As CARICOM prepares to seek reparations from Europe for native genocide and slavery, a leading Caribbean academic has warned that weak and disorganised people do not get reparations.
The warning came from Professor Sir Hilary Beckles as he delivered a lecture on reparations in Kingstown last week.
Sir Hilary noted that when the issue of reparations came up in Durban in 2001, then British prime minister Tony Blair made it clear that the British government will not give reparations to the Caribbean, but will offer a statement of regret.
The educator noted that a statement of regret is a social or ethical response to a crime, while an apology is taking responsibility for it.
“… the British have said to us, ‘We will give you a statement of regret, but we will not apologise to you.’ Because, in their judgement, they have done nothing wrong,” Sir Hilary said.
He said it was clear in Durban that the British had taken a strategic decision regarding reparations.
This decision was based on the assumption that Caribbean people do not really want reparations, Sir Hilary said, adding that a British MP actually said that black people are “very forgiving people and they carry no malice”.
The second assumption was that older people in the Caribbean are carrying a grudge about colonisation and history, but the younger people have no interest in history.
Sir Hilary said that this assumption says that the British need only wait out the time and the younger people will come into being and they will abandon the reparations quest.
“That is what they are banking on. In other words, they are banking on the failure of the Caribbean educational system to empower a younger generation with historical knowledge and, importantly, commitment to improving their societies.”
The British have also argued that slavery was not illegal, and therefore, they have not committed any crime.
“Well, it was legal because they made it legal,” Sir Hilary said, adding that one of the features of world history is that powerful countries can pass laws in weaker societies and change the weaker societies’ entire course of history.
He however noted that international law makes the provision that one cannot hide behind laws when atrocities are committed.
To illustrate, the Barbadian academic noted that while what the Nazis did was legal in Germany, the international court said they couldn’t hide behind their laws.
“And that principle has remained today. The British government cannot say we legalise slavery and it was legal.”
But neither can the British say that slavery was a long time ago, “international law makes provision for what is call remoteness,” Sir Hilary argued.
He said that slavery, which was abolished in the 1830s, was not remote since there are people in the Caribbean today whose great grandparents were slaves.
Sir Hilary said he grew up in a household with a great grandmother in her 90s who told them about slavery.
“It was not remote. It was in my household,” he said.
In addition to the assumptions that Caribbean people don’t want reparation and that younger people are not interested in the issue, and the arguments that slavery was legal and removed from contemporary West Indians, the British have also said that the region should abandon its reparations quest in exchange for aid.
“And so, these are the arguments that the British government has rolled out in the last ten years: it was not crime, we legalised it; colonisation is over, take responsibility for yourself; racism is in the past, now you have black governments, get on with it; history is irrelevant, stop whining and think of the future; we enslave you, we regret, but no apology; now we are developed and we are developed because we have a culture, now go and get a culture; if you go and get a culture, you will get development; … there is enough wealth in the Caribbean that you can manage to remove your poverty; yes the native population was wiped out, but it was not our fault, it was survival of the fittest and we Europeans are the fittest, you were not fit, you got wiped out; we are in the Europeans union now and … slavery and the Caribbean are behind us… we have no responsibility for you,” Sir Hilary said.
‘moral, ethical and political case to answer’
Sir Hilary was speaking on the topic of his latest book, “Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide”.
He said that his book says, “Not so fast, slow down, you have a responsibility in the Caribbean that you have to honour. … You have a moral, ethical and political case to answer.
“You cannot commit these crimes against these people, enrich yourself off of their labour, walk away and leave them in poverty. No, no, no, no. You have to come back to this place and participate in the removal of some of these legacies that you have left behind.”
He said that no Caribbean government will have the resources in the next 30 to 40 years to deal with the legacies of slavery.
“In fact, poverty is increasing in the Caribbean because the western world has adopted a different approach towards these societies,” he said, adding that the government will not have the resources to uproot the poverty that has been left behind.
“They have done a commendable job thus far, the resources will not to be there to attack it frontally and remove it. The British government has a responsibility to come back and participate in this conversation about development and this is what reparations is.”
No reparations for ‘weak’, ‘disorganised’, ‘confused’ people
The talks of reparations in the region are part of global conversation on the topic, Sir Hilary said.
“The Europeans colonised the world. They inflicted slavery, indentureship, native genocide upon three-quarters of the world’s population, and they enrich themselves in the process.
“The whole world is now saying, … we need to speak about this past, because we are charting the future for our people…”
But not withstanding this global conversation, Sir Hilary said, history has shown over the past 100 hundred years that only a particular type of people get reparations.
“When we examine the last hundred years, and the last hundred cases of reparations, we know one thing: weak people, disorganised people, confused people, people who have doubts about themselves, people who have no self confidence, people who have no commitment to themselves and to their past and to their children do not get reparations. You will raise the question, and they will steups (kiss their teeth) at you.”
He used the example of the Amritsar massacre in Indian in 1919 when British troops opened fire on Indians.
He said while the British have offered atonement for that massacre, they have not done so for a similar incident in Morant Bay, Jamaica in 1965.
“The Caribbean hasn’t as yet reached the stage where it says we need to have an apology for that and reparations for that. Because you cannot massacre people and walk away from it. It has to be settled. It has to be healed. Communities have to be healed.
“So, in Indian, they have gone forward, in the Caribbean, we have not gone forward. And it is all again about confidence,” Sir Hilary said.
The British government, however, Sir Hilary said, has launched a campaign to discredit reparations.
“They know they have to pay it. They know they have to deal with it sooner or later but what you do in the first place, you discredit the concept.”
CARICOM leaders at their summit in Trinidad and Tobago in July agreed to the formation of the Commission that will be chaired by Barbados Prime Minister Freundel Stuart and include St Vincent and the Grenadines, Haiti, Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago.
The regional countries have also engaged the services of a prominent British human rights law firm to assist in the matter.