Will the Caribbean Reparations Initiative Inspire a Revitalization of the US Movement?
Picture this scene. It was almost surreal, improbable just a few years ago: a room filled with presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers from the fifteen-nation Caribbean Community (CARICOM), all listening with rapt attention, several nodding in agreement, as Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, one of the region’s most distinguished academics, and perhaps the Caribbean’s most prominent public intellectual, gave a riveting report on the recent work of CARICOM’s Reparations Commission, which he leads.
Yes, “reparations,” as in compensation for the crimes of slavery and indigenous genocide at the hands of former European colonizers—reparations, as in reparatory justice for the horrific consequences of two of the greatest crimes against humanity in the history of this planet—the 400 years of the African slave trade and the systematic and calculated extermination of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
This scene played out in the conference room of the beautiful Buccament Bay Resort on the Eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent on March 10, 2014; the occasion—the 25th Inter-Sessional Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community. Contrary to what a casual observer could conclude, this was not some gathering of flaming radical black nationalists demanding reparations from white society.
There was applause at the end of the professor’s report. Not a single dissenting voice was heard from a group of leaders whose politics ranged from conservative through liberal to progressive. The CARICOM heads of government then proceeded to unanimously adopt a ten-point program for reparatory justice for the region.
This breakthrough plan calls for a formal apology for slavery, debt cancellation from former colonizers and reparation payments to repair the persisting “psychological trauma” from the days of plantation slavery.
For over 400 years Africans and their descendants were classified in law as non-human, chattel, property, and real estate. They were denied recognition as members of the human family by laws derived from the parliaments and palaces of Europe.
This history has inflicted massive psychological trauma upon African descendant populations. This much is evident daily in the Caribbean. Only a reparatory justice approach to truth and educational exposure can begin the process of healing and repair. Such an engagement will call into being, for example, the need for greater Caribbean integration designed to enable the coming together of the fragmented community,” stated the CARICOM Reparations Commission.
The plan also calls for assistance to boost the region’s technological capacity and to strengthen its public health, education and cultural institutions such as museums and research centers. It even calls for the creation of a “repatriation program”, including legal and diplomatic assistance from European governments, to potentially resettle any person who wishes to return to Africa, particularly members of the Rastafarian spiritual movement. Repatriation to Africa has been a cardinal belief of Rastafari for decades, and their followers have consistently advocated for reparations.
Collectively, the economies of CARICOM member states totals about $78 billion which would place the region sixty-fifth 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 its demands for reparations possess enormous moral authority, as it suffered over 400 years of slavery and colonialism at the hands of European powers, mainly Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Strong support for CARICOM’s reparations claims was voiced in late January by the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) at its summit in Havana, Cuba. In a “Special Declaration” on the issue of reparations for slavery and the genocide of native peoples, CELAC said it supported wholeheartedly “a swift, action-oriented and good-faith engagement with those colonizing states responsible for the genocide of native peoples and African enslavement in the region, with the sponsorship and organization of the State with a view to identifying just and effective means to provide reparations for the impact of those serious violations of human rights that are a crime against humanity, to which they are morally obliged.”
If the European powers fail to publicly apologize and refuse to come to the negotiating table, the CARICOM nations said they will file a lawsuit against the European powers at the International Court of Justice in the Hague.
They have hired a powerful British human rights law firm, Leigh Day, to represent their claims against Europe. Martyn Day, a senior partner at the firm, said that plans are afoot to convene an upcoming meeting in London between Caribbean and European officials to “enable our clients to quickly gauge whether or not their concerns are being taken seriously.” He called the CARICOM plan a “fair set of demands on the governments whose countries grew rich at the expense of those regions whose human wealth was stolen from them.”
In 2013 the Leigh Day firm waged a successful campaign for compensation of almost $20 million for surviving Kenyans who were tortured by the British colonial government during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s.
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 Telegraph, The Independent and The Guardian, and Sweden’s ambassador to the Caribbean said that his government welcomes the opportunity to have a reparations dialogue with CARICOM. But a British Foreign and Commonwealth Office official shot down the CARICOM plan, saying, “The UK 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. Ta-Nehisi Coates and The Atlantic are to be commended for raising the reparations issue in a major way at this time, especially as it relates to both the historical and contemporary experiences of African-Americans. Their special reparations coverage will contribute enormously to bringing this critical issue back onto the public policy agenda, and I fully support Ta-Nehisi’s recommendation that Congressman John Conyer’s HR-40 bill, which has languished in the House for years, could be the platform for relaunching a serious and consistent public debate on reparations.
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.
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, after slavery was abolished, from the compensation paid to them by the British government for the loss of their human property.
While Caribbean nations struggle to make Europe recognize their claim for reparations, similar compensation had been paid out in the middle of the nineteenth century to British slave owners forced to relinquish their “private property” upon the abolition of slavery in 1833, payments to the tune of 20 million pounds, which would be valued at 27.5 billion US dollars today, and totaling 40 percent of the British government’s spending in 1834. Slave owners who received compensation included the ancestors of Britain’s current Prime Minister David Cameron, authors George Orwell and Graham Greene, poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and former minister Douglas Hogg. The freed slaves, of course, received nothing.
The demand for reparations has a long history in the Caribbean, but never before have sovereign states in the region spoken out unanimously in their claims for restitution for past crimes against humanity that marked the periods of plantation slavery and European colonization. The Caribbean leaders supporting reparations have described the movement as the “last stage of de-colonization and the next stage of development.”
In 2003, a year before he was ousted, Haiti’s then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide requested that France pay Haiti over $21 billion in reparations. He said that figure was the equivalent of the 90 million gold francs his country was forced to pay Paris as a sort of punishment for winning its freedom from France in the first successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere in 1804, which established the first independent black nation in the so-called “New World.” France flatly refused to comply with Aristide’s reparations demand, and some commentators have argued that Aristide’s bold demand was partly responsible for his overthrow. Now, ten years later, Haiti’s current President Michel Martelly has joined forces with his fellow CARICOM leaders in establishing the CARICOM Reparations Commission.
The sheer audacity of their ten-point program for “reparatory justice” in the Caribbean deserves the solidarity and moral support of social justice lovers in the United States and around the world.
On April 19, 2014, at Chicago State University, Beckles delivered the keynote speech to hundreds assembled and thousands around the world viewing the live webcast of a reparations rally organized by the Institute of the Black World 21st Century (IBW), a New York–based advocacy and public policy organization led by veteran activist Dr. Ron Daniels. (Full disclosure: I work as the director of communications for IBW). The stated purpose of the rally was to “revitalize” the reparations movement in the United States.
In the late 1990s through the early 2000s, the reparations movement in the United States had generated significant momentum, which came to a head at the UN’s global conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, in the fall of 2001. Shortly thereafter came 9/11 and later, in 2008, the election of Barack Obama as America’s first black president, two seminal events in contemporary US history that considerably slowed that momentum. Now as the Obama era comes to a close and with social and economic conditions in black America stalled, and in many cases receding, the US reparations movement, inspired by what’s happening in the Caribbean, is starting to stir into life again.
Sitting on the Chicago stage listening to Professor Beckles was a stellar row of other speakers, including Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam; Congressman John Conyers, dean of the Congressional Black Caucus and author of HR-40, the landmark reparations bill he introduced in Congress some fifteen years ago; and Ambassador Rhonda King, permanent representative to the United Nations from St. Vincent & the Grenadines, the Caribbean nation currently leading the charge for the CARICOM reparations movement.
During his one-hour address, the audience sat in rapt attention, listening to Beckles give a veritable history lesson about slavery in the Caribbean and in the Americas at large, one that would never be taught in US classrooms or appear on movie screens. He articulated a well-documented argument about how Britain and other European countries used slavery to build their empires on the backs of Africans, proud human beings who were worked to death and not paid a cent for their hundreds of years of labor servicing the economic interests of white supremacy.
He noted how British slave ships transported 3.3 million Africans to the plantations in the new world, and discussed how France abolished slavery in 1794, but reinstated it in 1802 after Josephine, a white Creole from Martinique who became Napoleon’s wife and Empress of France, successfully pushed to have France reinstate slavery to assist her family’s failing sugar plantation in the Caribbean.
Beckles discussed the Zong massacre, which occurred aboard the slave ship Zong, how the crew became lost at sea in 1781 and in order to conserve food and water, they threw 142 slaves overboard. The slaves were eaten by sharks, Beckles said.
The Zong’s owners, who were based in Liverpool, England, sought compensation from insurance companies for the slaves they lost. The insurance companies refused to pay, but a British court ruled that the ship’s owners must be compensated because slaves were not human. They were property.
There are plenty of historical precedents for reparations to “repair the damages” done as a consequence of crimes against humanity. Like the Jewish Holocaust, African slavery in the Caribbean and the rest of the Americas were also crimes against humanity.
In 1945, Israeli authorities made a claim to the four powers occupying post-war Germany regarding compensation and reimbursement, based on the fact that Israel had absorbed and resettled 500,000 Holocaust survivors. They calculated that since absorption had cost $3,000 per person (almost $27,000 in today’s dollars), they were owed $1.5 billion (some $13.4 billion in today’s dollars) by Germany. They also figured that $6 billion worth of Jewish property had been pillaged by the Nazis, but stressed that the Germans could never make up for what they did with any type of material recompense.
Negotiations leading to the reparations agreement between Israel and West Germany began in March 1952, and were conducted between representatives of the government of the Federal Republic, the government of the State of Israel and representatives of the World Jewish Congress.
The agreement was signed by West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett and World Jewish Congress President Nahum Goldmann on September 10, 1952, in the town hall of Luxembourg. The German Parliament (Bundestag) passed the agreement on March 18, 1953, by a large majority, 239 for and thirty-five against.
Reparations for centuries of brutal oppression and exploitation of enslaved African people in the Americas is, undoubtedly, one of the great moral imperatives of the day. It is inextricably connected to growing income and wealth inequality in the United States, the Caribbean and other parts of the Americas that President Obama has famously described as the “defining challenge of our time”.
The so-called pragmatists who argue that the question of reparations is impractical, unachievable, utopian, a waste of time and energy are those who are ignorant of the moral power of a cause whose time has come.
Today, throughout the Caribbean region, discussions of reparations are starting to alter the political narrative, reformulating analysis of economic history, linking the challenges of future socioeconomic development with the need for reparatory justice—indeed, reshaping the very fundamentals of public discourse in the region.
Here in the United States a revitalized reparations campaign can and must become a critical component of the civil and human rights movements of the twenty-first century. Like its counterpart in the Caribbean, the US reparations movement is not a thing of the past. It is about historical justice for today and tomorrow, and until justice is done reparations will always be relevant, will always be a struggle to right the wrongs of a tortured past.
Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith argues that America was built on racial and gender inequality.