The Caribbean Is Finally Going to Sue Britain Over Slavery

Leaders agreed on a 10-point reparations programme yesterday.

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11 March 2014, 9:45am

CARICOM Chairman and PM of St Vincent and the Grenadines Ralph Gonsalves relaxes with other ambassadors ahead of yesterday's meeting (photo via caricom.org)

Britain has never officially apologised for its starring role in the Atlantic slave trade. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair came pretty close – when, in 2007, he expressed “deep sorrow and regret” for the “unbearable suffering” caused by slavery. Similar declarations of “regret” and “profound regret” have been echoed over the years, by former slave-trading states the world over – but almost all have fallen short of a bona fide apology.

“These statements of regret,” Sir Hilary Beckles, the noted Barbadian historian and author of Britain’s Black Debt, told me, “are more insulting than silence.”

On Monday, Sir Beckles appeared at a resort in the Caribbean state of Saint Vincent & the Grenadines, to attend the 25th Intersessional Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). At the meeting, CARICOM’s “reparations committee” unanimously adopted a list of ten demands for the “former slave-owning nations of Europe”, which include Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. These demands are meant “to achieve reparatory justice for the victims of genocide, slavery, slave trading and racial apartheid,” which, CARICOM argue, amount to “the root cause of [Caribbean] suffering today”. The group’s requests are varied, but can be summarised as such: Say sorry. Then pay.

More than 150 years after the slave trade was abolished in Europe, and for the first time in history, Caribbean states say they will use legal means to extract compensation from their former colonial overlords. They want delayed justice, historical comeuppance for Europe’s fallen empires.

A number of European states will be pursued – but none more than Dear Old Blighty. “Undoubtedly, Britain faces more claims than anyone else because it was the primary slave power and colonial power in the Caribbean,” explained Martyn Day, the British lawyer who is advising CARICOM. British colonisers “disfigured the Caribbean”, adds Professor Verene Shepherd, chairman of Jamaica’s reparations committee. Now, they must make amends.

This wildly ambitious effort, say critics, is probably doomed: for lack of legal basis – and in the face of already fierce British resistance. “We do not see reparations as the answer,” a spokesperson from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) reaffirmed to me. “We regret and condemn the iniquities of the historic slave trade, but these shameful activities belong to the past.”

However, if actually prising some reparations out of Britain remains a long shot, maybe that's less true than it was a year ago. In 2012, a group of Kenyans sued Britain over the torture they endured by British colonial officers during the “Mau Mau Uprising” of the 1950s. The claimants were successful (they won £19.9 million last year), even though nobody thought their case stood a chance.

The CARICOM case, to be sure, is different, not least because there are no living victims this time. But CARICOM members say they took inspiration from the Mau Mau victims. They even hired the same British lawyers.

Either way, cross-Atlantic relations could turn prickly, especially if Pax Britannica is subjected to a modern-day legal trial. The FCO – led by William Hague (conveniently, a published historian whose biography of the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize) – will surely want to tread carefully.

What next? “The first step,” says Beckles, “is a formal apology.”

On Monday, CARICOM members unanimously adopted a joint “Ten Point Action Plan”. It calls for: European funding of an “indigenous peoples development programme”; support for Caribbean cultural institutions; public health assistance; illiteracy education; an “African knowledge programme” to educate Caribbean people about Africa; “psychological rehabilitation” to address the “massive psychological trauma” that resulted from slavery; technology transfers; and “debt cancellation”.

Boldest, perhaps, is the demand for “repatriation” of the descendants of “stolen people” – through which European governments could help to resettle Caribbean people in “their homeland” of Africa. (The Rastafarian community holds repatriation to Africa as a spiritual goal.)

CARICOM has called for a meeting in London between Caribbean and European officials. This, lawyers note, “will enable our clients to quickly gauge whether or not their concerns are being taken seriously.”

If they’re not, then CARICOM will up the ante. Lawyer Martyn Day told me that member states will file suits in national courts – appealing to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). If that fails, CARICOM will go to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Lawyers intend to file formal complaints by June.

President Obama at a meeting with CARICOM (photo via)

Admittedly, the case rests on rather narrow legal grounds. To start, slavery was legal under British law at the time that it was carried out. Furthermore, the UK recognises the ICJ’s jurisdiction – but only regarding disputes that occurred after 1974. For this reason, CARICOM’s lawyers will have to focus their suit on present-day grievances: “the current consequences” of slavery and discrimination, rather than long-ago suffering.

Over the course of its slave-trading career, Britain shipped some 3.4 million slaves across the Atlantic Ocean, to a life of servitude and misery. London officially ended its slave trade in 1807, though it did not free its last slaves in the Caribbean until the 1830s.

In 1833, the British Parliament compensated British slave owners for their loss – to the tune of £20m (at the time, a whopping 40 percent of the Treasury’s annual budget). Slaves themselves were not compensated. One British slave owner who received a government payout was General Sir James Duff: part-owner of the Grange Sugar Estate in Jamaica. Duff was the first cousin six times removed of Prime Minister David Cameron.

The Caribbean states were left ravaged, their plantation-based economies broken and bleeding. This condition endured. For instance, when Jamaica declared independence from Britain in 1962, some 80 percent of its citizens were functionally illiterate.

“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,” said Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer of Antigua and Barbuda, in July.

CARICOM’s claims are expected to be met with short shrift across Europe. An FCO spokesperson told me: “Governments today cannot take responsibility for what happened years ago.” Indeed, though efforts to seek financial redress for slavery have been around for some time, none have been successful. In 2008, US President Barack Obama famously said that he did not support paying reparations to the descendants of slaves.

Thus far, only Sweden has shown signs that it's open to talks. Last month, its Caribbean ambassador said he would “look at” and “have respect” for CARICOM’s demands.

Some critics remain opposed to the project on conceptual, rather than legal, grounds. They charge that the case is a distraction from present-day affairs. And they wonder how we could ever put a dollar value on slavery’s residue. (Sir Beckles says the media’s focus on money is a distraction for what should really be a broad “reparatory dialogue.”)

However this plays out, we can be sure that in Britain – where journalists and public historians bicker endlessly over whether elected leaders are wallowing in colonial guilt or stricken by “imperial amnesia” – the case will hit home. Indeed, CARICOM lawyers have specifically noted their desire to “generate a great deal of public interest and attention within a relatively short timeframe”.

Given all this, why has it taken so long for CARICOM to come forward with demands? “It hasn’t taken that long,” Sir Beckles bristles. Slavery, after all, was replaced by “racial apartheid” and discriminatory colonial rule. Caribbean states won independence in the mid-20th century – but then needed some time to “find their footing”.

As it stands, Britain insists that it will not apologise. But might it yet do? In 1997, over a century after the events in question took place, Britain officially apologised for its role in the 1840s Irish Potato Famine.

@katieengelhart