Where to begin reparations? (Part I)

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By Leonart Matthias

Charity begins at home. The seeds are being sown for reparations for slavery to be paid to Caribbean nations. Why Caribbean? I can’t say. Where should we begin? It’s just as hard to say. But at the thirty-fourth meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government in July 2013 in Trinidad and Tobago, it was agreed to set up National Committees on Reparations. The goal of these committees is to establish the moral, ethical and legal case for the payment of reparations by the former colonial European countries.

The future for the Caribbean looked bleak. At the time, Governor of the ECCB, Sir Dwight, in his 2013 ECCU Economic Review Presentation, signalled large government, and unsustainable debt, as perilous clouds hanging over the region.  Some point to the world economic downturn. Others refer to global warming and its effects like flooding, drought, and rising sea levels as threats to the region. Now it is the Covid-19 pandemic. If the case for reparations can be won, it will not only provide a momentous cushion from the impending gloomy forecasts, but will prove to be the most important recognition of the sufferings of any people in the history of man – even eclipsing Nuremberg in significance and precedent.

The magnitude, scale, plunder and heinousness of institutionalised slavery were so great that the damage still resides, not only in the psyche of blacks, but also in the performance of Caribbean people and economies. When all the horrors are stacked by themselves they present an overwhelming dossier of evidence that a most dehumanising and inhumane injustice was committed. Nonetheless, the case has many sides which tend to make it less clear-cut than the volume of evidence seems to portray at first glance.  Consultation with attorneys from the internationally acclaimed British law firm, Leigh Day, have given the heads of government a glimmer of energising hope. Reparations is not a difficult concept. Simply put, it is compensation in money, land or other goods for hardships and loss. But the case is an extremely complex one, with an elaborate maze of black and white tunnels, compounded with many, many shades of grey in between.

However, before we get into the meat of this discussion, we must ask ourselves if there is any sum of money that can compensate for, or alternately cleanse the earth from the odious stain of African enslavement, the middle passage and the slave trade? Consequently, if such a sum is available, should it not be utilised in a more constructive, but perpetual manner, like being the stimulating catalyst and platform for orchestrating a campaign, aimed at ridding the planet of man’s inhumanity to man – ending human exploitation once and for all?

The evasive quest for reparations for slavery is not new. Since 1865 during the latter part of the United States Civil War, General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, which bestowed to the freed families forty acres of land and a mule. Subsequent activists and civil rights advocates have always referred to this Order as a debt owed to the descendents of slaves. This debt has never been settled either in the United States or its kind in the West Indies.

The issue went dormant for a while, with isolated pockets of half-hearted resurgence, until now it has become the priority of some governments and prominent politicians. The timing of this most recent resurgence is suspicious. It came on the immediate heels of massive loss of money worldwide by some wealthy families and businesses. One wonders if it is not another case of our nations and academics fronting for a bailout for other entities.  Nonetheless, the word ‘reparations’ is not taboo any longer, but fashionable to repeat.

The first hurdle to overcome in the quest for reparations is: who should pay reparations – Nations, families, companies, institutions or all of the above? The Conference has already confined the debt to ‘colonial slave-owning European countries’ only. This position, I believe, punctures a huge hole in an already leaky case. Firms, companies, families, churches, Jews, Arabs and Africans were also an integral part of slavery and the slave trade. Why should a selection of nations pay while others who benefited more are let off?

If it is agreed and accepted, somehow, that nations should pay, including African nations, there are some anomalies that will present themselves. The Yoruba people of Nigeria were slave owners while the Hausa were slaves to the Sokoto Caliphate until 1936 when the British took over Northern Nigeria and outlawed slavery, freeing some 2.5 million slaves. Should the whole of Nigeria pay or just the slave owning Yoruba descendants?  Similarly, should the taxes of the large West Indian community in the United Kingdom pay reparations to CARICOM countries? Jews also were major players in the slave trade and slave ownership. A 1680 tax list from Barbados shows that Jews contributed 11.7 percent of the taxes raised even though they were not citizens or allowed to pursue debts in court. But where they excelled, is as merchants and ship owners. In his book, Jews and Judaism in the United States, Rabbi Marc Lee Raphael states that, “In fact, in all the American colonies, whether French (Martinique), British, or Dutch, Jewish merchants frequently dominated [the slave trade]” (p 14). Intriguingly, one of the merchant ships owned by Nathan Marston and Abram Lyell was called ‘The Antigua.’‘Jews’ was not a nation then, but Israel is a nation today. Is it fair or proper to ask Israel to pay reparations? Or should this charge be levied against the family, relatives or descendents of these persons? This too would undoubtedly prove difficult to establish. Evident from the United States civil war, very closely related persons fought and expended resources on different sides of the debate. In that case, which family members should pay? Some family members consider that they have actually done enough to regard their debt as paid.

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