Most people in the western world never really learn about, or understand, the horrors of slavery. In schools and universities, we learn a Eurocentric version of history that de-emphasises the importance of slavery to the development of modern European economies. If it discusses slavery at all, it minimises the brutality and horrors of the practice. (Comedian Louis CK once explained that “every year [American] white people add 100 years to how long ago slavery was. I’ve heard educated white people say, ‘slavery was 400 years ago’. No, it wasn’t. It was 140 years ago – that’s two 70-year-old ladies living and dying back to back. That’s how recently you could buy a guy.”) Without an understanding of the historical context of slavery and native genocide – including a recognition that it represents fairly recent history – it’s hard to come to terms with the necessity of, and desire for, reparations.
In March this year, 14 CARICOM (Caribbean Community) nations announced they were preparing a class action suit in the ICJ for reparations for native genocide and slavery against the UK, France and the Netherlands – or rather, the underdevelopment that is a result of these practices. CARICOM leaders are first seeking agreement through the UN Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; if this fails, it will head to the ICJ.
CARICOM is an international organisation that aims to promote social and economic development in the Caribbean region. CARICOM’s Reparations Committee (CRC) asserts that victims and descendants of the genocide and slavery practised by European colonisers have a legal right to reparations from those governments that committed, and have been enriched by, these crimes.
The Reparations Committee approved a ten-point plan outlining steps that it believes will begin a process of “reconciliation, truth, and justice for victims and their descendants”. The CRC wants European governments to take steps that include:
- A full formal apology;
- A repatriation program;
- An Indigenous Peoples development program;
- Development of cultural institutions, such as museums, to allow citizens to better understand native genocide and slavery;
- Assistance with the Caribbean’s public health crisis, a legacy of colonisation and slavery;
- An illiteracy eradication program;
- An African knowledge program;
- Psychological rehabilitation;
- Technology transfers; and
- Debt cancellation.
CARICOM is not asking for payments to the descendants of slaves. We often think about reparations purely in terms of financial compensation, but it’s about more than money; it involves psychological healing. Making reparations involves acknowledging the mistakes which form part of our history, and which continue to inform our present. Ta-Nehisi Coates, who recently discussed reparations in the American context in a feature in The Atlantic, referred to it as involving “full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences”.
It’s notable that a desire for an apology is right at the top of CARICOM’s list. European governments have previously issued Statements of Regret, which, much like celebrity apologies on Twitter, represent non-apology apologies (“I’m sorry if anyone was offended by that joke”/“Sorry you’re still upset about the systematic destruction of your people and culture”). This implies that the descendants of slaves are not worthy of an actual apology. The US Senate only made a formal apology for slavery in 2009.
SLAVERY: SOME BACKGROUND
Between the late 16th and early 19th centuries, millions of slaves were shipped from Africa to the Americas by European nations. While slavery had existed in various forms for centuries, with the advent of the Transatlantic Slave Trade slavery became an integral part of Empire building, an indispensable source of labour to build up the wealth of colonising powers.
Between 1492 and 1820, five to six times as many Africans went to the Americas as did white Europeans.
An estimated 12 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic; 4 million ended up in the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. Around 2 million people died en route. Sharks would follow slave ships, feasting on corpses thrown overboard.
Across the Americas, military commanders were given instructions by the colonising European governments to eliminate communities of Indigenous peoples. In 1700, there were over 3 million native peoples in the Caribbean; by 2000, their numbers had been reduced to less than 30 000. According to CARICOM, their descendants remain ‘traumatised [and] landless’.
Today, genocide and slavery are considered crimes against humanity. It is difficult to pinpoint, however, exactly when slavery became prohibited by international law. Geoffrey Robertson notes in Crimes Against Humanity that there was no defining moment, but rather an accumulation of treaties over the 19th century condemning slavery, combined with a gradual abandonment of the practice by major practising countries.
Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, though slavery itself was practised until 1833. France abolished the slave trade in 1851, and slavery in 1848. As late as 1825, the US Supreme Court stated that slave trading was lawful despite international condemnation of the practice as immoral, because it was ‘sanctioned…by the laws of all nations who possess distant colonies, each of whom has engaged in it as a common commercial business’. The United States only abolished slavery at the conclusion of its Civil War in 1865.
None of the European powers made efforts to transition former slaves into their new lives, and racist policies prevailed in the colonies. Education, for example, was not made formally available across the Caribbean nations. During the late 1960s, around 70% of African descendants of former slaves in the former British colonies were functionally illiterate. Across the Caribbean, some figures suggest that over 60% of the population over the age of 15 has no more than a primary school education. This has had an ongoing impact on the ability to promote social and economic advancement.
The free labour of slaves made it possible for European powers to dominate world markets through access to cheap imported raw materials from plantations. Caribbean countries were confined to producing and exporting raw materials, denied the ability to manufacture goods – hence CARICOM’s technology transfer request. Currently, the CARICOM member state with the highest GDP is the Bahamas ($21 908 in 2012) while the lowest is Haiti ($771).
This poverty and underdevelopment did not appear out of nowhere; it is a direct result of European colonialism.
When Britain abolished slavery in the 1830s, it paid £20 million (40% of its budget at the time) to compensate slave owners for their loss of human property. Freed slaves, generations of whom had worked and died to allow white people to prosper, received nothing. Although the United States has paid reparations to certain groups – Japanese-Americans following internment, various Native American tribes – African-American slaves, and their descendants, have never been compensated.
CARICOM’S CASE FOR REPARATIONS
Will CARICOM’s efforts actually amount to anything? Probably not, at least not through the ICJ. There are some inconvenient facts for CARICOM to deal with: firstly, that the ICJ typically does not try historical cases, and that many countries who agreed to participate in the ICJ did so under the condition that they can’t be tried for actions preceding certain dates. The UK, for example, does not recognise the Court’s jurisdiction in cases arising before 1974 or those involving Commonwealth or former Commonwealth countries.
At its heart, reparations are less of a legal issue and more of a social one, to which the law is ill suited. Even if CARICOM saw success in its legal efforts (despite the improbability of this occurring), it would not lead to a change in European states’ attitudes towards slavery, genocide and their responsibility to right the wrongs of the past.
Former colonial powers still aren’t willing to face the truth about the harm their colonial practices caused – at least not to the extent that they might actually do something. Again, the first item on CARICOM’s list is an apology. Even though words are free, this appears to be too much to ask. The UK’s response to CARICOM included yet another non-apology: “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.”
This reflects the common argument that imposing 21st century standards of morality on people from centuries ago is somehow unfair – that what slave traders and owners did can be justified because they honestly believed that the more melanin you had, the less human you were.
This is the worst kind of cop out. It once again prizes the feelings and reputations of white colonialists over those of the people they enslaved and murdered. As Antonius Hippolyte points out: Europeans did not then, nor do they now, constitute all of mankind. The terrified millions who were crowded onto slave ships or murdered for their land probably didn’t shrug their shoulders and say “hey, you’ve stolen our identities, our lives, our futures – but no big deal, you don’t know any better.”
We don’t subscribe the same racist views now. But we do know that the countries of Europe can specifically trace their wealth and progress to their colonial practices. If we can recognise the clear passing down of privilege through generations, it should not be too hard to recognise the passing down of disadvantage. This should lead us to try to ameliorate the effects of systematic inequalities that we caused.
Nonetheless, the most CARICOM can probably hope for is a reopening of dialogue about the effects of slavery, genocide and colonialism generally. These have faded from the public consciousness in former colonial powers states. This might begin the healing process and lead to something more positive. Unfortunately for CARICOM and the people it represents, success seems ever more unlikely as time progresses.
photo credit: Kate White www.said-jane.com/footprints/
- Hence in Kanye West’s All Falls Down: “We shine because they hate us/Floss ‘cause they degrade us/Trying to buy back our 40 acres”, a reference to the post-Civil War expectation among freed slaves that they would receive 40 acres of land in compensation. This expectation was, predictably, never met. [↩]
- At least not overtly, but that’s a discussion for another day. [↩]
- Fun fact: The family of Benedict Cumberbatch, actor and inexplicable (to this author) darling of teen girl-dominated sections of the internet, traces its wealth to a sugar cane farm on Barbados where slaves were worked to death. In 2007, Cumberbatch told the New York Times that his mother had advised him to take on a stage name, in case he became a target for reparations suits by descendants of slaves. Cumberbatch has also stated that he took on the role of a slave owner in 12 Years A Slave as a ‘sort of apology’ for his ancestry. [↩]