Reparations: the practical and relevant


guest-verdun-1I’m in favour of reparations for slavery; in principle, for the devil is in the details.

There are some who deny that the forced transportation and enslavement of Africans in the Caribbean was a crime against humanity. They argue that slavery has been with us since the dawn of history.

But the transatlantic slave trade and slavery were a unique crime against humanity in which millions of Africans were transported in the most inhumane fashion to the Caribbean (12 to 20 per cent dying in the process), and there subjected to the dehumanizing brutality of slavery. The statistics speak for themselves: British slave ships alone brought over five million Africans to the Caribbean. When slavery was abolished in 1838, there were just 800,000 slaves left.

But working out a reparations arrangement is difficult. If you look at the ten-point plan of the CARICOM Reparations Commission, you can imagine how tortured and complex the discussions must have been.

Let’s take the second point of the plan: the paid repatriation of those persons of African descent in the Caribbean who wish to return to Africa. Which African countries are going to accept these returnees and under what conditions? And what if some decide after a couple of years that they would rather return to the Caribbean: who pays for this re-repatriation?

Or consider Point 5: funding for eliminating the chronic diseases now prevalent throughout the Caribbean. It’s really a bit much to blame our current epidemic of diabetes and hypertension on slavery. We might as well blame slavery for all our problems, which reduces the discussion to absurdity.

Points 9 and 10 connecting reparations to technology transfer and debt forgiveness are also a bit of a stretch.

After 50 years, Caribbean governments and peoples have to take responsibility for their own actions or inactions.

I think reparation claims should be tied more specifically to slavery and its effects, should be more realistic, and should take account of the Europeans’ concerns about widespread legal liability for colonialism.

In the case of the Jewish Holocaust, reparations agreed to between the governments of Germany and Israel were related to Israel’s cost of  resettling and rehabilitating those Jews who had survived or escaped the Nazi genocidal programme, along with compensation for stolen property.  More abstractly, reparations were also demanded for the “mass murder, the human suffering, the annihilation of spiritual, intellectual, and creative forces, which are without parallel in the history of mankind”.

This suggests how we might best proceed.

We might claim reparatory justice for the same reasons as the Jews did. The Afro-Caribbean Holocaust was a unique horrendous event in history that involved mass murder, human suffering and the annihilation of spiritual, intellectual, and creative forces. This was a horrific enterprise on a massive scale never seen before.

It drew Europe, Africa and the Caribbean into a triangular relationship that was as hugely beneficial to a minority as it was devastating to the majority.

Yes, African and Arab rulers were complicit in the slave trade, but it was the Europeans who inflicted a near total genocide of the Caribbean’s indigenous peoples, and then proceeded to construct new societies based upon the ideology of white supremacy and the infrastructure of African slavery that has left a legacy of racism and perceptions of inferiority that still affect our societies.

Having said that, to demand that Europe in reparation should solve our health, educational and other social and economic problems would be to throw us back into a situation of neocolonial dependency.

I suggest our reparation proposals to the Europeans should be made in a spirit of  cooperation rather than retribution, and should be more relevant and practical.
Here’s one scenario.

Reparatory justice for the Afro-Caribbean Holocaust might be negotiated between Caribbean governments and the European Union. The agreement would constitute a partnership for truth, justice, healing, reconciliation and forgiveness.

It would involve an explicit acknowledgement of the immense harm done to Caribbean societies by slavery, an expression of remorse for the harm inflicted, an acceptance of moral responsibility for that harm, and an offer of restitution by volunteering to contribute in defined and relevant ways to the healing of Caribbean societies –– all this expressly excluding any consequential legal liability.

The agreement would provide for a fund (maybe called the Buxton-Wilberforce Fund, as suggested by former Prime Minister Owen Arthur) that would be used for three purposes: poverty alleviation, education, and commemoration of the Afro-Caribbean Holocaust.

All financing for projects from the fund would have to be agreed to jointly by the governments of the European donor countries, the governments of the Caribbean recipient countries, and by their respective NGO communities. This would be more acceptable to the Europeans and would ensure greater accountability and transparency.

Poverty alleviation. The fund would finance specific, clearly defined projects aimed at helping the most vulnerable and poor in Caribbean societies, for these are the most direct survivors of the attempted annihilation of hope.

Education. The fund would finance:

(a) Annual scholarships for Caribbean students to study at European universities;

(b) Student and teacher exchanges between African and Caribbean universities and other cultural exchanges;

(c) Visiting lectureships at Caribbean universities by European and
African academics;

(d) Student and teacher exchanges between universities of the English, French, Dutch, and Spanish-speaking Caribbean;

(e) Chairs in African studies and slavery at Caribbean universities;

(f) Educational programmes at the primary and secondary level aimed at combating perceptions of inferiority, based on historical research from a Caribbean perspective on slavery and our African heritage, that not only highlights the horrors of slavery, but also celebrates the ingenious forms of resistance and the rich cultural expressions that slaves created against all odds, and bequeathed to us as their enduring legacy.

Commemoration. The fund would finance:

(a) The establishment of memorials and museums of the slave trade and slavery in the Caribbean;

(b) The establishment in the Caribbean of a Caribbean-European Centre For Ethnic And Diaspora Studies.

After that, we could move on.

(Peter Laurie, a former Barbados diplomat, is a noted social commentator.)

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