By Paul Lewis
When Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves released his partially completed reparations claims (Preliminary Notes on the Quantification of Reparation from the British for lands stolen, for Genocide and forcible Deportation of the Garifuna people, and for Enslavement of Africans in St Vincent and the Grenadines) in the Searchlight newspaper April 12, 2013, many Vincentians -- knowing the PM’s ideological predispositions and the economic difficulties SVG has been experiencing for many years – were still surprised at the gross enormity of the claims against Great Britain.
Paul Lewis was born in Canouan, St.Vincent and the Grenadines. He is a graduate of the University of Windsor, Ontario,Canada, with a BA(Hons.) and MA in History; and a BEd, University of Toronto. He is involved in social, political and environmental activism.
The claims presented were not only excessive and politically impossible to receive, but also lacked the necessary appeals to compassion, reconciliation and chances of any substantial improvement in relations with Britain and the West. The pursuit of a £5-6 billon reparations claim on Britain could spell future difficulties for Vincentians.
But what are reparations? And what is all this fuss about? The claim for reparations has come out of some need (defined primarily by politicians ) to repair the damages done to Caribbean society as a result of the Atlantic slave trade and enslaved Africans who were forced to work under horrific and inhuman conditions in the Caribbean. The resultant slave legacy was to create debilitating life conditions for the survivors and progeny of this barbaric traffic.
Some scholars have discussed reparations in general terms of correcting the injustices of the past and achieving some relative racial harmony, especially within a community racked by ethnic strife, and where one dominant socio-economic group had historically exploited another group(s). As a result of such experiences some people look for reparatory solutions to achieve “corrective justice” and /or “distributive justice” for the injustices of the past (A. Brophy, 2006).
Reparatory justice can be either “forward looking” or “backward looking”. Dr Gonsalves’ approach appears to be of the latter. He seeks to assess the exact harm of the past in monetary terms and demands that Britain compensate for wrongs inflicted on indigenous and slave populations during the colonial period. The other approach to reparatory justice is to get compensation that would improve the future lives of Vincentians. But the reparations agenda of SVG has a wider international context born in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.
Durban, South Africa 2001
Caribbean negotiators and people of African descent in the wider African Diaspora regrettably scoffed at the conciliatory and realistic approach taken by the South African, Senegalese and Nigerian heads of state at the 2001 Durban UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, an approach that might cost them long years in the reparations wilderness.
President Mbeki of South Africa condemned slavery, genocide and the apartheid system but refused to ask for an apology and stopped short of a call for reparations. President Mbeki was a political realist who was struggling to bring his nation out of the apartheid era, and was accused by the pro-reparations bloc -- including the Caribbean -- of cooperating with the western powers and international financial institutions. He was faulted for seeking a compromise position that would help his country chart a more secure economic, political and social roadmap to the future.
President Obasanjo of Nigeria explicitly criticized the relevance of reparations. He felt that it would be counterproductive to dealing effectively with Nigeria’s inter-ethnic problems, including the ticklish problems of identifying and punishing collaborators in the slave trade, and dealing effectively with multinational financial institutions.
Senegal took an even more independent course. While agreeing on the need to be cautious with the demand for reparations, President Wade moved away from the Goree initiative (calling for the creation of an International Compensation fund and Development Reparation Fund) and stressed that the New African Initiative should promote “an indigenous process of community self-help and responsibility.” (Beckles, 2013).
This African “renaissance of self-help” approach was viewed many delegates as undermining the reparations policy that was being promoted by many delegates, including those from the Caribbean, and resulted in President Wade of Senegal being roundly condemned by his critics as not only collaborating with the West but even seen as a traitor to the ‘cause’.
The call for African self-help was not seen by Caribbean and African delegates as a positive step in building communities, but interpreted as embracing some developmental strategies put forward by the hated World Bank, and as such was clearly opposed to the reparations agenda! Wade, Mbeki and Obasanjo’s policy positions clearly indicated that there was a disconnect between the state and the people, especially as many African NGOs and those in the Diaspora supported the call for reparations.
However, it appears too that many pro-reparations delegates refused to accept international political and economic realities. In South Africa SVG’s interests were represented by Professor Hilary Beckles, Cave Hill Campus, UWI.
Slavery in History
Slavery has existed since the dawn of recorded history and was first mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi in 1760 BC. Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Spaniards, Celts, Vikings, Muslims, Mongols, Englishmen, Africans and others have all been involved in human trafficking at some point in their history – a trade described by one historian as the “most inhumane and abominable of all trading activities.”
However, through the exigencies of their historical development, many countries had earlier removed themselves from this labour system, while others manipulated the system and used it right up to the end of the 19th century until it capitulated under the weight of slave rebellions, the rise of industrial capitalism, humanitarianism and other factors. Formal slavery survived the twentieth century in myriad forms.
It was not until 1942 under Emperor Haile Selassie that Ethiopia finally passed legislation to abandon slavery; and in the northwest Mauritania only abolished slavery in 1987. But the latter fact is not surprising in view of centuries-long attitudes held by some Africans that the slave system was necessary and useful to them.
A. Adu Boahen’s short monograph (African Perspectives on Colonialism, 1989) noted that the British navy’s suppression of the Atlantic slave trade in the 1880s caused serious concerns among African officials. The enforced end to slavery and the disruption of slave trading “came as a shock to many Africans and posed a threat to them…” The total dependency on slavery by some African nations and its sudden demise was a disruptive factor in their external economy, which depended on the slave trade to the Americas.
The disruption of this trade became the subject of a conversation between Joseph Dupuis, the British Consul to the Asante Empire and to Osei Binsu, the Asantehene (king). The Asantehene pleaded with the consul for the resumption of the slave trade, since “it would be good for the white man and for me too”. The British did not accede to the resumption of the trade. However, the African chief, as with many others, was forced to make the necessary but initially difficult transition from trade in slaves to trade in natural products.
How complicit were our African brothers in this sordid affair? Many African nations and tribes were intimately involved in the slave trade. The Kingdom of Kongo, the Kingdom of Dahomey, the Bambara Empire, Benin in the 16th and 17th centuries in particular, the Khasso Kingdom and many others were involved in the slave trade in a huge way.
And yes, many others opposed the trade too. King Jaja of Opobo, (a former slave) was an opponent of the trade. But let us not push African complicity under the table. Let the historical record be transparent and fair. Without their massive assistance in waging war against fellow Africans, transporting prisoners hundreds of miles across the continent and delivering them to the European ships waiting on the African coast, the Atlantic slave trade slave story might well have been very different today.
We cannot blame only the European in this sordid affair, for it is quite evident that Africans controlled their territorial space and could have rejected European establishment of the slave trade. For a long time many African states “were in full control of their own affairs and destiny.” But intertribal rivalries, the desire to expand their empires by suppressing weak states, greed and other factors helped fuel a trade that was ultimately disastrous for the continent.
It must also be said that, while historians of Africa have acknowledged Africa’s role in the Atlantic slave trade, too often they have marginalized African responsibility in perpetuating and strengthening the slave regimes of the Europeans. So, should Africans shoulder some responsibility in this matter and make reparations payments to Caribbean states? Who should pay and benefit from slave reparations due to Caribbean people, as demanded by the prime minister?
No one can deny the impact that slavery has had on the Caribbean. Plantation slavery was horrific. Chattel slavery and its depersonalization of the individual placed its stamp on the character and nature of society, and differentiated it from any other slave system. But we must deal with the past in an efficacious way .We must seek ways and means to understand it, and extract its lessons in ways beneficial to the entire society .
But we must not exploit the past mistakes of colonial powers as an excuse to begin an adversarial relationship with them by making extravagant monetary claims as opposed to acknowledgements of wrongdoings, and the acceptance of symbolic payments. And we must not use the sufferings that our people have endured as part of this colonial legacy to advance the ambitions of a political party and its leadership.
Following the presentation of Dr Gonsalves’ reparations salvo to the British, a few things have happened that annoyed me. First, when the elite “Red” Panel Reparations Committee was announced by Dr Gonsalves I was surprised and tickled but not shocked by its composition. While a few members might have some sensitivity to the issues by way of experience and training, others appear to be merely foot soldiers of the ULP, party aficionados and propagandists. It is surprising too that this select group that is charged with canvassing the views of Vincentians on reparations does not include any outstanding and knowledgeable member of the local Carib/indigenous community of SVG.
The reparations panel is a politically correct group whose unwritten but main task is to advance the political agenda of Dr Gonsalves. The panel reinforces the PM’s top down approach to the reparations claim. Most Vincentians do not understand the reparations issue. The first and primary activity should have been massive public education and not the selection of a red ribbon committee and the attempt to calculate reparation claims. Claims and the nature of such claims must be done in consultation with the people and not exclusively in the PM’s office. There is also a disturbing rumour that a politician told a political gathering recently that each person should expect a reparations check of EC$200,000. If true, this is dishonest and a ruse to get citizens to vote for that party.
The composition of the “Red Ribbon” Panel begs the question whether there is a subtext to the reparations demand. Are reparations part of the national development strategy of PM Gonsalves? Are the British being asked to pay for the huge infrastructural projects of the ULP: the international airport (note the public relations officer of the Argyle Airport project is also part of the “Red Brigade”), the new city at Arnos Vale, the highway to be built under Cane Garden, the relocation of the Grenadines Ferry jetty to Bottom Town, etc? Nothing is beyond the realm of the PM’s imagination. But the omission of Dr Adrian Fraser, historian and former head of the Open Campus UWI, SVG, is surprising up to a point.
Adrian has not been one of the ULP’s favourite persons. His newspaper column has often upset a few of the “right thinking” folks; and his close association with Arnhim Eustace, leader of the opposition, has not helped matters. But the Unity Labour Party and the government of SVG did a great disservice to the Open Campus, UWI, Kingstown, by ignoring or attempting to marginalize the facility primarily because Adrian was in charge for many years.
A story was related to me a few years ago by a foreign diplomat. Adrian was selected to attend an overseas conference and his name was then submitted by this official to the appropriate ministry. Unsurprisingly (to me at least), word was received by the diplomat that the government did not look kindly at Adrian’s nomination since he was “politically unreliable”. His nomination to attend the conference was withdrawn. So much for good governance!
Or is the call for reparations merely a distraction from the myriad and significant economic, political and social problems currently facing the multi-island state? Poor health services, massive social problems, problems in the education sector, inadequate road infrastructure, severe environmental issues, a crime rate that is out of control, massive unemployment and underemployment; and finally, the outstanding payments owed to the university (EC$400 million owed by all territories as of February 2013) that is causing fear and alarm to both faculty and staff as one becomes unsure each month whether he/she will be paid on time.
But once we have gone past the rationale and excuses for reparations, who should pay? Who were involved in this sordid affair? Was it only the British -- our former colonial masters or their African collaborators?
Some writers, including Christopher Taylor (The Black Carib Wars, 2012), C. I. Martin and I. E. Kirby (The Rise and Fall of the Black Caribs, 2004) argue that many Black Caribs, including Chief Duvalle, Paramount Chief Chatoyer’s brother, held African slaves. Should they too be held accountable? Should they pay reparations to Vincentians? Mulattos, the offspring of intimate relations between white slave masters / white plantation workers and slave women, and former slaves too held slaves in many islands. Should the descendants of these people pay up?
Who are the slave descendants in SVG? Who shall be entitled to reparations?
Reparations will be claimed for the “illegal” transportation of the Garifuna to Central America, according to the PM. But would the Garifuna who escaped to the Greggs hideaway be entitled to reparations too. But just who is Garifuna? Is a Garifuna merely a person with African features, or a specific type with identifiable physical characteristics and supported by a distinctive culture. Or, is the label merely a political designation -- a will to be a Garifuna.
The term Kalinago or the old “Carib” has been replaced by “Garifuna” as the “official” identification of indigenous people in SVG. However, far too many people in the Carib community do not identify themselves as Garifuna or Black Carib to authenticate that label. Would those who identify themselves merely as “Carib”, “indigenous” or “Kalinago” be assessed for “damages” too! This government can start the reparations process (acting as the inheritors of colonial land and responsibilities) by returning Carib lands to their rightful owners!
I have no difficulty accepting some statement of apology for colonial wrongs and a reasonable compensation for the terrible suffering in the past. But we also need to look at what is politically possible, as pointed to by Presidents Mbeki, Wade and Obasanjo at Durban in 2001. And comparisons with the Canadian settlement with the Japanese-Canadian internees during WWII, and the Jewish case against the German government in the wake of the Holocaust may not be useful examples on which to build a Caribbean case for reparations for a labour system that ended 175 years ago.
In the German case, reparations took into consideration not only loss of life and property destruction but the premeditated physical destruction by the German state –using all the official machinery at its disposal -- of an entire people. The active participation of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in the litigation process (within 20 years of the conclusion of WWII); the close proximity of the tragedy, the presence of both victims and perpetrators; the readily availability of evidence – both archival and material, and the active involvement of powerful nations within cold war and geopolitical concerns significantly affected the outcome of the reparations process.
The same can be said about the Japanese-Canadian reparation claims and the increasingly powerful role of Japan in international affairs when the matter of their Canadian brethren moved through the courts. The centuries-old relations between native communities and Canadian government institutions and churches are well known. The visible symbols of the natives’ exploitation and marginalized past are very evident: the reserve systems, special laws governing their activities, the abuses and excesses of the residential school system, and the response to the physical presence of the native person in many communities leave no doubt in anyone’s mind of the unfair treatment meted out to those people since the encounter period in the early 17th century.
Apart from the aforementioned issues, the question of historical “remoteness” is still relevant to any discussion and resolution of reparations claims. There must be some limitations over reparations claims or we shall be going back into the past and filing claims against the Vikings, the Portuguese (no more laptops); and Israel, rejecting “remoteness”, can look to challenge their biblical enemies -- including the Egyptians -- for reparations. The current reparations claim by the Caribbean and possibly African states can open a can of nasty worms with no end in sight. The strident call for full reparations can permanently affect North-South relations and leave us vulnerable internationally.
Objectively, we are a weak nation making extraordinary demands on a major power that is experiencing significant economic difficulties. Moreover, we can never be sure of the receptiveness by the British people to this initiative of Gonsalves, for ultimately, unlike our politics, this issue will be referred to the British people whose ethnic makeup and interests are far different from the Britain of the slaving period, or the watershed years of the 19th century.
And just as post war German youth took no responsibility for the depredations of their parents and grandparents during Hitler era, it would surprise me if the British people in 2013 would take responsibility for the excesses of the slave regime during Britain’s glorious colonial past, and at a time when slavery was deemed and accepted as legal -- despite sporadic calls for its end by some churchmen and scholars over the centuries.
We cannot retroactively under the influence of the evolution and modernizing of legal principles penalize activities that were declared legal in previous centuries. We cannot impose our value systems on distant generations /civilizations and declare what they accepted as normal and acceptable as retroactively illegal. The activities of Germans and their co-conspirators, and the illegal internment of enemy aliens in Allied countries during World War II were clearly wrong under current international laws and so there was nothing illegal and ahistorical in declaring them unacceptable at Nuremburg and thereafter.
Finally, how much does a human life cost? The detailed calculation of costs to account for the difference between what a slave was valued in 1833 and the actual cost in today’s dollars is ridiculous. Can we really assign a monetary value to human life? Or, is this exercise merely a bargaining chip for some smart ass lawyer? The attempt by the PM to give a monetary value to human life -- the slave – is in poor taste.
Assuming that some money is forthcoming, which I doubt, I would not put such large sums of money into the hands of Caribbean politicians, who have no enviable track record in being fiscally responsible and prudent in their spending habits. Fiscal prudence is necessary to run any struggling developing island state, and any money received through the reparations process must be strictly controlled.
One approach to maximizing the effective use of reparations funds would be to have a Joint Reparations Commission (claimants and accused) charged with monitoring and administering the Trust Fund. It will be further charged with vetting project applications and spending warrants. But I am sure that critics – nationalists and supporters of cost overruns alike – would object to that proposal.
Reparations must be at a reasonable, symbolic and absorbable level. The massive reparations nonsense talk by the PM is underpinned by excellent research done by Sir Hilary Beckles (Britain’s Black Debt, 2013), Nicholas Draper (The Price of Emancipation, 2010) and other British scholars. Translating research findings into the construction of an acceptable proposal for reasonable and symbolic restitution, and with the understanding that notions of compassion, forgiveness, and decorum must be an integral part of the process calls for some tact and statesmanship, which seem lacking at this point. If we focus entirely on monetary gains for compensatory reasons and to aid in questionable infrastructural projects, it will derail the entire process of attempting to close a sad chapter in the histories of Britain, Africa and the Caribbean.
Europe alone has not been the cause of our misfortunes, and we have to stop blaming external factors and actors in putting regional economies into a tail spin. Since the introduction of responsible government, Caribbean people have suffered at the hands of regional and local politicians -- initially through inexperience in governance, but later graduating to political arrogance, greed, political and financial corruption, nepotism and cronyism – all fuelled by the abuse of our political system that has removed all checks and balances, and that effectively penalizes and marginalizes the losing party and their supporters at the end of each general elections. Getting massive reparations will not correct but merely exacerbate this situation, especially when there is more cash available to “run politics”.
I will support an apology or acknowledgement by Britain for her role in the terrible history of African slavery in the Caribbean. I will also support a long term scholarship programme, a small financial settlement – symbolic reparations -- that will provide good support to the region’s education system and allied facilities in the constituent island states aimed at dismantling the conditions of mental slavery that has much of the populace susceptible to party political propaganda, and unable to make rational decisions. But I will not support a £6 billion cash infusion into St Vincent and the Grenadines that will disappear into the black hole of the consolidated fund and trickle down into party political projects, and satisfying dubious cost overrun bills tied to non-productive development projects.
We need good governance and responsible political leaders. We need to harness and protect our resources and stand on our own feet. We need to promote self-help and that is why I support the positions of the “Three Wise Men” at Durban -- Mbeki, Wade and Obsanjo. A six billion sterling pounds hand out will not give us better government or encourage government to punish big developers from polluting and despoiling the natural environment, or provide for the better monitoring of unscrupulous foreign investors/ economic hit men. Life will get far worse with so much money in the hand of an irresponsible government of whatever political stripe!