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A leading Caribbean intellectual has presented a compelling argument of why Britain should pay to former colonies in the region reparations for slavery and native genocide.
Caribbean Community (CARICOM) leaders at their summit in Trinidad and Tobago in July agreed to the formation of the Commission that will be chaired by Barbados Prime Minister Freundel Stuart and include St Vincent and the Grenadines, Haiti, Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago.
The regional countries have also engaged the services of a prominent British human rights law firm to assist in the matter.
“We are focusing on Britain because Britain was the largest owners of slaves at Emancipation in the 1830s. The British made the most money out of slavery and the slave trade -- they got the lion share. And, importantly, they knew how to convert slave profits into industrial profits,” said Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Pro Vice Chancellor and Principal of the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI).
Speaking at a lecture Tuesday night on the title of his latest book, “Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide”, the academic detailed how the British government and British citizens used slavery to enrich themselves.
He further noted that while at Emancipation, reparations were paid to former slave owners, the slaves got nothing.
Professor Beckles argued that the reparation monies stimulated the British economy for half a century after Emancipation, but “here in the Caribbean, the islands were descended into poverty after Emancipation.
“And in Britain, 50 years of growth because the compensation money was reinvested in the British economy and stimulated the economic development of the company,” he said, adding “the British government built this system (slavery), they created fiscal policies to manage it, they created financial systems, they legislated slavery, they administrated slavery, the government owned the slaves, and, importantly, the British government is the custodian of the wealth of the nation.
“We believe that we now have to repair the damage and this is the final point. This is why now repartitions is important,” Professor Beckles said, noting that Caribbean governments were now spending up to 80 per cent of their expenditure on education and health.
“After 300 hundred years of taking their labour, exploiting their labour and enriching themselves to build themselves into the most powerful nation on earth, they have left Caribbean peoples illiterate and unhealthy, which means that the governments today have to clean up illiteracy and clean up the ill-health do not have the resources to do it.”
Professor Beckles said that the British were good at keeping records and hence the wealth derived from slavery is traceable. He rebutted some of the arguments likely to be advanced by Britain as it resists paying reparations to the region.
He said that the British have launched a campaign to discredit the reparations movement, but stated that British citizens are increasingly seeing the need for -- and are calling on their government to make -- amends.
Professor Beckles spoke of a case in which a slave trader, faced with decreasing ration aboard a slave ship and no tail winds, decided to throw his slave “cargo” overboard and return to Britain to claim insurance.
The British judiciary ruled that it was a simple case of property insurance rather than murder --since slaves were not considered human beings.
“Therein lies the British court … the judiciary of great Britain, ruling in its own legal structure that black people are not human beings.
“Therein lies the charge of reparations, because to deny a people their human identity is a crime against humanity and that is the case that the British judiciary, on behalf of the British state, established the principle that once and for all, that African peoples are not human.”
Professor Beckles spoke of how the exploitation of the region under slavery resulted in the underdevelopment of the region’s human resource, infrastructure, and economy.
He noted that after 300 years of colonisation, when in 1962 the British left Jamaica at Independence, 80 per cent of the Caribbean nation’s people were functionally illiterate
Professor Beckles also spoke of the impact on the family, and mentioned the high rates of diabetes and hypertension in the region and the ways in which black people in the Caribbean and Africa respond to medicine for these conditions.
“These are the kinds of things we speak about when we speak about reparations,” Professor Beckles said in reference to the vestiges of slavery and colonisation.
“The British government has to come to the Caribbean and sit with us and help us deal with all of these. We have a legal and moral right,” Professor Beckles said, lauding the efforts of Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves who has convinced his CARICOM colleagues to support the reparations movement.
“We need to take them forward. All of us need to take them forward,” Professor Beckles said of the issues relating to reparations.
“And if we do not, this region is going to regress and regress very rapidly. And it is not about confrontation, it is not about conflict, it is about a 21st century state of sophisticated diplomacy. 21st century diplomacy is required, a 21st century international relations is required. The time has come now in this second phase of nation building for us to go forward. I feel this is where we are at,” he said.
He noted, however, that reparation is not about handing over money to either individuals or governments.
“Under international law, reparations are paid into a fund, which is administered under international law. … In every society, a reparations committee is established, a fund is established, and under law, those funds are placed under trustees and trustees are held responsible for the use of those funds for community development,” Professor Beckles said