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Will Western Europe Pay Out to Slave Descendants?

An alliance of Caribbean states is seeking reparations from their former colonial overlords.

by Katie Engelhart
12 December 2013, 3:30pm


A slave market in Atlanta, Georgia (photo via)

Britain formally put an end to its slave trade in 1807, but it took another three decades for the Empire to free its last slaves in the Caribbean. By then, Britain had shipped around 3.4 million Africans—mostly via Liverpool, then a gilded, prolific slave port—over the Atlantic Ocean into a life of grim, inescapable servitude.

When Britain finally admitted the error in its ways, it had to pay. In 1838, the government gathered $33 million (a staggering 40 percent of its expenditure, and up to tens of billions at today's rates) to use as payouts to thousands of pissed-off slave owners. The slaves got nothing. Now, some 175 years later, the Caribbean states where so many slaves were sent want that money back.

In July, members of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM), an alliance of Caribbean states, announced that they would seek financial compensation from their former colonial overlords: Britain, France, and the Netherlands. Earlier this week, in a small, beige conference room in Kingston, Jamaica, CARICOM representatives met to reiterate their resolve and outline a game plan. They intend to file lawsuits in British, French, and Dutch courts—and then, if that doesn’t do the trick, bring their case to the International Court of Justice. Evoking “the spirit of Mandela,” Sir Hillary Beckles—historian and author of Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide—explained, “There are vestiges of slavery that have certainly slowed our progress as a people.”

This is not the first time that far-away descendants of slaves have talked about suing far-away descendants of slave owners. For decades, the demand for sweeping—perhaps global order shattering—reparations has been building in Africa, America, and the Caribbean. With zero success thus far, this newest case appears doomed from the get-go. But there is cause for optimism: CARICOM has hired an esteemed British law firm, Leigh, Day & Co, to serve as legal counsel. That’s the same firm that just represented a group of Kenyans in a successful and historic compensation suit against Britain over the use of torture by British colonial officers in the 1950s. Nobody thought the Kenyans stood a chance. And Britain refused to cooperate, until—in June—it did, issuing its first-ever formal apology for colonial crimes.

On Tuesday, a spokesperson from Britain’s Foreign Office sent VICE a short statement on the CARICOM case: “Slavery was and is abhorrent… The UK unreservedly condemns slavery and is committed to eliminating it.” But—crucially—they “do not see reparations as the answer.”

In July, at a meeting in Trinidad, leaders from 14 CARICOM nations agreed to wage a joint legal war against the economic beneficiaries of slavery. “Apology… is wholly insufficient. We have to have appropriate recompense,” Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, scoffed in an interview with Associated Press. “Look,” he would later protest, “the Germans paid the Jews!”

Baldwin Spencer (in the FBI cap), prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda (Photo via)

At the summit, Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer of Antigua and Barbuda led the charge: “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,” he explained. And so reparations money would not be doled out to individual ancestors, but instead used for development. Those gathered created a joint CARICOM Reparations Committee. And each member-state agreed to form a National Reparations Committee “to document the effects of European genocide.”

In September, CARICOM held a Regional Reparations Summit in St Vincent. Bunny Wailer played. Caribbean leaders discussed the varied legacy of slavery; set a schedule for future meetings; discussed a proposal to introduce reparations history into Caribbean school curricula; and agreed to establish committee Facebook pages.

On Tuesday, the Reparations Committee held a press conference before a relatively thin crowd at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. Representatives identified “broad aspects of the Caribbean condition” that, they said, are direct results of the slavery era. These include poor public health, low levels of education, “scientific and technological backwardness” and “cultural deprivation.”

It's not hard to see where CARICOM is coming from. British lawyer Richard Steyn explained that to make their case legally viable they'd have to focus on the negative impacts of slavery that are visible today, rather than the immense suffering of long-deceased slaves. Assuming that Britain, France, and the Netherlands refuse to foot the bill, CARICOM will appeal to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD)—through which disputes can be placed before the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Lawyers say that a legal case before the ICJ, which adjudicates disputes between nations, could start as early as next year.

Britain will surely argue that it is not liable for the wrongs of its colonial forebears. And that too much time has passed. And that the Caribbean already receives reparations in the form of development aid. The issue of an apology will be prickly. Formal apologies can leave countries vulnerable to law suits—so leaders, when pressed to lament, opt for tempered language. In 2006, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed “deep sorrow” for Britain’s role in the slave trade. But he wouldn’t say, “I’m sorry.”

"The Slave Trade" by Auguste Francois Biard (Photo via)

In 2001, the UN sponsored a "World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance" in Durban, South Africa. The issue of reparations—for the slave trade, for colonialism, and for post-colonial injustice—was quickly raised. Enoch Kavinele, then Vice-President of Zambia, announced: “We have come to Durban to liberate ourselves from the historical injustices of slavery and servitude.”

There were, of course, detractors. Then President of Senegal Abdoulaye Wade noted that if descendants of former slave owners were held legally liable for slavery, he too might have to cough up, since his own ancestors had owned slaves. Wade dismissed the reparations effort as “absurd.”

A decade earlier, Africa got the ball rolling. The Organization of African Unity (succeeded by the African Union) met in Nigeria in June 1992 to swear in a 12 person-strong "Group of Eminent Persons" to champion the reparations cause. The group’s chair, Nigerian businessman Chief Bashorun MKO Abiola, was reportedly inspired by a conversation he had with a Jewish businessman about the Holocaust. A year later, a "Pan-African Conference on Reparations" was held in Abuja. But efforts to secure “capital transfer and debt cancelation floundered.

Unified action in the Caribbean was slower coming, but a grassroots push has been building for several decades. Prime Minister Gonsalves has said that CARICOM takes inspiration from reparations claims made by Native Americans, Maoris in Australia, and Jews in Europe. Rastafarians were early advocates of reparations and now fight for inclusion at CARICOM summits. At Tuesday’s press conference, a representative from the Rastafari Youth Initiative took the mic to issue a rambling diatribe against “evil Western scientific experiments” and “trips to the moon,” which he argues are funded with “reparations money.”

President Obama at a meeting with CARICOM (Photo via)

It’s true that this campaign is different from past movements. It’s more judicious in practice, more tempered in tone, and backed by an excellent legal team. But like in Africa, previous Caribbean efforts have amounted to little. In 2003, Haitian President Jean Betrand Aristide announced that France owed Haiti for the 90 million gold francs (today, $21 billion) that Haiti was made to pay France on independence. In response, the French president shrugged. And that’s true of leaders the world over—including here in the United States, where, in 2008, President Barack Obama said he did not support paying reparations to slave descendants.

Critics bill CARICOM’s new push as a futile endeavor, at best. They rightly point out that where there are successful reparations cases, they usually involve direct survivors—and crimes that were committed after the nations involved signed on to international human rights conventions.

“Good luck,” panned Dr. Howard-Hassmann when I asked him about the CARICOM case. “I can’t see them getting anywhere on this… You can’t just take [legal] rules that came into effect in the 19th century and back-pedal them to the 17th, 18th, early 19th centuries.” Besides, “they have also had 50 odd years of independent rule. Britain could just say, 'Well, look at your own decisions over the last 50 years. You are sovereign nations, what have you done?'”

Questions loom: How will CARICOM calculate exactly how much Europe benefited from the slave trade—and how much the Caribbean lost? Its lawyers have announced their intention “to obtain solid and reliable qualitative and quantitative evidence" on this. But that is a Sisyphean task if ever there was one. “Usually when something like this happens,” Howard-Hassmann mused, “I want to know to know whose interests are really involved. Why would they invest time in this?”

Lately, there has been some internal bristling. The Bahamas, for instance, boasts vocal critics of CARICOM, who have put the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs on the defensive. “This is not some crazy cockamamie scheme,” he insisted in an October statement; it’s “a teachable moment.” In July, a group called the Pan-African Reparations Coalition (PARCOE) wrote a letter to CARICOM, expressing dismay at “the top-down approach” being taken by the coalition. PARCOE accused CARICOM of failing to engage its citizens and its diasporas in the reparations issue, and suggested that CARICOM might sell out for too little. It also accused Leigh, Day & Co lawyers of hatching “a well orchestrated imperialist swindle” and demanded that black Caribbean lawyers be brought on board.

When I spoke to Esther Stanford of PARCOE UK, she argued that “reparations is as much about the battle of ideas and ideologies” as it is about money—and she faults the governments involved for not working with civil society groups to raise “reparations consciousness.” Stanford (“It’s not an African name; it’s an enslaved person’s name that I carry to this day”) is a lawyer and reparations activist who is currently completing a PhD in the history of the reparations movement. She has called CARICOM’s effort “far too limited, far too myopic.”

Already, CARICOM lawyers are hedging their bets. In a briefing note on “Legal Mechanisms for Redress for Slavery,” its lawyers noted that an unsuccessful legal outcome would still “obviously generate a great deal of public interest and attention within a relatively short timeframe” and thus “provide a platform upon which a political settlement might be premised.” In other words, the effort could become a bargaining chip. Weighing legal options, the lawyers dismissed mechanisms that “are likely to generate very little publicity” or take too long.

When asked about the possibility of heralding a new, post-reparations world order—in which financial recompense is made, and colonial-era borders are blurred—lawyer Martyn Day just sighs: “When we started the Mau Mau case, nobody gave us a chance. But here we are… This is the first step along the way.” He is hoping that his clients, and the European nations from whom they demand comeuppance, can arrive at an “amicable solution.”

Follow Katie on Twitter: @katieengelhart

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