Concerning Reparations for Slavery: Part One

This past October, a tiny tempest-in-a-teacup erupted in the wake of a fairly routine report on a decision taken by CARICOM to sue the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands for reparations for slavery. Following the report, which headlined, somewhat misleadingly, as “BAHAMAS SUING UK OVER SLAVERY”, was a flurry of communications on both sides of the debate, along with a quick opinion poll by the Tribune which suggested that one-third of the people who took it were in support of the lawsuit, two-thirds against. The matter has since seemed to go away, sinking into the mire of superficialities which passes for public debate in our nation. But I want to suggest that what CARICOM has initiated is something that will eventually occur, and which may, when it does happen, change the future of the region if we let it. Whatever the noise in the market, the matter of reparations for New World slavery will not go away. A great wrong was committed against millions of human beings in the name of nothing more than global domination and profit, and that is a debt that will one day be paid.

Here’s why I say that. It seems to me that the resistance against the idea of reparations for slavery takes one of several forms. The first is the idea expressed by the UK government representative contacted by the Tribune to respond to CARICOM’s lawsuit: that “governments today cannot take responsibility for what happened 200 years ago”. The second is subtly connected to the first, but it shifts the focus from the enslaving nations to the nations founded on slavery, and argues that as the ills of the present cannot be solved by placing the blame on past wrongs, the past should be buried and the future considered. There is a third: that the debt has already been paid with independence, and that the political freedom of the people who were once enslaved is all that is necessary to right the wrong. A fourth argues that instead of focussing on the slavery of the past, the continuing enslavement and exploitation of people today is more a more pressing matter to consider. And there are countless other objections to the idea.

What all of these objections have in common is that they deflect the idea of reparations from the principle on which the idea rests to the practicalities of the issue. In so doing, they inadvertently make the case, at least to me, for the very thing they oppose. What not one of these objections admits is that the institution of transatlantic slavery was a crime against humanity of such magnitude that makes it nearly impossible for us to deal with even two centuries after the beginning of its abolition. What they all do, instead, is continue to perpetuate the crime that lies at the heart of the reparations movement: that the enslavement of Africans by Europeans in the process of founding the so-called “New” World depended upon the fundamental dehumanization of those enslaved, and was accompanied by the very different dehumanization of the enslavers which occurred in the process.

What these objections do is focus on the people enslaved, on the practical difficulties in addressing the wrong, on the pragmatics of the issue, which affect so many things about our current existence that it is almost impossible to conceive of living any other way. What not one of them does is address the idea that the crime for which restitution is being sought is not a crime against the person; it is a crime against the very idea of humanity and the concept of human beings. And it does not address the idea that until we begin to think about reparations from this perspective, we will continue to commit that crime.

In case I’m not making myself clear, let me say it this way.

For me, reparations for the transatlantic exercise of slavery (which is the specific offence that is being addressed in the CARICOM lawsuit) are not being sought for some past wrong that ended two hundred years ago. They are being sought for the continued dehumanization of the people who were enslaved, the people who enslaved them, and the people (us) who have inherited the world that rose up to maintain the slave system. It is a world whose structures, certainly in The Bahamas, remain very much intact, thus giving life to, enabling, the narrative that suggests that the past can be buried. But the past is not yet dead. It lives on in the very discourse that we use to discuss–or to dismiss–the call for reparations, and it is this which needs healing.

This meditation is only a beginning of an exploration of the topic, and the start of my personal attempt to make sense of the issue, and to explain why first, I support the call for reparations; why second, I am convinced that no amount of ridicule and dismissal will make the call for reparations disappear; why third, I am certain that the arguments being brought against the call will eventually dissolve and peter out, and why the call for reparations will swell until restitution is paid; and why last, I am convinced that one day reparations of some kind will be paid by European governments (or by the EU itself) for their part in the system of transatlantic slavery.

If you doubt me, consider this move, initiated this past May in France, pushing Europe to do what it has already done: to declare slavery a crime against humanity. And consider the language that accompanied it:

Written declaration, under Rule 123 of Parliament’s Rules of Procedure, on establishing a European day in recognition of the victims of European colonisation and colonial slavery1

  1. European colonisation not only caused political submission and the economic plunder of the colonised territories and population, but also the extermination of native peoples and the deportation and reduction to slavery of millions;
  2. Under Article 7 of the Statute of the International Criminal Court, enslavement is recognised as a crime against humanity;
  3. Colonisation had among its effects that of depriving the colonised territories of their lifeblood, impacting negatively on their development capacity;
  4. The political, economic, demographic and psychological consequences of European colonisation are still resonating;
  5. The Commission is hence called upon to support the establishment of a European day in recognition of the victims of European colonisation and colonial slavery;
  6. The Council is also encouraged to take ownership of the initiative by supporting it at European level;
  7. This declaration, together with the names of the signatories, is forwarded to the Council and the Commission.

It’s a beginning. It is a small step, true, and principally symbolic, as it was accompanied by no restitution; but it is a turn in the direction of rightness.

I’m going to return to this topic over the next month or so.

You’re warned.

One thought on “Concerning Reparations for Slavery: Part One

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