The Report on Reparations for Transatlantic Chattel Slavery (TCS) in the Americas and the Caribbean, an initiative of Judge Patrick Robinson, which he presented on June 8 at The University of the West Indies, has been in the media recently. The event was organised by the Centre for Reparation Research in collaboration with The P. J. Patterson Institute for Africa-Caribbean Advocacy.
In order to transform this initiative from idea to reality, Judge Robinson enlisted the US-based Brattle group of economists (to do the quantification), legal minds from The American Society of Law, of which he was honorary president in 2020-2021, an advisory group of historians, student researchers, and a theologian to provide the historical evidence as well as the ethical, legal, and moral justification to guide the economists.
According to the report, the aggregate sum of reparations to be paid by the major former slave holding states to 31 countries in the Americas is US$107.8 trillion, broken down as follows: Britain, $24.011 trillion as reparation for TCS in 14 CARICOM countries – $9.559 trillion to Jamaica; the United States, $26.790 trillion for its practice of TCS from 1776 to 1865; France, $9.288 trillion in respect of four countries, Martinique, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, and Grenada.
While others put the figure higher, according to Judge Robinson, summarising the Brattle calculations, “France is required to return to Haiti the sum of 90 million Francs (about $1.4 billion in today’s money – others put the sum at much higher) that it extracted … as compensation for plantation owners who lost their property, i.e., the enslaved.” Portugal is required to pay $20.582 trillion in respect of Brazil; Brazil, $4.434 trillion in respect of its practice of TCS in that country from 1822 to 1888; the Netherlands, $4.886 trillion, of that sum, $2.723 trillion to Suriname and $52 billion to Guyana.
The heads of damage used in the calculation of TCS include personal injury, loss of liberty, forgone earnings, gender-based violence, mental pain and anguish, and deprivation of citizenship and family. The estimate of reparations for the post-enslavement period is calculated to be US$22.9 trillion, putting the total sum to just over US$130 trillion.
The question is, what’s the way forward? Will Caribbean states now intensify their efforts, with support from civil society and reparation committees across the world, to call the former colonisers to the table and insist on a development package using the model set out in the CARICOM Ten-Point Plan and endorsed by Robinson?
Robinson clearly said in his presentation of the report that “… I strongly believe that reparations should not be in the form of monies handed over to individuals; rather, the reparatory sums should be used for developmental purposes, to provide the services in education, health, housing, technology and other areas, of which, generally, the descendants of the enslaved have been deprived. In this regard, the CARICOM 10-Point Action Plan, adopted in 2014, calls for a Development Plan.”
Will the relevant states now come to the table in a spirit of reconciliation and an attitude of remorse given the huge debt they owe, which reflects the magnitude of their crimes against humanity as referred to in the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA)? Some say “don’t hold your breath,” especially when it comes to the United Kingdom, where former prime ministers and now the current prime minister, have dismissed the call for reparations. BBC journalist, Joshua Nevett, reported in April that in response to Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy’s question asking if he would make a “full and meaningful apology” and “commit to reparatory justice”, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reportedly said “trying to unpick our history is not the right way forward”.
The negative attitude of UK prime ministers since 2007 towards admitting guilt and engaging in a reparatory justice conversation with affected communities in the Caribbean and its diaspora is in stark contrast to the views of early 20th-century British MP A. Creech Jones, British Colonial Office Advisory Committee on Education, who, according to Hilary Beckles in his book How Britain Underdeveloped the Caribbean, says:
“We carry a grave responsibility for a colonial policy based on cheap labour and cheap raw materials. The facts are out, and we can no longer plead ignorance and indifference. Of course, there has been official irresponsibility and the dominance of narrow calculating colonial interests. We can point to years of criminal neglect when official ineptitude and sloth have permitted affairs to drift and the islands to sink into unpardonable misery. Now a point has been reached when action is desperately urgent and British concern must be paid in hard cash. The hopeless squalor of today is in a real way the measure of the shortcomings of our colonial policy and of our economic neglect.”
St Lucian Arthur Lewis echoed these sentiments in his book Labour in the Caribbean, suggesting approaches to improve the region’s economy, which, he argued, could not be done in isolation but with assistance from Great Britain: ” … It can only be done with British help. What claim has the West Indies to demand such sacrifices from the British people? Briefly this. It is the British who by their action in past centuries are responsible for the presence in these islands of the majority of their inhabitants, whose ancestors as slaves contributed millions to the wealth of Great Britain, a debt which the British have yet to repay.”
This aligns with the DDPA which states, “… historical injustices have undeniably contributed to the poverty, underdevelopment, marginalization, social exclusion, economic disparities, instability and insecurity that affect many people in different parts of the world, in particular in developing countries;”
Sir Ellis Clarke, Trinidad and Tobago’s United Nations’ representative to a subcommittee of the Committee on Colonialism in 1964, was clear about why Britain owed the Caribbean: “An administering power is not entitled to extract for centuries all that can be got out of a colony and when that has been done to relieve itself of its obligations by the conferment of a formal but meaningless … political independence. Justice requires that reparation be made to the country that has suffered the ravages of colonialism before that country is expected to face up to the problems and difficulties that will inevitably beset it upon independence.”
Will PM Sunak heed the evidence and the justification so well laid out by Creech-Jones, Ellis Clarke, Arthur Lewis, Judge Robinson, the Brattle Group, and countless scholars? The route to racial justice and equality in this century lies in reparation, a rejection of the arguments about legality, a refutation of the ‘too long ago in the past to have contemporary application’ narrative, and a rejection of the view that “trying to unpick our history is not the right way forward”.
Verene A. Shepherd is Director, The Centre for Reparation Research, The UWI.