a complete science of doing repair and providing redress for injustice. After the reparations program is undertaken, there should be experts and fields of study in providing reparation. The benefits to be derived will be tremendous. Effective implementation would help foster understanding and promote tolerance; uniting the global village under a common banner of good will.
The responsibility of Caribbean governments and political leaders.
Going forward, lessons should also be learned from the past. On the quest to obtain reparation from the former Colonizers, Caribbean governments must be cognizant of their own failures to make a committed attempt to repair the poorest descendants of African slaves.
The historical facts speak for themselves. After slavery was abolished in all the islands, the majority of the arable land remained in hands of the descendants of the Colonizers and the landless former slaves and their descendants were abandoned and had to work for the descendants of the Colonizers who were the owners of the means of production. The descendants of the landless slaves were gradually included in the political process, but they remained at the bottom of the economic ladder. Generations of families lived their entire lives earning minimum wages in farms and factories, making just enough to survive to work for another day.
Many were forced to settle in squatter communities around urban centers in search of employment. After independence, the Governments who came to power provided decent housing accommodation through the use of Housing Schemes but failed to address the problems of inequality through comprehensive land reform. In most islands there were also gradual economic shifts away from agriculture to industry and then there was a subsequent influx of people from rural areas to the squatter communities in search of employment. From such communities arose the ghettos in and around urban centers in islands such as Trinidad, Antigua, St. Lucia, Dominica, Jamaica and others. The failure to address land reform laid the foundations of inequality in the Caribbean and as a result many descendants of African slaves never had an opportunity for economic advancement. They could not obtain loans from the bank to provide tertiary education for their children. They had no capital to start a commercial enterprise.
They never owned land which could be sold to the Government or to merchants who migrated from the Middle-east and China. Today, the descendants of those same landless slaves work in hotels serving tourists and in fast food outlets owned by big conglomerates earning the same minimum wages, making just enough to survive to work for another day.
The squatter communities around urban centers where landless ex-slaves settled now have the scourge of crime born out of poverty, from the favelas in Rio De Janeiro to the slums of Kingston and the solution proposed by the Governments has never been economic empowerment but more police, soldiers, state of emergencies and curfews. It is no wonder why the disease of crime cannot be solved, because Caricom governments have never tackled the cause, only the symptoms. Political parties pay lip service to the poor at election time but shortly after victory the public coffers are pilfered by Government officials for personal gain.
Since the call for reparations by political leaders is based on the desire to repair the descendants of African Slaves, in particular the poorest, how is one to believe that political leaders are committed to repair when they have a dismal record on alleviating poverty.
Professor Beckles, at a public lecture and launch of his book Britain’s Black Debt at St Augustine Campus, UWI, Trinidad, said that “Caribbean nations which ignore the human and civil rights of the citizenry will never be able to access reparations” Consequently, for any future reparations program to be successful, there must be greater efforts to combat corruption within Governments as every tax dollar which is stolen is robbery of the poor, those most in need of reparations and most dependent on Government funding for essential needs such as education and healthcare. From now until the day of compensation, Caricom governments must take greater strides to act in accordance with the principles of good governance and ensure that a sense of morality prevails in public office. If such steps are not taken the grass roots community and civil society will not be engaged.
There must also be an honest recognition by Governments that they have in some ways contributed to the perpetuation of systems of inequality because of the abject failure to address land reform and, in some cases, the wholesale acceptance of neo-liberal economic policies from the World Bank and IMF. The creation of a dynamic economic policy befitting of the Caribbean’s economy is needed. If Caribbean governments fail to act on these initiatives, the benefits of reparations will be fleeting and the “top-down” approach suggested will surely come to naught.