Today, over 180 years after abolition, descendants of African slaves in the Caribbean, North and South America are demanding reparations for slavery from Europe – and the United States.
|Earl Bousquet is Editor-at-Large of The Diplomatic Courierand author of the regional newspaper column entitledChronicles of a Chronic Caribbean Chronicler
In the Caribbean, the demands include apology and atonement for 400 years of both slavery and native genocide; in the USA it’s about compensation for African American descendants of slaves; and in South America, today’s descendants of Africans (who arrived both as shipwrecked mariners and slaves) are demanding their fair share of recognition, equality and atonement.
Africa and the Caribbean experienced the brunt of the brutal slave trade that saw Europeans sail to West Africa, kidnap millions of men and women and ship them like animal cargo to the newly colonized ‘West Indies’ captured through wars of extermination against the original native ‘Caribs’ and ‘Arawaks’.
While the focus of British and French slavery was mainly concentrated on the Antillean (Caribbean) islands and mainland territories (including Haiti) that they claimed to own, the Portuguese and Spanish concentrated on South American mainland territories such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, as well as the larger islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico.
In the case of the USA and South America (except in Brazil), African descendants form small minorities, unlike the 15 Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member-states, where they form an absolute majority, in each case.
CARICOM governments have thus easily and collectively agreed to a joint approach to the European Union (EU) member-states that benefited from slavery, inviting them to discuss reparations by way of acknowledgement and atonement.
The EU countries have so far resisted engaging the Caribbean in any discussions whatsoever on reparations, the likes of former British PM David Cameron saying during an official visit to Jamaica that traditional aid and assistance given by Britain since independence to the former colonies has sufficed.
But the response by the Britain, Denmark, France, The Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, thus far, (or lack thereof) is very much unlike when France demanded reparations after the first African slaves in the Caribbean – and the world — successfully revolted.
Haitian slaves, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, rebelled in 1791 and declared their independence in 1804. Not even in Africa had a free nation yet been born and the humiliated slave masters enlisted the support of the French government to make the former slaves pay dearly for their freedom.
In 1825, France demanded 90 million gold francs to recognize Haiti’s independence — the same amount demanded in compensation by the former slave masters.
Historians and economists agree that this high cost paid by Haiti to France over 122 years (payments continued until 1947) is largely responsible for the country having been almost eternally anchored in poverty.
In 2003, Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide called on Paris to return the 90 million gold francs, by then estimated at US $21 billion. Soon after, however, he was swiftly and secretly taken hostage by US and French forces and exiled to South Africa.
French President Francois Hollande, in May 2015, ahead of a visit to Port au Prince, said Paris “will repay its debt” to Haiti – only to later retract, saying he only meant repaying France’s “moral debt”.
The Hollande disappointment notwithstanding, no other concerned EU member-state has even mentioned the possibility of considering paying reparations for slavery – in the Caribbean or North or South America.
Same in the USA, where not even President Barack Obama accommodated calls to initiate reparations moves and to pay to survivors the wages of the slaves who built the White House.
In 1865, Union General William Sherman set aside thousands of acres of land for newly-freed American slaves, by way of a special field order. But President Andrew Johnson soon returned the titles to the original white owners. Freed slaves were also each promised “40 acres and mule” to start their own lives. But here too they were disappointed.
The US Congressional Black Caucus has for the past 28 years backed a bill called HR-40, submitted annually by Michigan Rep. John Conyers, calling for a commission to study “the Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act”. Designed to examine the negative effects of slavery, it also seeks to “recommend appropriate remedies”. But HR-40 has long been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, where it has since remained…
US blacks are somewhat divided over what mechanism to use to assess the real costs and value of slave wages and related rates of conversion over the centuries slavery lasted.
Likewise, white Americans largely reject calls by blacks for reparations, some seriously arguing that ‘slaves were freed by the Civil War’ and ‘blacks benefited from affirmative action’ government policies over the years.
The reparations movement is however gaining traction across the hemispheric horizon.
The momentum has just begun in South America, with an International Reparations Conference held in Cali, Colombia in March 2017, essentially to outline a road map for the movement for recognition and inclusion of the African-descended minority across the continent.
The African Americans are encouraged by a 2016 report by the Geneva-based United Nations Working Group on People of African Descent, urging US lawmakers to implement reparations, citing “a legacy of colonial history, enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism and racial inequality.”
Also, according to an exclusive poll released in March 2017 in conjunction with a new PBS Series ‘Point Taken’, 40 percent of US ‘millennials’ think there should be reparations for African American descendants of enslaved people.
Indeed, some of the leaders of the revived reparations movement in the USA are confident enough of the momentum gained thus far to conclude that ‘this could be reparations’ best chance since 1865.’
In the Caribbean, the governments’ approach is naturally quite different from North and South America – more diplomatic than agitational, seeking dialogue over confrontation.
In March 2014, the CARICOM governments unanimously adopted the ten-point plan to demand “Reparatory Justice for the victims of Crimes against Humanity in the forms of genocide, slavery, slave trading and racial apartheid.” The EU member-states that built their imperial wealth on slavery were also duly informed.
A CARICOM Regional Reparations Commission was also appointed (chaired by the vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies Sir Hilary Beckles), with national reparations committees also established in member-states.
The Caribbean hasn’t put a price tag on slavery, even though a sum of US $17 trillion is often mentioned. Instead, it’s seeking a mutually agreed CARICOM-EU approach to what forms the atonement will take, to the common and mutual benefit of all the CARICOM states and peoples.
Failing this negotiated approach, the Caribbean countries reserve the right to file formal criminal charges against the culprit EU member-states at the International Criminal Court (ICC)).
Citing the will of the Western world to proudly acknowledge and atone for the Jewish Holocaust, reparations paid by the US government to Japanese interned during World War II, reparations made to US native peoples and Britain recently being ordered by its own courts to pay reparations to tribal Kenyan ‘Mau -Mau’ independence fighters, CARICOM feels it has a very good case.
Those demanding reparations for slavery everywhere are also buoyed by the UN’s declaration of 2015 to 2024 as the Decade for People of African Descent.
The CARICOM Prime Ministerial Subcommittee on Reparations (led by Barbados Prime Minister Freundel Stuart) met in late April 2017 to review European responses to their request for a negotiated settlement.
In the meantime, the 15 member-states, including Haiti, are preparing their individual legal cases for collective submission to the ICC, should the culprit EU member-states continue to dodge and dither to duck their individual and collective responsibilities for the greatest ‘crime against humanity’ known to mankind.
The reparations demands by African descendants in CARICOM, US and South American states do have the backing of regional and international entities, including similar non-governmental Europe-based movements and an increasing level of interest and support from African states and entities, including the African Union (AU) and the Pan African Congress (PAC).
The European and American governments today may continue to duck their responsibilities. But the results of the strong reparations demands on them, whether achieved today or tomorrow, also offer added hope to the likes of the Australian Aborigines and New Zealand’s Maori first peoples, who may have received formal apologies, but continue to feel treated less than equal in the lands they first inhabited.
Meanwhile, the Grenada ‘slavery and tourism’ discussion is an interesting starting point to revive earlier discussions on the establishment of a national reparations committee (NRC) for Grenada, Carriacou and Petit Martinique.
That will not only be in line with the reality of the vast majority of CARICOM member-states (where NRCs exist), but will also facilitate ongoing discussion across the three-island state on reparations and related issues during the UN Decade for People of African Descent, which continues until December 31, 2024.