Where to begin reparations? (Conclusion) By Leonart Matthias

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Antigua, on the other hand, is a very special and unique case.  It is not an accident or coincidence that by 1814 two black men, William Hill and Henry Loving, owned the most prestigious newspaper in the island; or that by 1832, two-thirds of the militia was black; or that by 1817, a black woman had set up the ‘Distressed Females Friendly Society’; or by 1828 other black friendly societies were set up attaining membership of 12,588 by 1854; or that by 1834 there were two black justices of the peace and six by 1844; that a black man was Superintendent of Police and helped draft the first Contract Act; that blacks held such majestic titles as Puisne Baron of the Exchequer, and Private Secretary to the Governor; or that blacks served on honourary city boards and commissions for health, market, and water.

Lanaghan writing in 1844 in Antigua and the Antiguans’,said of black Antiguans that, “These are men who, if not educated in England, have received the best instruction the West Indies could afford…” (Vol II 170) and that “Among them are some of the most respectable merchants and planters; and the whites themselves, with but few exceptions, follow no higher occupations” (Ibid.: 182).

It was not an accident either that after a massive campaign to demonstrate the benefits of freeing the slaves rather than having an apprenticeship, that the Assembly in Antigua voted to free the slaves immediately.  Antigua is the only country not to have an apprenticeship period. Why these peculiarities about one of the smallest islands in the Caribbean? Antigua has long been the experiment lab and workshop of the British.  The conclusions of these experiments would be useful to know, but there were other experiments as well that may be more relevant.

It had long been suspected that biological tests were done in Antigua during the 1930s and 1940s. Now, scratching the surface, researchers have revealed that testing of anthrax and brucella bacteria were done in Antigua. One report in the BBC (19 Nov 1999) claims that locals were exposed. The conclusions of these experiments, and other unknown ones, may still be lingering, residual, in the veins and bones of Antiguans today. But until academics are engaged to examine these questions thoroughly, we will never know. This is one area where pursuing reparation-claims would be much less complex than slavery.

The other relates to the mass relocation of inhabitants in order to construct the Airport and Bases during World War II. Antiguans, like the U.S. Japanese, have also suffered the dehumanising experience of being fenced into quasi concentrated camps, forced off their land, issued passes to come and go, and have bulldozers threaten their property to force them to leave. Water, agriculture, fishing and other equitable necessities were lacking in the new location. Real estate values in the relocated areas were also much less in comparison. The MacDonalds, the only white family in the area, were curiously allowed to remain at High Point.

All this was within the time frame when the Japanese-Americans suffered subhuman treatment, for which they were eventually compensated. Witnesses are still alive that have experienced and can retell the New Winthorpes trauma.  Witnesses are still alive who suffered loss of livelihood and property. Witnesses are still alive today who saw their water-front property worth millions today in the hands of others while they own nothing.

It is impossible to deny the enormous wealth and astonishing development generated by European slave-owning nations as a result of slavery and the slave trade. Surely, the extent and magnitude of the crime and the wealth generated demands acknowledgment, recompense and compensation. But it will not be an easy road. The case promises to be one of much fascination and intrigue, but not straightforward. Therefore, while we await the decision of the third umpire, on whether we dropped the ball or whether there was a catch – would Antigua not be better off pursuing the easier and more straightforward cases? It is also more than likely, that success in the bio-testing and relocation cases would strengthen, and give momentum, to the Caribbean’s case for reparations from slavery. A bird in the hand is worth more… 

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