Blood money or justice?
Ask about reparations for Caribbean slavery and different people would give different answers.
Take Barbados’ leader, Freundel Stuart.
“We are just trying to frame the arguments for a meaningful discussion on the issue and to make sure it is not mishandled and doesn’t get out of hand and become a mechanism for re-opening wounds that really don’t need re-opening,” Stuart said recently in Scarborough, a Toronto suburb.
He went further.
“It is just to effect an understanding as how the countries which benefitted from the slave trade and slavery might want to assist in the further development of those that were ravaged by slavery and the slave trade,” he said.
To Sir Hilary Beckles, Principal of the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies in Barbados whose landmark book, Britain’s Black Debt, reparations are an ethical consequence of the criminal acts of slave trading and slavery committed in the Caribbean by Britain and other Europe powers “and as such are subject to reparatory justice.”
As Dr Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of St Vincent & the Grenadines, sees it, the awful legacy of the crimes of slavery and slave trade, crimes against humanity, “ought to be repaired for the developmental benefit of our Caribbean societies and all of our people.”
But to The Economist, perhaps the English language’s leading international weekly news publication, the slave trade was “a great wrong” and the call by Caribbean nations for reparations may come down to a request to smooth over a great injustice with cash. Indeed, a headline atop a story on the issue in The Economist used the words “Blood Money” to describe the pressure for compensation for the trade in human beings by Europeans.
When slavery was abolished in the English-speaking Caribbean in 1838, Britain borrowed 20 million pounds sterling, 40 per cent of the country’s budget, to settle 47 000 claims lodged by about 3 000 slave owners for the loss of their human property. But “the former slaves got nothing,” stated the Economist.
In the 175 years since then, “most former colonies in the Caribbean are now fairly successful middle-income countries, or better,” according to the British paper. “On a PPP (purchasing power parity) basis, the Bahamas has a GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per head close to that of Spain or Italy. Barbados scores higher on the UN Development Program’s human development index than any of its much larger South American neighbours; Jamaica and Guyana are less prosperous; but only Haiti ranks among the world’s poorest.”
That was why “any assistance to the (Caribbean) region should be carefully targeted; and should surely stem from today’s needs, not the wrongs of the past,” added the Economist.
But it was quick to warn that “few of history’s great wrongs have been smoothed over with cash.” For example, attempts to force Germany to pay for the First World War “hastened the second” global conflict. However, it pointed to the financial agreement between West Germany and Israel signed in 1952, seven years after the Nazis had killed millions of Jews during the Second World War as a precedent for financial reparations. Just recently Britain decided to pay reparations to 5 228 elderly Kenyans who were “brutally mistreated during the suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s.” Each Kenyan is to receive $4 000.
How much should be paid? Figures vary, ranging from 17 billion to 70 billion pounds sterling.
Next, who should be paid? “Caricom is talking about compensation at a national level. Based on the numbers with slave ancestors that would funnel the lion’s share of the money to America and Brazil – with a good slice to Brixton and Birmingham,” British cities where tens of thousands of Black West Indians now call home-away-from home, was the way the Economist put it.
When Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, St Vincent and their Caricom neighbours addressed the UN recently, some of them took turns pressing the reparations case, calling for a discussion on the matter between the Caribbean and the Europeans. Antigua’s leader, Baldwin Spencer, with his country’s Ambassador, Dr John Ashe presiding over the General Assembly session conceptualized “the call for reparations as an integral element of our development strategy and that the legacy of slavery and colonialism in the Caribbean has severely impaired our development options.”
Portia Simpson-Miller, Jamaica’s Prime Minister said her country supports “the call for an international discussion in a non-confrontational manner on the question of reparations.”
That’s in line with Stuart’s thinking in his capacity as chairman of the Caricom Reparations Commission.
“It is not intended to be diplomacy of protest and it is not intended to be a hostile and adversarial and blood debate. It is just a search for a greater understanding and for some compromise in terms of the effects of slavery and the slave trade on the Caribbean,” he said.
One thing seems certain: the Caribbean is in for an extended discussion and a long wait before a penny is paid to any country. Unlike Kenya, there isn’t going to be any money handed over to individuals.