In light of the recent global anti-slavery and anti-colonial protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement, a burning issue that has not been prominently addressed is that of reparations for the victims of these two evil scourges in the Caribbean, the Americas, and Africa.
How can Western nations who enslaved and colonised black people over five centuries repair the extensive damage that has left these regions with the triple burdens of underdevelopment, diseases, and deadly conflicts? These problems amount to a festering wound that needs to be urgently addressed.
Three prophets have been at the forefront of these debates: African-American lawyer Randall Robinson and Barbadian and Nigerian historians Hilary Beckles and Ade Ajayi.
As the 400th anniversary of American slavery was commemorated last year, the thorny issue of reparations for descendants of this exploitative system of enforced servitude and uncompensated labour has once more come to the fore. Similar campaigns also exist in the Caribbean and Africa.
Perversely, it was slave owners — and not enslaved Africans or their descendants – who were compensated by the American and British governments for the loss of their ‘property’. The British government paid the contemporary equivalent of 200 billion pounds to slave owners after it abolished slavery in 1833. Some Democrats in the United States House of Representatives and Senate have embraced the cause of reparations, and some institutions, like Brown, Harvard, Yale, Glasgow and Georgetown universities, that benefited from the enslavement and exploitation of African labour have started to acknowledge their role in this sordid commerce and begun putting programmes of restitution in place.
The most articulate American crusader of reparations has been activist Randall Robinson, who led the civil-society anti-apartheid struggle in the US in the 1980s through his NGO TransAfrica. He has consistently argued for reparations in order to close the 250-year gap between white and black Americans created by plantation slavery. As Robinson correctly noted, “The black holocaust is far and away the most heinous human-rights crime visited upon any group of people in the world over the last 500 years.” He, therefore, urged America’s largely white ruling class to redress these historical wrongs. Robinson further noted that Germany paid Jews reparations for the devastating but much shorter Holocaust (1933-45) — estimated at US$60 billion — while Japanese Americans interned in concentration camps by President Franklin Roosevelt during the Second World War (1939-1945) were also compensated with a US$1.2-million payment. He further observed that indigenous populations received land and money for the Australian government’s genocidal campaign against them between 1788 and 1901.
To understand the structural impact of slavery to which Robinson is alluding, one should note that during the current COVID-19 crisis, African Americans have overwhelmingly been among its fatalities, accounting for 30% of deaths, though constituting only 13 per cent of the US population.
Apologise and take responsibility
In the Caribbean, the vice-chancellor of The University of the West Indies (UWI), Hilary Beckles, has led the reparations debate, consistently noting that “slavery and genocide in the Caribbean are lived experiences despite over a century of emancipation.
Everywhere, their legacies shape the lives of the majority and harm their capacity for advancement”. Modern illnesses common among Caribbean citizens like diabetes and hypertension can be traced directly to the bad diet and other ailments inherited from the era of European slavery and colonialism.
Beckles thus called for an apology and the need for Britain to take responsibility for its crimes against humanity committed in the Caribbean. Reparations should, he argued, be paid by the British state, its banks, merchant houses, insurances companies, and the Church of England, which all benefited directly from slavery.
Beckles, who chairs the Caribbean Community’s (CARICOM) Reparations Commission to pursue compensation from European nations for the Transatlantic slave trade, argued persuasively that the West Indies had been the “hub of the British Empire”, where most of its wealth was generated. A 2004 estimate of the cost of the slave trade to the Caribbean arrived at a figure of £7.5 trillion. Beckles therefore urged slave-trading Britain, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, France, Denmark, and Sweden to pay reparations to Caribbean nations in order to repair this damage.
In the African context, Ade Ajayi was a member of the Organisation of African Unity’s (OAU) Eminent Persons Group on Reparations in 1992-1993, which demanded that the West recognise its moral debt to Africa and its diaspora for slavery and colonialism and pay these populations full monetary compensation.
Ajayi was, undoubtedly, one of the most eloquent continental advocates of reparations until his death in 2014. As he noted in 1993: “The crusade for reparation is … to seek to understand the African condition in-depth, to educate the African and the non-African about it, to seek an acknowledgement of wrongs which have impaired the political and socio-economic fabric of Africa, and, through restitution or reparation, to attempt to give Africa and Africans a fresh start.”
Ajayi noted that discussions about the contributions of the slave trade to the West’s industrialisation had been neglected and criticised the ambiguous or indifferent attitude of African scholars to this issue. He argued that a major motive of European colonial rule was to keep African labour in a cheap state akin to slavery, using methods perfected during two centuries of Caribbean colonialism. Ajayi thus called for four key measures to achieve reparations: domestic education and mobilisation in African societies; documentation and research on the costs of slavery and colonialism; making a cogent