Last week throughout the English speaking Caribbean, people celebrated the national holiday of “Emancipation Day,” which marks the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act that brought an end to the formal institution of slavery throughout the British Empire in August 1834. While Emancipation was a monumental step forward for the peoples of the Caribbean, it left behind a legacy of widespread poverty, underdevelopment, and dependency which continue to pose serious problems for the region as a whole.
While the Caribbean has been often overlooked today in regards to its small size, dependent economies, and political fragmentation, during the 18th century the region was indispensable to the development of industrial capitalism in Europe. As Eric Williams describes in Capitalism and Slavery “The slave trade kept the wheels of metropolitan industry turning; it stimulated navigation and shipbuilding and employed seamen; it raised fishing villages into flourishing cities; it gave sustenance to new industries based on the processing of colonial raw materials; it yielding large profits which were ploughed back into metropolitan industry; and, finally, it gave rise to an unprecedented commerce in the West Indies and made the Caribbean territories among the most valuable colonies the world has ever known.”
At the 34th regular meeting of the Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) on July 6, the member states created the National Reparations Committee, with Barbados, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Haiti, Guyana, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago providing political oversight.
Baldwin Spencer, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, spoke on how the legacy of genocide, slavery, and colonialism has impacted the Caribbean’s developmental path, stating that “We know that our constant search and struggle for development resources is linked directly to the historical inability of our nations to accumulate wealth from the efforts of our peoples during slavery and colonialism. These nations that have been the major producers of wealth for the European slave-owning economies during the enslavement and colonial periods entered Independence with dependency straddling their economic, cultural, social and even political lives.”
It has been confirmed that Leigh Day & Co., a British human rights law firm, has been contacted by CARICOM to consider going forward with a legal challenge to seek compensation from the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands for the horrors of African slavery and the genocide of the region’s native peoples.
Attorney Martin Day released a statement which remarked that “At this early stage the CARICOM Governments have asked us to advise them on the bringing of a legal claim against the British, French and Dutch governments if they cannot reach a negotiated settlement. What is an important factor in this potential legal action is that CARICOM is interested in seeking a settlement for the impact of slavery on their communities' today, not on the historic position of the individual slaves. The next step will be a meeting in September of the CARICOM countries when we will be looking to set out the claim and following that make contact with the three European Governments involved.”
Leigh Day & Co. was previously victorious in fighting the British Government for compensation for hundreds of Kenyans who were tortured by the British colonial government during the “Mau Mau Uprising” in the 1950's.
Richard Lanns, a law student who is currently working for the Office of the Prime Minister of St. Lucia, provided some more insight on the establishment of CARICOM’s Reparations Committee, highlighting that “While we all grew up learning about the injustices and horrors of slavery, I’m not sure that we are taught how much the colonizing powers, their citizens and corporations benefited from both the slave trade and slave labor. On top of all this, when slavery was abolished in 1834 and as part of the Abolition of Slavery Act of 1834, the British government forked out 20 million pounds (in 1834 money) of tax payers' dollars to compensate the former slave owners for the loss of their slaves. The former slaves received nothing.”
While a specific dollar amount has not been referenced so far, Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines Ralph Gonsalves and Chairwoman of the National Reparations Commission in Jamaica, Verene Shepherd, remarked in an interview to the Associated Press that “Britain at the time of emancipation in 1834 paid 20 million pounds to British planters in the Caribbean, the equivalent of 200 billion pounds today.” Gonsalves added that any money received is not going to be handed to individuals, but will be directed towards economic, social, and cultural programs.
It remains to be seen how CARICOM’s Reparations Commission will be received by the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands. While it has been stated by both the Commission and attorney Martin Day that it is hoped that a negotiated settlement can be reached, no doubt it will strain relations between the two regions. After all, the call for reparations within the Caribbean is not without precedent.
In a separate reparations case in 2003, Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide demanded that France pay Haiti back $21 billion (the equivalent of 90 million gold francs when inflation is considered) which is the sum Haiti was forced to pay France for “lost property” and diplomatic recognition after their successful revolution in 1804. Aristide made it very clear that despite the impossibly large sum of money for Haiti to pay at that time, the government from 1825 to 1947 was forced to repay the French or face the deployment of gunships and economic sanctions.
Despite the historical validity of the demand by put forward by Aristide, it was dismissed by the French government, that stated they already provided Haiti with millions of dollars in aid and belittled his motives, arguing that this was little more than an effort to distract his population from matters of corruption and poverty in Haiti. Realistically, it can safely be assumed that the French were afraid that this would then set a rather expensive precedent for other colonized nations to follow and the coup in February 2004 removed both Aristide and the issue of reparations from the international spotlight.
While the issue of reparations will make some uncomfortable, it is a necessary conversation to have. As articulated by Richard Lanns, “The significance in this suit is that it represents an opportunity on the part of the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands to acknowledge their role in one of the greatest travesties of human history. At its core, reparations are about how Europe was greatly enriched by centuries of mass murder, pillage, rape and enslavement and as such, now owes a debt to the region. The Caribbean is not looking for an aid package or a handout and ultimately, the conversation about reparations will need to be couched within the context of development and justice.”
For those seeking more information on the deep and lasting legacy of slavery, genocide, and colonialism, they have been studied in great detail, outlined in ground-breaking books such as Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery, Clive Y. Thomas The Poor and Powerless, and Hillary Beckles' Britain’s Black Debt.
Kevin Edmonds is a NACLA blogger focusing on the Caribbean. For more from his blog, "The Other Side of Paradise," visit nacla.org/blog/other-side-paradise. Edmonds is a former NACLA research associate and a current PhD student at the University of Toronto, where he is studying the impact of neoliberalism on the St. Lucian banana trade. Follow him on twitter @kevin_edmonds.