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By Sir Hilary McD. Beckles —

It took all of the nineteenth century, beginning with the Haitian Declaration of Independence in 1804 and ending with the act of emancipation of Brazil—officially, Law No. 3,353 of 13 May 1888—to uproot the chattel enslavement of imported, enchained Africans and their creole progeny. It then took most of the twentieth century to end the colonial enterprise that hosted the double crime against humanity, which included the genocide of indigenous people. The twentieth century also witnessed the struggle for civil and human rights for the descendants of the enslaved.

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw the establishment of the ideological, intellectual and productive structures that domesticated chattel slavery as the basis of western social, economic and political life. Reflecting on the legacies of this history, the United Nations convened the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. There, I argued that the twenty-first century would, as a consequence, experience reparatory justice as its greatest global political movement. The message was not intended to be a hyperbole, but a recognition of historical forces in action.

The evidentiary basis of this trajectory seemed sufficiently well known. The second half of the twentieth century had also experienced an intense development discourse that called into being the democratizing expectations of citizens on a global scale. It foregrounded calls for economic justice, participatory citizenship, and inclusionary economic models of material production and distribution. Europeans had built colonial empires across 80 per cent of planet Earth. They plundered, appropriated and domesticated the extracted wealth, including the labour of enslaved men and women, for national economic and social transformation. Western explanatory literature subsequently sought to account for extreme global economic disparities in racial and cultural terms. It put forth racist ideologies and created a paradigm in which the poverty of the plundered was narrated in terms of their inability to create sustainable ecosystems for economic development.

The counter-narrative from the marginalized and excluded was swift, sweeping across the globe with the speed at which chattel slavery had been deployed. Theories of underdevelopment filled the discursive space, as did documentation of wealth extraction by the “north” from the now-defined Global South. Scholars concluded inexorably that only a reparatory justice framework could produce a level playing field that would give recently decolonized nations equal access to development opportunities. Furthermore, the scholars judged that the formerly enslaved citizens in developed economies are entitled by law and moral right to compensatory strategies to bring them into the realm of privileges long taken for granted by their white co-citizens.

It was recognized at the outset that reparatory justice, in the form of social and economic compensation and development, and political equality, would be rooted in the specifics of each nation or community, but globally glued together in much the same way that colonialism and slavery, and their corresponding white supremacy values systems, connected them for five centuries.

Conferences were convened within the anti-colonial movement that brought to the fore the urgency of reparatory justice as a strategy to promote economic access, as well as the psychological repair and reparation for African people everywhere. In 2013, the Caribbean Community of nations (CARICOM) formally established the CARICOM Reparations Commission, with clearly defined intellectual and procedural mechanisms. At the Commission’s centre was the recognition of the need to create an empowerment infrastructure for the movement. The Commission launched the reparations debate into a new orbit; the impact on the ground globally has been seismic.

Sir Hilary Beckles

Sir Hilary Beckles

A major objective of the Commission was to participate in the global conversation to change the colonizers’ projected definition of the term “reparations”. For two centuries, emancipated Black people have been calling for reparations for the crimes committed against them. The dominant language used in the rejection of their claims was that the term was all about Black people passively calling for undeserved cash handouts from white people. Defeating this definition was a top priority for the movement. Instead, it was set out as a legal and moral right to compensate for the crime against humanity. At the Durban Conference, chattel slavery was defined in such terms, attracting, by way of settlement, reparation in monetary, material and moral forms. This intellectual and legal victory laid the foundation for the global movement.

The CARICOM Reparations Commission reached out to activist groups and individuals globally, beginning with Brazil, Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States. The dialogue resulted in the establishment of committees and commissions in these regions, creating a network of organizations mobilized and ready to become more effective reparations campaigners. These mechanisms also included the formation of alliances with local, national and federal governments. Within the last decade, mobilizing machinery has sprung up everywhere that had experienced the enslavement of Africans. In the United States, the campaign was energized around the resurrection of interest in H.R.40, the reparations bill that seemed stalled in the House of Representatives for over 40 years.

In the CARICOM context, governments wrote formally to their European counterparts calling for an official summit to negotiate and settle the matter of reparations. Since then, the Government of the Netherlands has officially issued an apology for the nation’s involvement as a leader in the enslavement enterprise. The United Kingdom has remained steadfast in its opposition to any form of official reparations discussion.

In last five years, CARICOM has reached out to the African Union (AU), calling for a common political front for the reparations movement. After several meetings and visits by Heads of States in both regions, the AU, at the beginning of 2024, announced that 2025 will be the year of reparations campaigning in Africa. The organization declared solidarity with CARICOM and announced the beginning of a common consciousness and policy framework aimed at securing reparations.

Resistance in the capitals of the West continues to be a feature of the global movement. Many countries have issued “statements of regret” rather than apologies, indicating a refusal to admit that slavery was a crime against humanity. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, on an official visit to Jamaica in September 2015, told the Parliament that the Black people should cease looking back to slavery days and focus on the future. As a descendant beneficiary of a fortune made by his enslaver ancestors in Jamaica, the Prime Minister’s statement raised a Caribbean hurricane.

10 million Africans (20%) did not survive the journey - Graphic by CARICOM Reparations Commission

10 million Africans (20%) did not survive the journey – Graphic by CARICOM Reparations Commission

This and similar reactions in Europe to the call for reparations has served as an energy source to propel campaigns now commonly held globally and organized by local grassroots committees and official commissions. The effectiveness of these organizations is clearly found in their ability to bring to the table for discussion the major institutions and families who managed and invested in the slavery enterprise. Banks, insurance companies, trading conglomerates, universities and families (royal and common) have formally apologized and offered, though unilaterally, to pay symbolic sums of reparations and develop compensatory programmes of atonement. The call from the movement has been for an approach to development that is befitting the evolved democratic consciousness of the twenty-first century. Diversity of cultural offerings, and gender and racial tolerance, are hallmarks of the emerging horizontal structures now demanded in postcolonial societies, rather than the traditional vertical structures. Governments, institutions, families and individuals who benefited from the crime of slavery are called upon to return to the scenes of the crimes, to participate respectfully in development programmes and projects, and to commit to a new economic order in which wealth no longer flows from the south to the north, but circulates in a fashion that benefits all fairly.

The campaign, then, is being waged in fora of the United Nations, senates, classrooms of universities, board rooms of corporations, inner circles of political parties, committees of local, national and federal governments, grass-roots gatherings, global governance councils, the dining tables of the rich and the chambers of lawyers. Everywhere today, the search for justice and fairness with equity and egalitarianism finds relevance in the reparatory justice framework. Neither development nor democracy can escape its moral and ethical call for a different future.

The legacy aspect of the modern world that rose up upon the backs of the enslaved and colonized is being discredited and rejected globally. A language of peace, and paradigms of inclusive development, are being invoked by believers and revoked by non-believers. There remains a gulf of turbulent water between them, but it would seem to both groups that a tsunami has appeared on the horizon.

Further reading:

Hilary McD. Beckles, Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide (University of the West Indies Press, 2013).

Hilary McD. Beckles, How Britain Underdeveloped the Caribbean: A Reparation Response to Europe’s Legacy of Plunder and Poverty (University of the West Indies Press, 2021).

Sir Hilary McD. Beckles KA is Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies and Chairman of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Reparations Commission.

Featured image: Monument commemorating the Curaçao Slave Revolt of 1795. Charles Hoffman/Wikimedia Commons