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Should we be compensated for slavery?

HISTORY ON THE BIG SCREEN: Chiwetel Ejiofor (second right) in British director Steve McQueen’s award-winning film 12 Years a Slave

THE IDEA of reparations is one of the most contested issues of the last two centuries.

On one side, there are Pan-Africans, Rastafarians, anti-slavery and anti-colonial groups, who believe compensation for the four centuries of enslavement, genocide, loss of cultural identity and displacement is the only solution to right the wrongs of the past.

Their opponents are European governments – who would otherwise be forced to make enormous financial payments among other concessions – and a general consensus among the masses that though the slave trade was, according to the United Nations, one of the greatest crimes against humanity, letting bygones be bygones is the best course of action.

In crude terms, the case for reparations has been dismissed as the preserve of black militants and their supporters and has never been given serious consideration by mainstream discourse.

But that looks set to change.

ACTION

In July 2013, at the 34th annual summit of the Caribbean Community Secretariat (Caricom) – an organisation of 15 Caribbean nations and dependencies established in its current form in 2001 – resolved to “set up national committees on reparations, to establish the moral, ethical and legal case for the payment of reparations by the former colonial European countries, to the nations and people of the Caribbean Community, for native genocide, the transatlantic slave trade and a racialised system of chattel slavery.”

The European countries in question include Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark who were responsible for forcibly removing millions of Africans from West and Central Africa to sell into slavery around the world between the 16th and 19th Century.

Caricom has set up a commission comprising chairs of each national committee and a representative of the University of the West Indies (UWI), reporting to a Prime Ministerial sub-committee, chaired by Barbadian PM Freundel Stuart.

Speaking at a press conference in December, UWI Professor Sir Hilary Beckles said: “The victims of these crimes and their descendants were left in a state of social, psychological, economic and cultural deprivation and disenfranchisement that has ensured their suffering and debilitation today, and from which only reparatory action can alleviate their suffering.”

He added: “Caribbean youth are among those most disenfranchised and denigrated by the colonial legacy that racially profiles and oppresses them as descendants of the enslaved, and who have a human right to live in an environment that is supportive of their willingness to contribute positively to humanity.”

Clarifying the commission’s demands, Sir Hilary said Caricom is calling for “an acknowledgement by former slave-owning nations that slavery and slave trading were crimes against humanity; and calls upon these nations to issue statements of formal apologies and commit to a reparatory process.”

With the issue now being taken up by Caribbean heads of state, the case for reparations has strengthened in legitimacy and is finally being discussed seriously as part of a wider debate.

LAWSUIT

News of the pending lawsuit came less than a month after a £19.9 million landmark court settlement between the British Government and five elderly Kenyans who were tortured by the British during the 1950s Mau Mau uprising. The settlement is to be shared between 5,228 similar victims.


REPARATIONS: Caricom is seeking compensation for the impact of slavery on the Caribbean

The case was taken up by respected UK-based human rights law firm Leigh Day, which is now representing the 15 Caricom member states, after St Vincent and the Grenadines PM Ralph Gonsalves, approached the firm last spring.
If Caricom proceeds with the case and it does not result in a settlement, the fight for reparations will go all the way to International Court of Justice (ICJ), in The Hague, Netherlands.

Partner at Leigh Day, Martyn Day, told The Voice that the Kenyan victory was “a massive step forward” and showed that courts were sympathetic to historic cases of extreme treatment, such as torture or, as in this case, slavery.

He said: “Having concluded the Mau Mau case, it seemed to me [reparations for slavery] was an issue that needed airing significantly. Although it’s a tough case legally, it’s one that I felt was a fight worth fighting.

“It’s a case involving issues that are two to three hundred years old, [which is] a massive impediment to a victory, but the morality of the whole thing is very strong and I think there is a real prospect that we will be able to persuade the British government and other governments…to sit round the table and resolve it.”

Rather than individuals seeking compensation, Caricom’s case is more likely to be built around slavery’s impact on the Caribbean.

“[There are] a number of different areas we will be looking at to make sure we put a powerful case to the British Government,” Day added.

Caricom’s case could be well supported by University College London’s Legacies of British slave-ownership project published last February.

It includes a database breaking down the £20 million of taxpayers’ money the British Government paid to individual slave owners as compensation for the loss of their ‘property’ when slavery was outlawed in 1834.

Owners received a fixed fee for every enslaved African they owned. The total sum represented 40 per cent of the nation’s annual spend and would be worth approximately £16 billion by today’s standard.

Warwick University Professor Emeritus, Gad Heuman, a former director of the university’s Centre for Caribbean Studies, said: “The compensation was so significant and such a huge amount especially when you balance that off what the enslaved received i.e. nothing. It’s so transparent and obvious. Injustice is the wrong word.”

QUANTIFY

Admitting that trying to quantify the level of appropriate financial compensation would be difficult, Heuman said it was clear that Britain’s sugar and financial industries “would never have happened” without slave labour.

He added: “The [Caricom] governments are not talking about compensating individuals, they are talking about trying to aid development or [wipe national] debt. They are thinking about bigger issues, structural issues, and I think that is something that is important and significant.”

“[A reparations claim] is both positive and plausible but at the moment it feels unlikely in terms of a response from the British Government. They will have huge problems admitting this because once they open the floodgate, what happens for them?”


NO RETURN: Cape Coast Castle in Ghana where enslaved Africans were held before being sent to a life of brutal servitude

Last week, The Guardian reported claims that documents containing evidence of Britain’s involvement in the slave trade were being stored in a secret archive, rather than being made publicly available at the National Archives, in Kew, as stipulated by the Public Records Act.

The documents could contain valuable information for those seeking compensation or reparations, The Guardian said. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is yet to comment on the claims.

But Esther Stanford-Xosei, co-vice chair of the Pan-African Reparations Coalition in Europe (Parcoe), has since submitted a letter to Caricom criticising its approach.

She said: “Our main critique of Caricom’s approach is that it’s too limited. They are in favour of a diplomatic solution, a negotiated settlement. If we are looking at African enslavement and slavery, how can the Caribbean even begin to enter into negotiations without establishing dialogue with Africa and its descendants in the diaspora with Caribbean links?

“We know the Caribbean today is experiencing harsh economic restrictions because of the global financial crisis, the lessening of aid assistance, loss of economic agreements and trade partnerships and for this reason some of them have latched on to the reparations argument.

“At the same time, we know the issues of slavery, African history, African consciousness and a positive racial identity centred on blackness is an oppressed dialogue in the Caribbean. That is why there is a legitimate suspicion. To seek reparations, [Caricom] needs the support of its citizens, not just the Pan-Africans who know this stuff, they need the ordinary people like our parents who were not educated on these issues and who probably still feel belonging to a colony or an ex-colony is a good thing and ‘all this stuff’ about slavery is a thing of the past.”

HARMS

The academic, who is pursuing her PhD on the history of the UK’s reparations movement, told The Voice that, nonetheless, seeking proper reparations was critical. “Enslavement in its various forms – chattel enslavement, colonialism and modern day neo colonialism and globalisation – have continued to reinforce the original harms of slavery. We are still affected today at all levels: personal, institutional, community and certainly at the regional level in terms of Africa and the Caribbean.

“We are still impacted by the depopulation of Africa and taking many of its sons and daughters to help build Europe and the Americas and the loss of wealth, not just in terms of income and wealth, but the loss of status and identity. This inequality has resulted in modern day social economic injustice.

“If crimes are committed against a people there is an obligation for some form of redress.”

An FCO spokesperson said the department had nothing further to add to its previously released statement, which states as follows: “We do not see reparations as the answer. Instead, we should concentrate on identifying ways forward with a focus on the shared global challenges that face our countries in the 21st Century. We regret and condemn the iniquities of the historic slave trade, but these shameful activities belong to the past. Governments today cannot take responsibility for what happened over 200 years ago.”

OPPOSITION

Stanford-Xosei said: “It was Britain that led opposition within the European Union against any form of stronger wording or financial compensation to the peoples of Africa and the diaspora. Tony Blair’s statement of ‘regret’ was worded in such a way that it had very minimal legal significance for any kind of redress – an apology in international law is an admission of guilt and acceptance of responsibility.”

She continued: “[The Government] is trying to bury it, and we should understand that they would try to bury it. Slavery was a huge endeavour – it helped shape the modern world and the west as it is today. Fully addressing this issue is going to be destablising to the economic status quo, but it’s not going to go away as more research is becoming available.”

See The Voice next week to read our interview with Martyn Day of Leigh and Day

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