By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” Dec. 16, 2022)
Professor Dr. Hilary Beckles’ most recent publication, “How Britain Underdeveloped the Caribbean: A Reparation Response to Europe’s Legacy of Plunder and Poverty”, explores how successive, former enslaving European governments have systematically suppressed economic development in their former colonies and have refused to accept responsibility for the debt and development support they owe the Caribbean.
The book is a continuation of the critically important and ground-breaking work Dr. Beckles began with the publication in 2013 of “Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide”.
The book was published in the same year that Caribbean governments made the historic decision to demand reparations from former enslavers for the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Conquest, Genocide, slavery and colonisation.
Dr. Beckles said one of his motivations for writing the book was ‘to bring Dr. Walter Rodney home.’ The new book coincided with worldwide commemorations marking the 50th anniversary of Dr. Rodney’s ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.’
In this new text, Dr. Beckles draws on in-depth research to vividly demonstrate that Britain extracted 300 years of wealth from the region. Dr. Beckles frequently invokes the memory of former Trinidadian PM Dr. Eric Williams, who famously said Britain ‘sucked it (Caribbean) dry like an orange’, and systematically subverted every indigenous development initiative from the region, preferring a dependency aid model instead.
Dr. Beckles, an economic historian, noted that Dr. Arthur Lewis, one of the first Caribbean intellectuals to win a Nobel prize, as early as 1939 irrefutably proved that Britain benefitted from 200 years of free labour from 20 million Caribbean people … a “debt it owes the region”.
In Dr. Beckles’ view, if this debt is paid, the money can be used to fund a development plan for the Caribbean. He reaffirmed the Lewis argument and shows its powerful relevance for the future. Britain, he writes, must be held accountable by the governments of the region for the plunder of its people that has left them in poverty under white supremacy economic dependency.
The chapter “Black Bloodbaths: Dying for Democracy” chronicles the struggles of enslaved Africans across the Caribbean and makes the case that all too often the demands for freedom were drowned in blood.
The book is instructive to Caribbean people at large because it offers answers to the question where do we go next? Dr. Beckles issues a warning to the region’s people and governments that they ‘should not blunder into the future without an ideological and intellectual road map.’
The book speaks to the numerous ways in which Britain crushed the aspirations of Caribbean people. It dissects the sabotage of the West Indian Federation by the colonial authorities in Britain. To prove this point Dr. Beckles points to the Colombo plan which the British offered to its former colonies in Asia.
Dr. Beckles argues that “the British government feared having to pay a large amount of money to create and sustain social stability and promote economic development in the Caribbean. They were aware that the West Indian spirit could not be caged. But officials were faced with two disturbing challenges: Giving serious account of the social effect of three hundred years of draining economic extraction; and recognising that the social consequences of this exploitation constituted the evidentiary basis of the judgement that the west indies were the ‘slums of empire. The British government hope that superficial ameliorative reforms would cost no more than a modest sum.”
Dr. Beckles’ indictment of Britain included incontrovertible evidence that by the time the English-speaking Caribbean islands were offered independence, beginning with Jamaica and Trinidad in 1962, the colonial rulers’ sole intent was to ‘exit on the cheap.’
To prove the point, he draws attention to an address by Sir Ellis Clarke, Trinidad’s representative to the UN Decolonisation Committee in 1964. Clarke admonished the British:
An administering power is not entitled to extract for centuries all that can be got out of a colony and when that has been done to relieve itself of its obligations by the conferment of formal, but meaningless independence – meaningless because it cannot possibly be supported – political independence. Justice requires that reparations be made to the country that has suffered the ravages of colonialism before that country is expected to face up to the problems and difficulties that will inevitably beset it upon independence.’
In showing utter disregard for the needs of the Caribbean, British governments of the past with the connivance of the current leaders in l London have left a ‘developmental mess.’
This book represents a clear-headed analysis and makes an urgent call for a new world economic order in which there is real hope and opportunity for developing countries, especially post-colonial developing countries.
Dr. Verene Shepherd, director of the Caribbean Reparations Research Centre is correct in her characterisation, “the book is a powerful and timely masterpiece; a roadmap for redressing the indecency of colonialism”.
“How Britain Underdeveloped the Caribbean” offers sound empirical evidence that British slavery and colonialism have been at the foundation of underdevelopment and persistent poverty in the West Indies.
The book represents a panoramic review of the last 500 years of history beginning with the first entry of Columbus to the independence discourse. Its scholarly authenticity is augmented by the fact that it draws heavily from British Parliamentary documents of the 17th through the 20th centuries.
The Caribbean has a long and distinguished history as regards the contribution of its scholars and public intellectuals to understanding the world and the causes of its many problems. How Britain Underdeveloped the Caribbean is destined to join Dr. Walter Rodney’s ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ in the classic sections of public and private libraries across the world.
This new text by Dr. Beckles, one of the Caribbean’s most outstanding and respected public intellectuals should become part of the history and economic curriculum across the region’s educational system.
All activists and those interested in gaining an understanding of the Caribbean’s contribution to the development of Britain and the corresponding underdevelopment of our region must buy and read this book.
*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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