The Pursuit of Caribbean Slavery Reparations from Europe – does it have a chance?

slaveryCARICOM, a group of 15 West Indian countries, has put together a committee chaired by Professor Hilary Beckles to pursue slavery reparations from 8 European countries, also accusing them of leaving their countries without stable infrastructures or natural resources upon independence, instead washing their hands of responsibility and leaving them to deteriorate. CARICOM is seeking to rectify the damaging effects from the fallout of slavery and oppression by demanding an apology, money and diplomatic support to aid in repairing the long-lasting damage.

[Although] cynics suggest that our regional political leaders are using the reparations issue as a diversion from their inability to properly manage governmental institutions and natural resources for the advancement of Caribbean peoples.

Countries demanding reparations Targeted European Countries
(1)  Antigua and Barbuda Britain
(2)  The Bahamas Denmark
(3)  Barbados France
(4)  Belize Norway
(5)  Dominica The Netherlands
(6)  Grenada Portugal
(7)  Guyana Spain
(8)  Haiti Sweden
(9)  Jamaica
(10)  Montserrat*
(11)  Saint Lucia
(12)  St. Kitts and Nevis
(13)  St. Vincent and the   Grenadines
(14)  Suriname
(15)  Trinidad and Tobago

*British Overseas Territory and all inhabitants have British citizenship

An apology is never going to happen. Nor would I expect one. Apologies should come from the slavers and planters themselves – those that directly benefited from it. Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire almost two centuries ago; the exploiters are long dead. Fortunes were made off the backs of millions over four centuries, and although it seems unfair that slave owners were compensated for the loss of their “property” when the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act went through when none of these slaves were compensated for the lost years of their lives, their stolen sons and daughters or their deteriorating health, penalising the descendants of the oppressors – the kidnappers, rapists and torturers – seems ardently unfair. We shouldn’t punish children for the sins of their forefathers.

Any apology forced from their lips is meaningless, except to lawyers (grounds for suing by accepting responsibility for wrongdoing). Actions mean more than words, but what action should they take? Are they morally obligated to make goodwill gestures? Well, certain family dynasties established their wealth through slavery that their descendants have maintained and benefited from today, affording them with privileged lifestyles, but that’s the extent of it. Simply being born into wealth doesn’t make them guilty.

However, Britain already ‘contributes about £15million a year in development to the Caribbean‘ and imports a number of commodities from the Caribbean. They also opened their doors from the 1950s onwards to West Indian citizens giving them the opportunity to emigrate and find jobs in Britain, granted they were low-paid and suffered terrible racism, but this gave them an opportunity to prosper. My Barbadian grandparents came over in the mid-1950s, they divorced shortly after, and my grandmother had been a hospital cleaner ever since. Despite the low pay, when she died she owned her own home and had enough money in her bank account to buy a handful of cars. How much more is Britain expected to do?

Lets examine their other demands:

• provide diplomatic help to persuade countries such as Ghana and Ethiopia to offer citizenship to the children of people from the Caribbean who “return” to Africa. Some 30,000 have made such a journey to Africa and have been offered generous settlement packages, but lack of citizenship rights for their children is causing difficulties;

How can you ask Ethiopia – the most populated country in all of this and the poorest as one of the top 20 poorest countries in the world – whose people regularly suffer droughts, increasing disease (AIDs and malaria among others) and starvation – to invite more mouths to feed and bodies to treat? (Ghana is little better as poorer than all but Haiti.) Sickle-cell trait is rarer among Caribbean peoples so they’ll be prone to malaria, the drugs for which are difficult to obtain in that part of the world. Not to mention the rife cultural practice of Female Genital Mutilation. In 2001, there were 24,000 Rastafarians living in Jamaica and for whom Ethiopia is Zion, so we could be looking at thousands wanting to emigrate to countries far poorer than the home of their birth.

• devise a development strategy to help improve the lives of poor communities in the Caribbean still devastated by the after-effects of slavery;

Despite being a descendant of Barbadian slavery, I’m too far removed from the country, living in England, to really judge the situation or decide how improvements could be made, so I’ll take a shot in the dark. Work to decrease crime and corruption and increase self-worth with better quality education and diversifying the industries and services Caribbean countries specialise in to kick-start their economies, creating more jobs and thereby making crime less profitable. Finding a niche in the global market will enable them to compete with more than just their near neighbours. Some have done exactly this.

• support cultural exchanges between the Caribbean and west Africa to help Caribbean people of African descent rebuild their sense of history and identity;

Racial hatred. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Among certain Africans, Caribbeans are known as the ‘White Man’s Slave’ – the lower than the low, people you should treat like the shit on your shoe. Coercing Africans to accept an influx of people and forcing them to share their already meagre resources is a recipe for disaster. Africans settling in Britain can attest to the racial tensions in the aftermath of uncontrolled immigration, though it’s unlikely that all 17 million will choose to move to one specific African country.

• back literacy drives designed to improve education levels that are still dire in many Caribbean communities;

Offering up money to countries where corruption is rife such as Haiti or the dangerous battlefields of Jamaica ruled by gangs rather than government is incredibly risky and verges on the irresponsible. Restrictions and/or oversight by an impartial, and hopefully incorruptible, observer would be necessary.

• provide medical assistance to the region that is struggling from high levels of chronic diseases such as hypertension and type 2 diabetes that the Caricom reparations commission links to the fallout from slavery.

Money again. Or perhaps not. Providing supplies, training and perhaps making it easier for medical staff to relocate to these countries to meet immediate demand in the interim, could be better options.

All this talk of money, perhaps we should take a closer look at CARICOM’s wealth per person:

CARICOM countries

Here are the European countries for comparison:

  • The Bahamas and Barbados are richer than the poorest European targeted nation of Portugal. One could argue that they don’t need any fiscal support.
  • Haiti, the poorest West Indian nation, is richer than Ethiopia, one of the emigration options for Caribbeans.
  • The average wealth per person of the CARICOM countries is $14,293 – less than half of the Europeans’ at $37,688.

Some would say the statute of limitations on these crimes against humanity has ended. None of the original victims and perpetrators are still living. With that in mind, why are we only focusing on the victims of the Atlantic Slave Trade and not the African victims of the Arab slave trade or those of the Ottoman Empire which occurred in the same time period, or taking a closer look at the Jewish slavers in the Caribbean?

The difference is in the numbers – they have given this proposal its legs. The the number of miles slaves were transported, the number of victims, the number of crimes, the number of years of abuse, the number of lives lost. And the severity of that abuse is… nightmarish – they’re viewed as the worst crimes known to man.

Is the provocative picture this paints being used to emotionally blackmail Europe?

Nearly all of these West Indian countries have declared themselves independent and therefore no longer reliant on imperialist rule. If claims for reparations were to be made, they should’ve been made then as part of their devolution / divorce settlement to fund their future growth. On the other hand, it could be argued that they were not yet prepared to make such claims.

Many have pointed out that modern slavery is more important as the victims are alive and in need of help now. However, the destitution of Haiti’s people means thousands of their children are forced into unpaid work in order to keep themselves fed.

While reading various related articles, none of them considered the 800,000 white slaves, also known as Redlegs as a result of sunburn, taken from Ireland in the 1600s as criminals and prisoners of war. Same with the 100,000 slaves taken from Scotland, or even the poor whites working as indentured servants.

Do the African chiefs and kings who sold their own people to European slavers have to take some of the blame? You could claim they were pressured into handing over their own people, blackmailed with the prospect of their villages being ambushed and their inhabitants captured, but we also have to face the possibility that they were enslaving their own people long before the white slaver arrived.

If hell freezes over and Europe pays up, whether as small pacification gestures or a full settlement, any money awarded has little hope of reaching the descendants of slaves – thousands, if not millions, have left West Indian shores. Even if investment was made in the CARICOM economies, the corrupt government of Haiti, the deep-seated criminal element in Jamaica, and the rich whites of Barbados – the Monaco of the Caribbean – will find a way to funnel the money their way.

I’ll leave you with a discussion on AlJazeera with:

  • Richard Stein: partner at Leigh Day, the firm representing the Caribbean states
  • Aidan McQuade: director of Anti-Slavery International
  • Kevin Bales: professor of contemporary slavery, Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull
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