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Commentary: The reparations debate in the Caribbean
Published on September 7, 2013 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Oliver Mills

Since the recent publication of the book “Britain’s Black Debt” by Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, principal of the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies, a debate has emerged in the media over the issue of reparations. At the core of this debate, is the issue that after the abolition of slavery, the slave owners received compensation for the loss of their slave labour, but that the ex-slaves received nothing for their many years of unpaid labour. The demand is then, that reparations be paid to the descendants of slavery today.

Oliver Mills is a former lecturer in education at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus. He holds an M.Ed degree. from Dalhousie University in Canada, an MA from the University of London and a post-graduate diploma in HRM and Training, University of Leicester. He is a past Permanent Secretary in Education with the government of the Turks and Caicos Islands
This issue of reparations has become very controversial, with different views being presented from diverse perspectives. One columnist states that, even after fifty years of independence, his country’s present ills are still being blamed on slavery and the colonial past. He then demands that reparations be paid. He further notes that, in his country, slave owners received £6,161,927 and change, as compensation for the loss of their property, which amounted to 309,331 slaves, while the former slaves received no compensation for the loss of their freedom, and heritage. The columnist goes on to say that much of the underdevelopment experienced by the majority of his people, as descendants of slavery, has its origins in the inequality of slavery. As a result, he feels reparations are due.

The journalist then notes, in a very interesting turn of thought, that although the British should pay reparations, so should both political parties in his country for wasting the past fifty years, making the country less than it could be, and that the parties should also pay compensation to the people for the decades of mental slavery and underdevelopment they forced them to endure. He further thinks the politicians of the two political parties who call for reparations from the British, look to receive some huge sum of money to do what they will with it.

In my view, the terms slavery and reparations stir emotions. Immediately, there is the thought of injustice, and exploitation. But we all know that, historically, most nations of the world at some period have experienced slavery. Even Britain under the Romans. And we are quite familiar with the Biblical story of how the Egyptians held the Israelites as slaves. Should the British now ask for reparations from Rome? And should Israel do the same from the Egyptians?

Some people argue that the reason why Caribbean slavery is so topical is because, in terms of scale, it is the most recent historically, and that it is more psychological than anything else. Again, others say that the historical experience of slavery in the Caribbean has become politicised, to take people’s minds off the fact that Caribbean politicians and governments have not managed the independence project well. So they redirect the energies of the people away from criticising them, to an epoch in history, mostly of interest to academics.

When the columnist above says that much of the underdevelopment now experienced by the majority of his people originates from the inequality of slavery, what are the measurements used to determine this? And how is this conclusion traced?

But I do agree when he later says that it is post-independence politics that has caused the development situation to be less than it could be. Because if, after a little more than fifty years of political freedom, slavery is still the crutch, what have the politicians been doing with the trust of the people, and the management of the country’s institutions, to make them work to deliver the goods and services that make development sustainable?

Could it really be that the idea of reparations is flushed out as a possible avenue to obtain additional funds to keep the Caribbean political class viable for a few more political seasons? And could it then be said that it is modern Caribbean governments, elected by the descendants of slavery that have really underdeveloped the Caribbean? Which is the real source then from which reparations should be demanded?

A Caribbean historian has recently urged that the people of a particular Caribbean state be educated about reparations, adding that the relationship between historical injustices, persistent poverty, diminishing opportunities, and development is not understood by its people. But how do you accurately determine the validity of this relationship? And, after the people are educated about reparations, what is the next step? Again, what form would reparations take? Is it direct cash, development projects funded by the metropole, the offer of scholarships and budgetary aid?

But the particular metropole continues to provide some of these in various manifestations. And international agencies, in partnership with the metropole have periodically stepped in to aid the development process on many occasions. Why has the development situation not changed significantly then? And the governments, elected by the descendants of slavery have negotiated these monetary packages. So how would reparations change anything? What would be the shelf-life of the proceeds of reparations?

Another journalist has written that some British members of parliament, including Wilberforce, lost their health and careers fighting against slavery, and added that Africa never fought for abolition. This journalist then suggests that we should call out Africans who sold slaves, and still do. But why is it that Africa, from which individuals were captured, and sold into slavery, has never been involved in the quest for its abolition? And we have some Arab countries as well, that were involved, along with other European countries.

Does this mean that demands for reparations need to be extended further throughout the region to include all descendants of slavery and the various countries that were involved in it? Is one particular European country being targeted unfairly? And since some British parliamentarians were initially involved in fighting slavery, and suggesting reparations be considered, does this change the reparations debate somewhat?

A writer in another Caribbean paper, comments on a review of the book by Professor Beckles, by another Caribbean scholar, who states that Beckles mentions that the abolitionist Sir Thomas Buxton had urged his fellow parliamentarians to pay reparations to emancipated Africans, but his suggestion was not taken seriously, since private interests were involved. The important point is that the idea of reparations for emancipated Africans was put forward, but like many other ideas, did not win the day. But it was raised.

A letter to the editor of another Caribbean newspaper gives what the writer describes as another view of reparations. It says that recent reparation payments to other victim groups suggest that the payment of Caribbean reparations claims is achievable. The writer does not mention the groups, or the form of payment for Caribbean reparations. And to me, to say that recent reparations payments to certain groups suggest that Caribbean reparations claims are achievable, does not necessarily follow. It’s a mere assumption, although others may say it’s quite feasible.

The letter then suggests that what must be addressed is whether the granting of independence was sufficient compensation, and notes that with independence, in reference to the writer’s country, the people gained ownership of their island’s crown holdings, including land, infrastructure, and institutions. It then adds that the people were prepared to manage the country with a well-educated and trained civil service, and that after independence their government took possession of many church schools, the planter’s plantations, and the private sector’s public transportation system.

With respect to the above paragraph, could the granting of independence be equated with a form of compensation? Is the taking of this position an affront to independence as a means of claiming national sovereignty? And is not independence a right, rather than something to be granted? When the letter says that with independence the people gained ownership of the country’s resources, what here is meant by “the people?” And is this claim credible, based on current circumstances? And, to say that the people were “prepared” to manage the country, suggests they were helpless on their own, and that this “preparation” had to be done by others. To some, these statements from the letter could be regarded as reflecting a colonial mind-set.

Furthermore, the letter states that, as descendants of slaves, leaders were elected who have provided all citizens with taxpayer-funded education, and health and welfare services, along with the opportunity to purchase and sell goods and services. The letter then adds that perhaps the value of what was received could be quantified to determine if it is more, or less than what is being claimed as reparations.

Again, with reference to the above statement, what do elected leaders, as descendants of slaves in an independent country, have to do with reparations? To me this is looking backwards, rather than into the future. And when independence is looked upon as a value to be equated with claims for reparations, it seems to me that such a noble process and event is reduced to a mere commodity with a distinct price.

This article has attempted to look at some of the main issues in the reparations debate taking place in the Caribbean media, and to provide a critical view on the issues arising from it. Some writers strongly support reparations, while others feel that the granting of independence is sufficient compensation for the actions of a particular country that was engaged in the slave trade. Others feel that it is the politicians, and the role of Caribbean governments in the independence era that are responsible for the state of the Caribbean today, and therefore they are the ones from whom reparations should be demanded.

At another level of the reparations debate, historically, the Turks and Caicos has been associated politically with Britain, Bermuda, Jamaica, and The Bahamas. Some say these relationships have produced some controversial issues with respect to power, and the use of resources. Does this mean that the Turks and Caicos is also in a position to raise the issue of reparations as a moral consideration?
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