Each year, around this time, Caribbean leaders join other presidents and prime ministers in convening in New York to participate in the annual United Nations General Debate. And each year the countries gathered at the United Nations feel compelled to speak out against current and historical injustices – from genocide, to torture, to forced displacement of populations. From war crimes, to terrorism, to crimes against humanity. From Ukraine to Somalia to Palestine.
The countries of the Caribbean, despite – or maybe because of – our small populations and lack of military might, have viewed themselves as the conscience of the international community. We see ourselves as unencumbered by the historical baggage and geopolitical ambitions of other countries. We see our status as outsiders, one step removed from the inner sancta of international intrigue, as allowing us to call a spade a spade, and to be honest brokers in the quest for peace, justice and development.
Yet, historically, there has been one inescapable blot on this rather inflated self-portrait. At our highest political levels, we were neither fully confronting the myriad legacies of slavery on our citizens and national development, nor were we collectively acting in the pursuit of reparatory justice. The old Caribbean admonition was apt: “Dance a yard, before you dance abroad:” Deal with the injustices in your back yard before you prescribe solutions to similar wrongs in far-flung locales.
The path from slavery to de jure freedom in the English-speaking Caribbean traversed through a number of abolitions. First, the British abolished the slave trade, then slavery itself, and then a period of apprenticeship – which was sort of a “Slavery Lite” that allowed former slaveholders to continue extracting free labour from former slaves. After the abolition of slavery, Her Majesty’s government compensated the Caribbean slaveholders with a sum of £20 million for the loss of their human “property.” In today’s US dollars, that would be somewhere north of $3 billion. In Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, British slave owners received £592,509 for their 22,997 slaves, or roughly in the neighbourhood of US$50 million. Mind you, over the course of 45 years, between 1764 and 1808, a full 62,176 slaves left the coast of West Africa destined for a principal place of landing in SVG, but by 1834, fewer than 23,000 remained. The dead or infirm did not appear in the compensation ledger book. Presumably, the slaveowner had gotten his money’s worth from those human beings he worked though a harrowing life to a premature grave.
[In this forum, it is probably unnecessary to detail the atrocities of the slave trade. But neither must we, in our quest to make Reparations seem logical and reasonable, divorce ourselves from visceral memories and moral outrage that must always fuel our quest for justice]
But Saint Vincent and the Grenadines’ modern realities were indelibly scarred even prior to the massive injustices of the trade in human beings and day-to-day savagery of slavery. Before the arrival of the British to our shores, our country was populated by the indigenous Calinago people and the Garfiuna, who were the offspring of Calinago natives and escaped or shipwrecked Africans who made it to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines from neighbouring islands. The Garifuna fiercely resisted British conquest and fought two wars against the colonizers. The first war – a stalemate – ended in one of the earliest treaties ever concluded between the British and an indigenous population in this hemisphere. The second produced an unspeakable genocide, in which most of the surviving Garifuna were rounded up, placed on ships and deported from their own lands to a series of inhospitable locales, finally settling off the coast of Honduras. The natives that were allowed to remain on Saint Vincent saw their collective landholding reduced from 100,000 acres to 238 acres of the most inhospitable territory, at the foot of an active volcano. There is little that I have to say, here in the United States, about the historical and present-day consequences of land grabs, forced displacement and genocide of native populations.
This history, first of native genocide, and then of a mode of production premised on the enslavement of Africans, has bequeathed Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and awful, continuing legacy. From family roles and structures, to health, to poverty, to education, ambition and self esteem, the legacy has produced a population that, today, is “ecologically distinct” – to use a phrase that stuck with me from Mr. Coates’ Atlantic article. Nationally, and regionally, slavery and native genocide left Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and the wider Caribbean on the wrong side of a developmental chasm that runs between the countries that were exploited by the slave trade and those that received the benefit of a 400-year head start. On one side of the chasm, national governments are occupied with primary education. On the other? Universities and institutions of higher learning. On one side of the gorge, nations worry about clinics, basic medication and maternal mortality. On the other? Expanding hospitals and advanced medical research. On one side are the borrowers and accumulators of unsustainable national debt; on the other are the lenders and dictators of terms and conditions. The socioeconomic legacy of slavery among nations is self evident: almost no country that was either a source or destination country for enslaved Africans has moved from the periphery to the core of the global economy. Those nations that are currently managing the difficult transition from developing to developed nation – from China to India to Singapore – have many challenges to overcome. Thankfully, the legacy of African slavery is not one of them. [In this regard, the lament of Bob Marley is apt: “Today they say that we are free/only to be chained in poverty.”]
Which brings us, in a roundabout manner, to the issue of CARICOM’s historic reparatory justice initiative, its urgency and importance as a governmental priority in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. For decades, Caribbean artists, intellectuals and religious groups – particularly the Rastafarian community – have been beating the drum of global reparatory justice. The Caribbean’s history of activism and toil in the vineyard of racial justice is long and proud, starting with war heroes like Nanny of Jamaica and Chatoyer of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, through Marcus Garvey and Kwame Ture, to notable Americans of Caribbean descent, like Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan. But the type of sustained, focused, priority given to reparatory justice by heads of state and government is a relatively new phenomenon.
Within the last decade, a number of Caribbean leaders, beginning with the former Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda and the current Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, began to raise the claim of reparatory justice at the United Nations. To them, and to their colleagues, the facts of native eradication and African slavery fit them squarely within the modern definitions of genocide, torture, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Caribbean leaders began to highlight the self-evident but inconvenient truths of a legacy of poverty and under-development, in fields including public health, education, and employment, and other manifestations of structural and social inequality. They questioned why the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, or its Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, was not being applied to the glaring historical consequences of native genocide and slavery in the Caribbean.
These questions and international advocacy led, in July 2013, to the historic, unanimous, decision of all Caribbean Community Heads of State and Government 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, for the crimes of native genocide, the transatlantic slave trade, and the system of chattel slavery itself.
A Prime Ministerial Sub-Committee on Reparations was set up, ably led by the Prime Minister of Barbados. Two months later, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines hosted the Caribbean Community’s first Regional Reparations Conference, a watershed three-day event that produced a Regional Reparations Commission, headed by Professor Beckles, and charged with developing a regional roadmap to pursue reparatory justice.
That Regional Reparations Commission proceeded to identify six key areas for diplomacy and action, and further refined those broad areas into a ten-point Caribbean Reparatory Justice Programme, on which Professor Beckles will no doubt elaborate. The Caribbean Reparatory Justice Programme, in turn, was endorsed by the Caribbean Community leaders in their March 2014 Conference, which also took place in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
That alone would constitute a full year of activity at the highest political level. But much more has been done. Separate National Reparations Committees have been established in most Caribbean countries, and they are hosting a series of public events to engage, educate and learn from local communities as we sharpen our reparatory focus. The resulting elevation of national and regional consciousness on this issue, in and of itself, will be the first victory of the process of reparatory justice.
The diplomatic engagement with former colonizers and enslavers has also begun. Last June, at a CARICOM-UK Forum in London, and on behalf of CARICOM Foreign Ministers, I raised the issue of reparatory justice with William Hague, the then- Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom. We indicated that CARICOM expects this issue to be the subject of formal discussion between our region and the United Kingdom. Sir Hillary himself stood in the British House of Commons – ground zero for the architecture of Caribbean chattel slavery – and enunciated our claim with passion and logic, even naming the names of various current members of the British House of Lords, whose familial wealth was not only made in the Caribbean, but whose foreparents enslaved Sir Hilary’s direct ancestors.
There is more, still. Many national Parliaments, including Jamaica and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, have passed Motions that give legislative impetus to the principles, priorities and processes necessary to pursue reparatory justice. CARICOM leaders have secured the services of a British law firm that has some experience in making claims of a reparatory or restitutional nature. That law firm, which recently engineered a £20 million settlement for the surviving Kenyan victims of British atrocities during the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s, has worked with Caribbean lawyers in preparing a Draft Notice of Complaint, which sets out the legal case for reparatory justice under international law and practice.
The initial British arguments in the Mau Mau case, and Mr. Hague’s own responses to my request for a discussion of the issue, signal that the Caribbean’s quest for reparatory justice may not continue to advance with the rapidity that it has over the past 14 months. In no particular order, the British have raised the issue of elapsed time; of evidentiary bases; of who should paid, and how much; of the fact that we are attempting to retroactively define as criminal acts that were legal at the time; even, incredibly, that any claims related to British colonial atrocities should now be lodged against the successor governments in the now-independent countries. In other words, for example, that Kenyan victims should now make claims against the post-independence Kenyan government that succeeded the British Colonial authorities. More fundamentally, and practically, I have heard at the highest levels that any conversation on reparations is politically unpalatable, and maybe even suicidal, to governments that have to answer to electorates in a post-crisis environment of economic austerity. Better for us to try to secure ill-defined promises of assistance or special treatment. Better yet for us to recall not only the evils of genocide and slavery, but also the positive legacies we have gained from the experience – democracy, Christianity, and a command of the English language, to name a few.
Some of these arguments are mimicked in our respective local contexts. Mr. Coates’ Atlantic article alludes to many of the questions raised by those more preoccupied with the practicalities, as opposed to the inherent justice, of the reparatory cause. I suspect that those practicalities are even more vexing in the United States, where conventional wisdom styles American reparations as an internal battle – of African-Americans seeking justice from their own government, as opposed to the Caribbean paradigm of nations predominantly descended from slaves and indentured labourers seeking justice from external colonial exploiters.
But whether reparatory justice is styled as individual African-Americans cashing in on General Sherman’s 1865 guarantee of “forty acres of tillable ground” to each freed African American family, or Caribbean governments enumerating six areas of responsibility that European governments are morally and legally bound to fulfil, the process begins with analysis, education, and conversation. It’s been at least a good 13 years since I graduated law school here in DC, but H.R 40 doesn’t appear to be remotely close to quantifying the amount or type of reparations required in the American context. It seeks to examine, primarily, “the lingering negative effects of the institution of slavery” and subsequent discrimination against Black people in this country. Similarly, nothing yet done by the Caribbean Reparations Commission, attempts to aggregate or delineate the precise contours of any reparatory settlement.
None of us are there yet.
CARICOM’s next step, internally and with the former slave-trading European nations, involves conversation, not a confrontation. Our initial engagement can only be adversarial if one party is attacking and the other is defending. But we cannot imagine any sane person defending the crime of slavery, or the atrocities committed against native and enslaved populations. Nor do we think that it possible for reasonable minds to differ on the fundamental point that the repercussions of that slavery and native genocide continue to have profound negative effects on present-day individuals and nations.
The commencement of those good-faith conversations is an important litmus test of the strength of our friendship and cooperation with our longstanding European allies. We are aware of the full range of practical, political and economic hurdles to a mutually acceptable reparatory settlement. But we shall not allow full sight of the forest of justice to be obscured by political trees and bureaucratic branches. There is steel in the Caribbean spine on this issue, and a determination to bring it to a head, whether diplomatically or legally.
The level of priority that CARICOM governments accord to issue of reparatory justice cannot be overstated. At the root of our region’s historical developmental impediments is not our small size. It is not our vulnerable, debt-saddled economies. It is not our general lack of natural resources. It is not even our susceptibility to climate change, which is indeed an existential threat. No. These are all significant factors, with which me must grapple. But it is the enduring legacy of slavery that has been the unchanging developmental millstone that we have been forced to carry uphill for generations.
Bob Marley once sang in his song “Slave Driver” that:
Every time I hear the crack of a whip,
my blood runs cold.
I remember on the slave ship,
how they brutalised my very soul.
Slavery, and the slave ship itself was beyond an indignity. It was beyond barbarism. It was beyond inhuman. It was, apart from the physical atrocities, a brutalisation of the psyche of a people so violent and enduring that it has created a shared cultural memory of the trauma. A collective memory that lives so vividly in the souls of those who have died that it is bequeathed to those of us who live today and to those yet unborn. For the CARICOM Member States, it is a scar that is 15 countries wide and 400 years deep. For the world, it remains a festering sore on the conscience of humanity.
I know those scars are felt and shared and understood by millions of African-Americans brothers and sisters. That is why our leaders have instinctively and independently embarked on such similar reparatory paths. The ties that bind us are deep and unbreakable. The legacies that shape us are shared. And the solidarity that informs our quest to study, educate, advocate and obtain justice must not simply be assumed, but vigorously lived.
As we support your efforts to move forward with H.R. 40 and the just cause of reparations in the United States, so too do we solicit your active kinship, assistance and support. This is a great cause of our generation, and great causes are not won by timid, fractious men and women. Together, we can and will succeed.
I thank you.