Picture this scene. It was almost surreal, improbable just a few years ago: a room filled with presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers from the 15-nation Caribbean Community (CARICOM), all listening with rapt attention, several nodding in agreement, as one of the region’s most distinguished academics, and perhaps the Caribbean’s most prominent public intellectual, gave a riveting report on the recent work of CARICOM’s Reparations Commission.
Yes, “reparations,” as in compensation for the crimes of slavery and indigenous genocide at the hands of former European colonizers – reparations, as in reparatory justice for the horrific consequences of two of the greatest crimes against humanity in the history of this planet – the 400 years of the African Slave Trade and the systematic and calculated extermination of the indigenous peoples of the Americas – reparations, as in fundamental and comprehensive social, economic and political justice, indeed, historical justice for the descendants of African slaves and native American peoples.
This scene played out in the conference room of the beautiful Buccament Resort on the Eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent on March 10, 2014; the occasion – the 25th Inter-Sessional Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community.
There was applause at the end of the professor’s report. Not a single dissenting voice was heard from a group of leaders whose politics ranged from conservative through liberal to progressive. The CARICOM heads of government then proceeded to unanimously adopt a 10-point program for reparatory justice for the region.
This breakthrough plan calls for a formal apology for slavery, debt cancellation from former colonizers and reparation payments to address the persisting “psychological trauma” from the days of plantation slavery.
“For over 400 years Africans and their descendants were classified in law as nonhuman, chattel, property and real estate. They were denied recognition as members of the human family by laws derived from the parliaments and palaces of Europe.
“This history has inflicted massive psychological trauma upon African descendant populations. This much is evident daily in the Caribbean. Only a reparatory justice approach to truth and educational exposure can begin the process of healing. Such an engagement will call into being, for example, the need for greater Caribbean integration designed to enable the coming together of the fragmented community,” stated the CARICOM Reparations Commission.
The plan also calls for assistance to boost the region’s technological capacity and to strengthen its public health, education and cultural institutions such as museums and research centers. It even calls for the creation of a “repatriation program,” including legal and diplomatic assistance from European governments, to potentially resettle members of the Rastafarian spiritual movement in Africa. Repatriation to Africa has been a cardinal belief of Rastafari for decades and their followers have consistently advocated for reparations.
Collectively, the economies of CARICOM member states totals about $78 billion, which would place the region 65th in the world if it were a single country. Clearly, this is a region that can’t claim much in the way of economic clout, yet its demands for reparations possess enormous moral authority, the region having suffered over 400 years of slavery and colonialism at the hands of European powers, mainly Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Strong support for CARICOM’s reparations claims was voiced in late January by the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) at their summit in Havana, Cuba. In a “Special Declaration” on the issue of reparations for slavery and the genocide of native peoples, CELAC said it supported wholeheartedly “a swift, action-oriented and good-faith engagement with those colonizing states responsible for the genocide of native peoples and African enslavement in the region, with the sponsorship and organization of the State with a view to identifying just and effective means to provide reparations for the impact of those serious violations of human rights that are a crime against humanity, to which they are morally obliged.”
If the European powers fail to publicly apologize and refuse to come to the negotiating table, the CARICOM nations said they will file a lawsuit against the European powers at the International Court of Justice in the Hague.
The sheer audacity of this 10-point program for “reparatory justice” in the Caribbean deserves the solidarity and moral support of social justice lovers in the United States and around the world.
Now, fast forward to April 19, 2014. On a stage at Chicago State University, this same academic, Prof. Sir Hilary Beckles, chief architect of CARICOM’s 10-point reparations plan, is delivering the keynote speech to hundreds assembled and thousands around the world viewing the live Webcast of a Reparations Rally organized by the Institute of the Black World 21st Century.
Sitting on the stage listening to the professor is a stellar row of other speakers including Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam; Congreeman John Conyers, dean of the Congressional Black Caucus and author of HR-40, the landmark reparations bill he introduced in Congress some 15 years ago; Dr. Ron Daniels, founder and president of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century; Ambassador Rhonda King, permanent representative to the United Nations from St. Vincent & the Grenadines; Dr. Wayne Watson, president of Chicago State University; Dr. Iva Carruthers, general secretary, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference; Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, pastor emeritus of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ; Senator Donne Trotter, representing the 17th District in the Illinois House of Representatives; Joann Watson, former Councilwoman, City of Detroit; and Kamm Howard, cochair, National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America.
In his one-hour address, the audience sat in rapt attention, listening to Prof. Beckles give a veritable history lesson about slavery in the Caribbean, one that would never be taught in US classrooms or appear on movie screens. He articulated a well-documented argument about how Britain and other European countries used slavery to build their empires on the backs of Africans, proud human beings who were worked to death, and not paid a cent for their hundreds of years of labor servicing the economic interests of white supremacy.
He noted how British slave ships transported 3.3 million Africans to the plantations in the new world, and discussed how France abolished slavery in 1794, but reinstated it in 1812. He cited David Macey, whose biography of Frantz Fanon spoke about Josephine, a white Creole from Martinique, who became Napoleon’s wife and Empress of France, successfully pushing to have France reinstate slavery to assist her family’s failing sugar plantation.
In the 1990s, supporters of Martinique’s independence removed the head from Josephine’s statute in a Fort-de-France park and poured red paint, symbolizing her blood, on the statue’s base. The head was replaced, but the red paint was never removed.
Beckles discussed the Zong massacre, (featured prominently in the film Belle) which occurred aboard the slave ship Zong, how the crew became lost at sea in 1781, and, in order to conserve food and water, they threw 142 slaves overboard. The slaves were eaten by sharks, Beckles said.
The Zong’s owners, who were based in Liverpool, England, sought compensation from insurance companies for the slaves eaten by sharks. The insurance companies refused to pay, but a British court ruled that the ship’s owners must be compensated because slaves were not human. They were property, the court ruled.
In a powerful speech following Professor Beckles’s lecture, Minister Farrakhan called Beckles’ book Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide a blueprint for the reparations movement in the Caribbean because it details the history and the inhumane treatment of Africans, a subject whites and many blacks don’t want to know about. He noted further that many blacks today dismiss the idea of reparations.
Farrakhan told attendees to buy and read the professor’s book. He said he would advertise it in The Final Call, the Nation of Islam’s newspaper, and he urged blacks in the United States to support the Caribbean’s reparations movement, which he predicted would be a long, hard battle that will pit whites against blacks and blacks against blacks.
Reparations for centuries of brutal oppression and exploitation of enslaved African people in the Americas is, undoubtedly, the great moral imperative of our time. The so-called pragmatists who argue that the question of reparations is impractical, unachievable, utopian, a waste of time and energy are those who are ignorant of the moral power of a cause whose time has come.
Today, throughout the Caribbean region, discussions of reparations are starting to alter the political narrative, reformulating analysis of economic history, linking the challenges of future socioeconomic development with the need for reparatory justice, indeed, reshaping the very fundamentals of public discourse in the region.
Here in the United States, a revitalized reparations campaign can and must become a critical component of the civil and human rights movements of the 21st Century. Reparations is not history, a thing of the past. It is about historical justice, and until justice is done, reparations will always be relevant, will always be a struggle for today and for tomorrow.
We are beginning to witness a huge intellectual paradigm shift in the Caribbean and in other parts of the African diaspora, and one of the most prominent figures driving this shift is Sir Hilary Beckles.
To view the archive of the Reparations Rally Webcast, read reports on the presentations by other speakers and study the CARICOM 10-point reparations program please visit this page on the website of the Institute of the Black World (IBW).