By Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk”, March 20, 2020)
“Live for self we live in vain, live for others we live again.” — Bob Marley
“Caribbean Man/We should push one common intention/For a better life in the region/For we women and we children/For a better life in the region/That must be the ambition of the Caribbean man.” — Black Stalin
When I told a friend of mine who lives in New York that I was going to St Martin to deliver a talk with the theme ‘Who will own our Caribbean Future’, she immediately blurted out “the Chinese”. And my instinctive response to her was not necessarily. And then I invoked the words of the Calypso giant Black Stalin, “We could make it if we try just a little harder.”
Many have asked how much harder must we try, how much more can we try? I told the audience that we must never give up and we must never give in, no matter the odds. We must try and try and try and try.
Those who came to listen were about 75% women, and I was taken aback and encouraged by the high female representation. The organisers of the Black History Month celebrations informed that that was the way it was in St Martin, more women than men attended to progressive events.
Asked to locate the struggle for reparations in the fight for a Caribbean future, those in attendance displayed a range of emotions as they were told of trials and tribulations of their African ancestors following conquest, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Slavery and Colonialism.
Thomas informed the audience that British slave ships brought 5.5 million enslaved Africans into the Caribbean colonies over 180 years, and when slavery was abolished in 1838, there were just 800,000 remaining. Retention survival rate of 15%: this is the face of genocide.
This means that during the enslavement of Africans in the English-speaking Caribbean, there was a kill rate of 85%. The regime of enslavement was crafted by policies and attitudes that were clearly genocidal. The conditions of work and daily existence were so bad that our ancestors were unable to reproduce themselves.
There were expressions of horror and amazement when the contrast was shown between the tremendous contribution made by African ancestors towards the development of major British and European cities and the genocidal loss of African lives in the process.
It was shown that Jamaica received 1.5 million enslaved Africans, but at emancipation, only 300,000 or 20% remained. These numbers represented a genocidal kill rate of 80%. The case was no different across the region. Barbados received 600,000 enslaved Africans, but only 83,000 or 14% remained. This represents a kill rate of 86%.
In St. Martin, up to 5,000 enslaved Africans worked in the salt mines at the high point during the late 18th century. At emancipation, there were 10,000 Africans on the island.
St Vincent received 71,000 enslaved Africans between 1797 and 1834, but only 22,000 or 33% remained at emancipation. This amounts to a genocidal kill rate of 67%. Thomas explained the short period of enslavement in SVG and pointed to the heroic struggles of the Kalinago and Garifuna people led by national hero Joseph Chatoyer.
Thomas explained that the struggle for reparations, though reignited by CARICOM leaders at its regional summit in July 2013, has a long history that goes all the way back to slavery. He pointed to the works of Nobel Laureate Sir Arthur Lewis, who in a paper of labour issues in the region reminded everyone that “The issue of compensations for slavery has not been adequately addressed’, and Dr Eric Williams who in his classic, Capitalism and Slavery, which was published in 1944, established the contributions of Caribbean slavery to the development of Britain and the economic rather than moral and humanitarian reasons offered as the basis for reparations.
In explaining who got paid after slavery was abolished, Thomas showed the British Parliament refused to pay the freed Africans for their years of free labour because in the twisted minds of the Europeans, Africans were chattel and not human beings.
In 1833, British Parliament paid £20 million to slave owners as fair compensation:
- Determine that enslaved Africans were property and not humans and consequently could not receive compensation.
- What the British Parliament had from the world is that it also determined that another £27 million would be paid by the enslaved to their enslavers by means of a four-year period of free labour called Apprenticeship.
- Cruel and shameful method of legislating emancipation by forcing the enslaved to pay more than 50 per cent of the financial cost of their own freedom.
- The 20 million Pounds amounted to about 40% of the budget of the United Kingdom at the time. Moneys ploughed into the British economy and helped to fuel the industrial revolution.
- More critically it took the British government 185 years to pay off the loan. Imagine this for a moment. The British finished paying the loan in 2015, a mere five years ago.
Thomas told listeners not to bother with people who say slavery was a long time ago. It is still in our faces. He told them that reparation is critically necessary if the Caribbean is to develop because after 300 years of enslavement, 100 years colonial rule and 6 decades, our countries in CARICOM became independent, the region continues to struggle with underdevelopment, massive debt, unemployment, drugs and gun violence.
He also pointed out that the 20 million pounds which Britain paid to the enslavers of African bodies in today’s value is worth over $200 billion pounds.
Thomas told persons gathered at the University of St Martin, that he was of the view that unless there is a complete realignment of the international economic, trading and financial architecture, our region will remain underdeveloped and dependent.
He however noted that the Caribbean Reparations Commission 10 point plan for reparatory justice which calls for Formal apology, Repatriation, Indigenous Peoples Development Program, Cultural Institutions, Public Health Crisis, Illiteracy Eradication, African Knowledge Programme, Psychological Rehabilitation, Technology Transfer, Debt Cancellation, will go a long way in assisting regional governments to clean up the colonial mess which the former European enslaving governments left.
Thomas concluded his address on who will own our Caribbean future, by invoking the wise words of Black Stalin, Fidel Castro and Charles Houston. Houston reminds us that we have a choice to be a social parasite or an agent for change. And the mighty Franz Fanon in what can only be a call to arms says ‘Each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill or betray it.
We can remove the current American domination or forestall a Chinese invasion if we place country above self and people before party.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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