Caribbean activists helped make reparations a mainstream concept. Now they hope ex-colonial powers will commit to paying, even if it’s not the trillions of dollars slavery is estimated to have cost.
When Jamaican history professor Verene Shepherd began advocating in the early 2000s for colonial powers to compensate Caribbean nations for the horrors of slavery, the idea went largely unnoticed in Europe and the United States. In Jamaica, some thought it would come across as “begging,” while others worried it would offend the British monarchy.
Two decades later, the issue is routinely discussed by politicians throughout the Caribbean and is increasingly on the agenda of diplomatic summits. Countries across the region have created reparations commissions, the king of the Netherlands has formally apologized, as have a few prominent British families linked to the slave trade. But one question continues to dominate the debate: Will European countries really set aside taxpayer resources to meaningfully compensate the descendants of slaves in the Caribbean?
An estimated 5 million-plus Africans were forcibly taken to the Caribbean, more than 10 times the number sent to mainland North America, and nearly 40% of the overall transatlantic slave trade from 1501 to 1866, according to a widely used database hosted by Rice University. Some estimates of the true economic and moral damage from slavery in the Caribbean run into the trillions of dollars. While most observers doubt that reparations amounts will ever come close to that, there is still optimism that reparations could provide meaningful financial resources for the region, perhaps involving numbers in the billions—in part because the conversation has picked up steam in the last few years.
Amid growing discussion of race relations in the United States and an increasingly public Caribbean reckoning with its colonial past, what was once a fringe idea is being discussed as common sense in some quarters.
Though some European governments continue to meet the topic with silence or resistance, Shepherd believes reparations are possible. As a member of Jamaica’s National Commission on Reparations, a vice chair of the CARICOM Reparations Commission, and Chair of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Shepherd is working to pressure European governments for a meeting on concrete steps toward reparations.
“We’re talking about right across the former colonizing world. We’re talking about sitting down with the representatives of the countries that were harmed,” Shepherd said in an interview. “The heads of government of CARICOM will have to lead on that meeting,” which she said is still under discussion. The European countries of focus are the United Kingdom, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and Portugal.
Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Mottley, who has become an increasingly important global voice for Caribbean affairs, hinted at the expected tone of any such negotiations. “The conversation must take place as equal partners and not as recipient of some beneficence from a third country,” she said during a roundtable on reparations in Barbados in August.
The Caribbean reparations effort principally rests on a 10-point plan drafted by CARICOM that calls on European governments to make full and formal apologies, provide funding for health and education, and help improve Caribbean countries’ access to technology, among other points. Jamaica’s National Commission on Reparations, created in 2009, has for years worked to increase public awareness within Jamaica about the issue. Irish entrepreneur Denis O’Brien, founder of Kingston-based Caribbean mobile network provider Digicel, has launched an effort called The Repair Campaign that seeks to pressure former colonial powers to commit to a long-term reparatory fund. The Repair Campaign is providing financing to help 15 Caribbean countries draw up Socioeconomic Reparatory Plans laying out how they would manage resources they could obtain through reparations.
Will European countries pay?
Earlier this year, Barbadian activist David Denny of the Caribbean Movement for Peace and Integration worked with campaigners in England to lead protests against conservative British parliamentarian Richard Drax, whose family is linked to the slave trade. The family still owns the Drax Hall estate in Barbados, a former slave plantation where sugar is still grown, which Denny says should be returned to the people of Barbados. “Barbados hasn’t received any form of reparations yet,” Denny said.
Requests for reparations continue to be met with silence or quiet pushback from the governments that would have to finance it. France’s Supreme Court in July rejected a lawsuit seeking reparations for slavery in a case that originated in Martinique, a former colony that is now an overseas department of France. Great Britain’s King Charles, while visiting Barbados in 2021 prior to his coronation, acknowledged “the appalling atrocity of slavery” but did not go as far as to apologize.
Finance-focused consultancy The Brattle Group quantified “certain elements of reparations” to be as much as $131 trillion for damages caused by transatlantic chattel slavery and post-enslavement harm, in a June report to which Shepherd was an advisor.
One notable skeptic is Barbara Makeda Blake-Hannah, one of Jamaica’s earliest reparations campaigners who worked for years alongside Shepherd but now sees the issue as a waste of time.
“If any European nation was to truly pay the debt of slavery, it would bankrupt their nation out of existence,” wrote Blake-Hannah, an author, journalist, filmmaker and Rastafari community leader, in an excerpt from her upcoming book Through Red and Gold Spectacles. “European governments know their people will vote them out of power if they agree to pay Black people any large sum of reparations out of their taxes.” Blake-Hannah declined to comment for this story, referring AQ to the work she has already published on the issue.
O’Brien, founder of The Repair Campaign, believes that Caribbean nations can take advantage of the reparations discussion to bring in significant resources—even if not on the scale outlined in the Brattle report. Speaking at an industry conference in Miami in July, O’Brien noted that slaveholders and owners of plantations in Jamaica received billions of dollars in compensation from the British government, financed by loans that were not paid off until 2015. He said reparations to Jamaica are unlikely to be identical but could be significant.
“We’re not looking at $23 billion for Jamaica, but would we get $1 or 2 billion over twenty-five years, which would make a substantial difference? More like two (billion) in my mind—that will make a profound difference to what Jamaica can invest in and diversify its economy,” he said.
The Repair Campaign is providing financing to the office of British Member of Parliament Clive Lewis, whose father is from Grenada, for a full-time campaigner who will advocate for the advancement of the reparatory agenda in Westminster and among civil society. The group also plans to make the reparations plans available to White European families, corporations and religious institutions in the United Kingdom that have started to re-examine their role in slavery.
The more recent involvement in reparations efforts by institutions and families who have historical ties to the slave trade is a sign of how far the movement has come. But Shepherd stresses the importance of its origins.
“It is the advocacy from here that has caused other people to join the movement—Asians have joined the movement, Europeans have joined the movement,” said Shepherd. “But remember where it all started—the push came from here in the Caribbean, in the colonized world.”
Source: Americas Quarterly
Burton is a Jamaica-based journalist.
Ellsworth reported from Washington.
Featured image: Verene Shepherd, chair of a UN committee on racial discrimination, at a hearing in Geneva in August 2022 (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images).