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Caribbean Nations Demand Slavery Reparations from Europe

Caricom slavery reparations

The 14 countries of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) have agreed to renew their demands for slavery reparations from three former European colonial powers, and major beneficiaries of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade: Britain, France and Netherlands.

AP reports that the Caricom nations recently voted unanimously at a meeting in Trinidad to renew their decades-long effort to bring the major beneficiaries and perpetrators of the slave trade before the United Nations and the World Court in The Hague.

The countries have also agreed to create a regional reparations commission under the supervision of Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent and Grenadines; and to initiate a joint effort that Gonsalves described as “honest, sober and robust conversation” with Britain, France and the Netherlands to resolve the longstanding issue of slavery reparations “amicably.”

Some of the countries, including Jamaica, already have national reparations commissions. Those that have not established a commission have agreed to establish one and send representatives to the regional body.

The leaders of the Caribbean nations insist that the widespread poverty and underdevelopment in the region are the legacy of the slave trade. According to Gonsalves, while a formal apology from the European nations is desirable, it would not be sufficient. He told AP on Wednesday: “The apology is important but that is wholly insufficient. We have to have appropriate recompense.”

The countries are focusing attention on Britain, France and Netherlands, and have retained the British law firm of Leigh Day & Co., which won the legal battle for compensation to Kenyans who were tortured by the British colonial government during the Mau-Mau rebellion of the 1950s and 1960s.

According to attorney Marty Day, his firm plans to pursue a negotiated settlement with the governments of the three European countries. AP reports he said: “I think they would undoubtedly want to try and see if this can be resolved amicably. But I think the reason they have hired us is that they want to show that they mean business.”

The Caribbean leaders have given no indication of how much they would be demanding in reparations, but according to AP, Gonsalves and the chairwoman of the national reparations commission in Jamaica, Verene Shepherd, have cited the sum of 20 million pounds equivalent to 200 billion today, that Britain paid British planters in the Caribbean at the emancipation.

Shepherd said: “Our ancestors got nothing. They got their freedom and they were told ‘Go develop yourselves.'”

It is expected that the European countries will resist in spite of having actively supported and justified German reparations for Jewish slave and forced labor during the Holocaust.

According to AP, British High Commissioner to Jamaica, David Fitton, commenting on the matter on Wednesday, said that the Mau Mau case was not meant to be a precedent and that the British government opposes reparations for slavery. He said: “We don’t think the issue of reparations is the right way to address these issues. It’s not the right way to address an historical problem.”

Apart from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressing regret for the “unbearable suffering” of slavery during the 200th anniversary of the British prohibition on the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in 2007, the British government has never explained what it considers the “right way” to address the issue nor have they done anything about it even while championing similar reparations for Jewish victims of the Holocaust against Germany.

When former President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was asked about France paying reparations for slavery and colonialism after the Haitian earthquake, he acknowledged the burden of colonization and slavery on the country but sought to justify France by noting that the country had canceled a 56 million euro debt and provided aid package of 40 million euros to Haiti.

Slavery and the Industrial Revolution in Europe

The Western powers who benefited from the slave trade have sought to justify their refusal to consider paying reparations to the victims of slavery by downplaying the significant contributions of slavery to their economies. Sometimes they engage in blatant denial of the fact that their present status as economic superpowers received a powerful boost from the slave trade.

The denial sometimes takes the form of blaming the victims by suggesting that since the slavery era the victims of the slave trade have had enough time to develop themselves and that if they haven’t it is their fault. Similarly arguments are often tendered to deny the pivotal role that the slavery economy played in the accumulation of capital wealth in the US for instance.

A more recent form of the denial shamelessly revisits the old racist ideologies of biological superiority of certain races by correlating the “IQ” of nations with wealth.

These denials are peddled blatantly in spite of a profusion of academic studies that show that the so-called “Age of Capital” in Europe, which took off in the mid-nineteenth century (Hobsbawm) was powered by wealth acquired from the slave trade.

According to BBC History:

Slave-owning planters, and merchants who dealt in slaves and slave produce, were among the richest people in 18th-century Britain. Profits from these activities helped to… build a score of banks, including Barclays, and to finance the experiments of James Watt, inventor of the first really efficient steam engine.

Liverpool merchant bankers, heavily involved in the slave-based trades, extended vital credit to the early cotton manufacturers of its Lancashire hinterland.

The BBC continues:

In his famous 1944 book ‘Capitalism and Slavery’, the Trinidadian scholar Eric Williams argued that profits from slavery ‘fertilized’ many branches of the metropolitan economy and set the scene for England’s industrial revolution’.

His thesis has focused decades of debate and controversy. It correctly identified the very great intimacy in 18th-century Britain between making money from slavery on the one hand, and the financing of British capitalist development, on the other… the fit between slave plantation growth and industrial advance in Britain was to be impressive and sustained. The plantation colonies supplied the mother country with a growing stream of popular luxuries – dyestuffs, sugar, tobacco, then later coffee and chocolate as well – and cotton, a crucial industrial input.

The availability of such treats drew consumers into greater participation in market exchanges and greater reliance on wages, salaries and fees. Baiting the hook of wage dependence, new consumer goods helped to motivate what some historians call the ‘industrious revolution’, the longer hours and tight labor control associated with industrialism…

The BBC concludes:

Using the telling concept of ‘ghost acreage’, we can consider the fact that Britain had available to it the fruits of the labors of millions of enslaved people, working millions of acres of highly fertile (and conveniently located) soil in the New World, helping it over the difficult humps of early industrialization.

Enslaved people on the plantations of the Americas made a large contribution to British prosperity.

It is estimated that the acreage required to grow the cotton, sugar and timber imported by Britain from the New World in 1830 would have been somewhere between 25 and 30 million acres – or more than Britain’s total arable and pasture land combined.

The Trans-Atlantic slave trade, through the so-called Atlantic Triangular Trade in colonial cash crops produced by slaves, boosted industrial growth in the US.

The website Measuring Worth, quotes research estimates of the value of capital wealth stored in slaves in Southern US: Adjusted to today’s price levels the total wealth of the South in 1860 was estimated at about $21 trillion. Of the total, $10 trillion (almost 50%) represented the value of slaves.

In spite of the frequent boasts that “whites did more to end slavery than other races,” scholars such as Eric Hobsbawn, in his “The Age of Capital,” have shown that the slaving nations, especially the Anglo-Saxon powers, were not motivated primarily by humane considerations to end slavery. It was the Industrial Revolution that rendered the slavery economy obsolete, making it unsustainable in the long run.

*****

JohnThomas DidymusJohnThomas Didymus is a writer from Lagos, Nigera. 

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