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Capitalism, Slavery and the Reparations Battle

By September 8, 2014June 29th, 2020Editors' Choice, Reparations

By Don D. Marshall

The case for reparations made by Professor Sir Hilary Beckles on behalf of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) has engendered conversations across the region and diaspora. Perhaps it promises to lift from the pages of quiet academic production and career enhancement, exchanges about the Caribbean, its historicalness and current development predicaments.

As we are aware, Sir Hilary as Chair of Caricom’s Reparations Commission is making a case for reparatory justice against European countries, mainly Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Sweden. At the 25th Inter-Sessional Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community held on 10 March 2014 in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Commission’s 10 point plan was adopted. Heads agreed that efforts will be made to elicit a public apology for the African Slave Trade and the decimation of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and to commence negotiations for reparatory justice. Should the European powers fail to publicly apologise and refuse to enter into negotiations, CARICOM nations will file a lawsuit against the European powers at the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

In precise terms, the appeal is for reparatory justice for the horrific consequences of 400 years of the African Slave Trade, systematic genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and historical justice for the descendants of African slaves and native American peoples. On April 19 2014, Sir Hilary re-presented the reparations case to an audience of civil rights activists at the Chicago State University, an event organised and webcasted by the Institute of the Black World 21st Century. Again the reach of the 10 point plan was explained, highlighting demands for assistance in boosting the region’s technological capacity; strengthening public health institutions, museums, research centres and cultural institutions; and legal and diplomatic assistance from European governments in resettlement plans for members of the Rastafari religion.

The moral and ethical reasoning for reparations is beyond dispute. Indeed the legal case to be answered may have some precedent as with the Jewish settlement following World War II; and Japan’s official acceptance of its obligation to provide monetary compensation to victims of war crimes committed during World War II.

The modalities of `the how and the what’ of compensation remain an important subject but the case as outlined, coming 176 years after the end of slavery and fifty years after island independence was gained in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, has been greeted with doubt, some arguing that it is a needless distraction, others careful to note that it detracts from current struggles Caribbean working class people confront.

Take the recent contribution by Hilbourne Watson and Trevor Campbell, `Reparations Campaign Distracts from Challenges facing Caribbean: A Response’, which appeared in the August 11 2014 edition of Stabroek News. They argue that advocates fail to integrate the reparations argument with an analysis of historical capitalism; that the exploitation of surplus labour is the sui generis of capitalism; that European working classes also experienced exploitation and alienation then – as much as they do now with a capitalism that portends jobless growth and positive rates of return. As they put it:

“The historians and others at the forefront of the reparations discourse in the Caribbean completely overlook the fact that the entire history of all class societies dating back to the distant past is the history of exploitation which has been bound up with the appropriation of the surplus labour by the class that owned the means of production…This fact tells us that the producers of the wealth in those societies – slaves from antiquity, serfs, peasants and workers – could justifiably make a claim for reparations, equally with the descendants of enslaved Africans.”

The need to square the reparation claim with the historical tendency of capitalism is a serious one. But first an appendage to the Watson-Campbell argument is important.

I believe that they have opened reflective space for a discussion of who is “the subject” to whom reparations are owed. For them it is primarily `the working classes’, the powerless who face exploitation as a necessary feature in the social and material relations of production. For framers of the reparations case, the subject is presented as generic `African and indigenous descendants’ of enslavement and genocide.

This generic-ness is essentially without name but we know they are `classed’ as downtrodden, ‘raced’ as non-white, mostly black but that they invariably end up without gender. The descendants of both enslaved and indigenous women need to be brought into the liberatory audit of compensation produced by the Reparations Commission, not as an appendage to any of the specific points but critically as a new emphasis within what must now be an Eleven Point plan. Women have never been paid for their caring labour, such is the unacknowledged subsidy of all varieties of capitalism.

And we are aware that historically European women, servants and the colonised were not seen as persons, individuals in their own right (excluded from liberal individuality). But from the accumulation of transgressions, I am sure a specific language of claims-making is possible when considering the rape, domestic servitude, and the sundry power relations brought to bear on the bodies and will of African enslaved women and their descendants – from the Slave Trade through to the end of the Emancipation/Apprenticeship period at least, as well as women survivors of indigenous peoples.

The social and cultural scaffolding of rape and sexual violence today; circulating tropes of African-Caribbean female sexuality as degenerate; and barriers to upward mobility for African-Caribbean women into positions of corporate authority and leadership – these negatively affect Caribbean women’s lives.

The region needs more resources to construct shelters for women experiencing intimate partner abuse; to assist with direct educative interventions; to effect positive discrimination programmes in hiring practices; to provide day care resources at workplaces to ease the domestic double workday; and so on. These needs should also form part of the compensatory claims of the Reparations Commission.

As earlier suggested, Watson and Campbell ask that we reflect on historical capitalism as we consider the ramifications of reparations claims. Formations of world order constitutive of capitalistic economic systems extend back for centuries at least. Imperialism was under constant contest before and since the Europeans, taking haphazard shape from myriad encounters with alternative systems of authority.

The structural economic realities and opportunities facing European powers in the long 16th Century were all to do with their lag behind Asia, particularly their individual trade deficits with China and their internal scramble for pre-eminence. Indeed territorial conquest through plunder and dispossession pre-dated the rise of the West and was largely the means through which empire-making was possible. But how the different European powers inscribed their processes of accumulation by dispossession and how the New World was dragged into this orbit require careful consideration.

The decision in the 16th and 17th Centuries to experiment and then embark upon the African Slave Trade followed unsustainable attempts to extract surplus labour from indigenous and indentured peoples, occurring within a cultural and interpersonal context that legitimised the capture and, later, the commodification of African peoples as ultimately a `civilising gesture’. We learn that by 1850 a westward shift of hegemony from East to West was completed.

The reparations case, I believe, is precisely pitched at how this settlement was reached, the argument being that it was founded on deadly inventions of racial difference with tangible and terrible effects. Let us go back to the `long 16th century’ as touchstone for an understanding of the Beckles Commission’s 400 year timeline.

The long 16th century is necessary for tracking the various ways legal codes were enacted to strip the enslaved Africans of all protection of the law. Chattel slavery was neither an inevitable nor natural capitalist outcome for solving the demand for labour. Indeed Africans who were brought to the slave colonies throughout the 16th century had uncertain legal status; some were indentured servants and some could own slaves themselves.

The Barbados Slave Code of 1661 was the first code establishing the English legal base for chattel slavery in the Caribbean and its adoption in South Carolina in 1696 laid out the guidelines for British North America. So that while for European powers labour was necessary for the sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations, slave labour was unnecessary unless the imperative to extract excess profits coexisted with supremacist ideas.

The invention of chattel slavery in these circumstances was neither historically inevitable nor foreseen in the early rivalry stakes among European powers. This is why it is problematic to equate chattel slavery with all other forms of labour exploitation and to proceed to fold this dehumanising, commodification experience into an analysis of surplus labour extraction. In short, the African Slave Trade and the plantation system arose out of a contingent set of processes that were neither predetermined nor uncontested.

A case for reparations as pursued by CARICOM is legitimate even as care must be taken to explore the dynamics of class and gender. The women-of-colour issue is also central to the claim for reparatory justice while the point of how to locate European working classes in such appeals requires nuanced engagement. But the question of who benefited from the slave trade, slavery and the colonial order involves acknowledgement of the dense web of relations marked by coercion, negotiation, complicity, affiliation and revolt.

Watson and Campbell are correct to direct our attention to historical capitalist relations of power; but it is equally important that we delve into the shifting strategies of accumulation, the rivalry among European powers for material and ideological ascendancy in the global power stakes, and the reaction of social forces to empire and domination all at specific historical conjunctures. Capitalism did not require chattel slavery even as it was most congenial to elite western/southern European imperial ambitions and quests for splendour.


Don D. Marshall is Senior Research Fellow at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies at the Cave Hill, Barbados, Campus, University of the West Indies


About IBW21

IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to building the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. to work for the social, political, economic and cultural upliftment, the development of the global Black community and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.