Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.(iWN file photo)

By *Jomo Sanga Thomas

(“Plain Talk” Oct. 2, 2020)

In light of the recent global anti-slavery and anti-colonial protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement, a burning issue that has not been prominently addressed is that of reparations for the victims of these two evil scourges in the Caribbean, the Americas, and Africa.

How can Western nations who enslaved and colonised black people over five centuries repair the extensive damage that has left these regions with the triple burdens of underdevelopment, diseases, and deadly conflicts? These problems amount to a festering wound that needs to be urgently addressed.

Three prophets have been at the forefront of these debates: African-American lawyer Randall Robinson and Barbadian and Nigerian historians Hilary Beckles and Ade Ajayi.

As the 400th anniversary of American slavery was commemorated last year, the thorny issue of reparations for descendants of this exploitative system of enforced servitude and uncompensated labour has once more come to the fore. Similar campaigns also exist in the Caribbean and Africa.

Perversely, it was slave owners — and not enslaved Africans or their descendants – who were compensated by the American and British governments for the loss of their ‘property’. The British government paid the contemporary equivalent of 200 billion pounds to slave owners after it abolished slavery in 1833. Some Democrats in the United States House of Representatives and Senate have embraced the cause of reparations, and some institutions, like Brown, Harvard, Yale, Glasgow and Georgetown universities, that benefited from the enslavement and exploitation of African labour have started to acknowledge their role in this sordid commerce and begun putting programmes of restitution in place.

The most articulate American crusader of reparations has been activist Randall Robinson, who led the civil-society anti-apartheid struggle in the US in the 1980s through his NGO TransAfrica. He has consistently argued for reparations in order to close the 250-year gap between white and black Americans created by plantation slavery. As Robinson correctly noted, “The black holocaust is far and away the most heinous human-rights crime visited upon any group of people in the world over the last 500 years.” He, therefore, urged America’s largely white ruling class to redress these historical wrongs. Robinson further noted that Germany paid Jews reparations for the devastating but much shorter Holocaust (1933-45) — estimated at US$60 billion — while Japanese Americans interned in concentration camps by President Franklin Roosevelt during the Second World War (1939-1945) were also compensated with a US$1.2-million payment. He further observed that indigenous populations received land and money for the Australian government’s genocidal campaign against them between 1788 and 1901.

To understand the structural impact of slavery to which Robinson is alluding, one should note that during the current COVID-19 crisis, African Americans have overwhelmingly been among its fatalities, accounting for 30% of deaths, though constituting only 13 per cent of the US population.

Apologise and take responsibility 

In the Caribbean, the vice-chancellor of The University of the West Indies (UWI), Hilary Beckles, has led the reparations debate, consistently noting that “slavery and genocide in the Caribbean are lived experiences despite over a century of emancipation. Everywhere, their legacies shape the lives of the majority and harm their capacity for advancement”. Modern illnesses common among Caribbean citizens like diabetes and hypertension can be traced directly to the bad diet and other ailments inherited from the era of European slavery and colonialism.

Beckles thus called for an apology and the need for Britain to take responsibility for its crimes against humanity committed in the Caribbean. Reparations should, he argued, be paid by the British state, its banks, merchant houses, insurances companies, and the Church of England, which all benefited directly from slavery.

Beckles, who chairs the Caribbean Community’s (CARICOM) Reparations Commission to pursue compensation from European nations for the Transatlantic slave trade, argued persuasively that the West Indies had been the “hub of the British Empire”, where most of its wealth was generated. A 2004 estimate of the cost of the slave trade to the Caribbean arrived at a figure of £7.5 trillion. Beckles therefore urged slave-trading Britain, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, France, Denmark, and Sweden to pay reparations to Caribbean nations in order to repair this damage.

Eloquent  advocate

In the African context, Ade Ajayi was a member of the Organisation of African Unity’s (OAU) Eminent Persons Group on Reparations in 1992-1993, which demanded that the West recognise its moral debt to Africa and its diaspora for slavery and colonialism and pay these populations full monetary compensation.

Ajayi was, undoubtedly, one of the most eloquent continental advocates of reparations until his death in 2014. As he noted in 1993: “The crusade for reparation is … to seek to understand the African condition in-depth, to educate the African and the non-African about it, to seek an acknowledgement of wrongs which have impaired the political and socio-economic fabric of Africa, and, through restitution or reparation, to attempt to give Africa and Africans a fresh start.”

Ajayi noted that discussions about the contributions of the slave trade to the West’s industrialisation had been neglected and criticised the ambiguous or indifferent attitude of African scholars to this issue. He argued that a major motive of European colonial rule was to keep African labour in a cheap state akin to slavery, using methods perfected during two centuries of Caribbean colonialism. Ajayi thus called for four key measures to achieve reparations: domestic education and mobilisation in African societies; documentation and research on the costs of slavery and colonialism; making a cogent case for reparations; and agreeing on the strategy, manner, and mode of reparations, having placed the issue on the agenda of the United Nations.

Reparations are an emotive issue that all progressive activists across the globe should embrace. One cannot acknowledge the life-altering and destructive impact of five centuries of Western slavery and colonialism on Caribbean nationals, African-Americans, South Americans, and Africans without supporting the necessary measures to repair these glaring historical crimes against humanity.

Ade Ajahi is dead. Robinson is in his 70s and Beckles has gone past 60 years. We need a few more good men and women to continue this noble fight for reparatory justice.

Much of this piece was adopted from a longer article written by Professor Adekeye Adebajo is director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Global African Affairs in South Africa.  

*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. 

The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].

3 replies on “Reparations battle needs more prophets”

  1. While reparation may be a normative objective that should be sought, countries that traded in slaves who the beneficiary of slave labour no longer want to be culpable. As the primary school song say” , who stole the cookie from the cookie jar…..”We know the thief and the victim, can we get a judgment? Very unlikely, the best outcome is s moral judgement. That is why Jomo the workers are few. They feel as they as a waste of time. A better outcome is for Africans to do for themselves. This should be pervasive for the whole African race. At times we re-enslave ourselves by the way we live. Sometimes we are responsible for our own impoverishment.

  2. Retrospective. BLM

    Jomo ,You speaking about slavery and Preparation but you close your eyes BLM in SVG.

    Black Lives Matters very interesting topic to examine and not a slogan. From a layman view point I draw out cases in SVG were black lives was trampled and treated badly by other black

    There many instances where the black was used by the house master and the house slaves (black lives) acted. Black Lives did not matter then.

    When the Royal Opposition was pushed out From the House Of Parliament and fell down and seriously damaged (Daniel Cummings and others) it carried out by blacks from the orders of black Speaker Of House and black police officers propagated from the white master. Where did you stand?

    When a female Police Officer accused the Prime Minister of SVG of Sexually assaulted her, and from the let go it was black people in very political position in ULP discredited her, Black Chief of Police turn away, the Medical Personnel carefree, (black) The Director Of Public Prosecutions (black) disposed of of case (charge against PM dismiss for lack of Evidence)
    This was a setup trap. If the investigators (police) did perform thier duty to investigate who then will?
    No evidences or materials to work with so out through the window DPP.
    Her live did not matters to her own employer SVG Police Force. Where did you stand?

    And also Black women marched and laid their feet against a black woman neck in all directions Did her live matters ?

    Bigger and his lands. A black man worked to establish himself in SVG the white master took over with aid of Black House Slaves.

    Land surveyor (black) police black, House Slaves Parliamentarian (black)
    Did his live and family matters to the us ? It was the black that put their feet his neck and bring down his businesses.

    The black politicians mouth was muzzled on BIGGER ISSUES.

    DR Goodluck was speaking about health problems and what can create it he was tape by black house slave and Mr politican try to tarnished his reputation .
    Where were the Black Doctors to stand up and push against political interference in health issues. 99% of our people is black in SVG.
    Which coloration mostly the Dengue fever is affecting?
    You did not care and by that action you lend your Feet to Ralphie and Julian .

    It was a Black House Slaves Politicians that circumvents the Constitution of SVG denying the Opposition (black politicians) Of a NO Confident Vote against White Slaves Master.
    He put his feet on the neck of Opposition.

    The Cement Distribution in Calliaqua where our people was sufferlng from the dust and cried out for help . where is the Black Lawyers, Black Human Rights personal, Black Christian Council will you continue to be silent.
    Being silent my black people you are lending your feet to Gonslaves (white) to destroy our necks and results lungs and other health problems years to come.

    Black lives Matters when Black stop stabbing one another in the back and putting or lending their knees on their black brothers and sisters in anyway or position .

    Stand Up Firm.

  3. Come now Jomo dear fellow, this subject of reparations is an old chestnut that appears to raise its head every time there’s an election in the offing! Why may one ask? Why? Who would stand to gain from reparations here? Grubby politicians no doubt!

    Further who among us Caribbean people would be entitled to receive the money in payment? Would our existing Prime Minister and his family be entitled to part of any pay-out? And should our former Colonial power Britain make the presumed payment in SVG’s case? Should it be to our existing authoritarian regime? Moreover, should every Vincentian be entitled to a sizable sum of that money?

    I ask the last question Jomo because of the fact that most of us Vincentians, no disrespect intended, are what could otherwise be termed as mongrels. In other words, we are for most part, a mixtures of many nations. Europeans, Africans, Indians and indigenous.

    I must admit that in my own case, according to one gran she is descended from the Welsh people. According to another gran, he from the Scottish people and according to my father and by clear observable fact, from India. Therefore, should our immediate family be included in the mooted pay-out?

    My point is this Jomo, that as we for sure could be termed as living “mongrels,” our pure African origin would be very hard to sustain, and as such, we need to get off our idle behind, become very industrious, keenly productive and stop blaming the past for much of our sorry ills. Just look at us! A confused dispirited bunch, some marching behind a failed Marxist ideology in the search of a lasting solution to our confusion!

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