18 April 2013

The case for compensating the Caribbean


by Sir Ronald Sanders

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, Friday April 12, 2013 - In 1838, British slave owners in the English-Speaking Caribbean received £11.6 (US$17.8) billion in today’s value as compensation for the emancipation of their “property” – 655,780 human beings of African descent that they had enslaved, brutalised and exploited. The freed slaves, by comparison, received nothing in recompense for their dehumanisation, their cruel treatment, the abuse of their labour and the plain injustice of their enslavement.

The monies paid to slaves owners have been studied and assembled by a team of Academics from University College London, including Dr Nick Draper, who spent three years pulling together 46,000 records which they have now launched as an internet database. The website is: ucl.ac.uk/lbs.

The benefits of those monies still exist in Britain today. For example, they are the foundations of Barclays Bank, Lloyds Bank and the Royal Bank of Scotland. But they are also the basis of wealth for many leading British and Scottish families among them the Hogg family – two of whom became Lord Chancellors in British governments.

Dr Draper is reported as saying of the Hogg family: “To have two Lord Chancellors in Britain in the 20th century bearing the name of a slave-owner from British Guiana (now Guyana), who went penniless to British Guiana, came back a very wealthy man and contributed to the formation of this political dynasty, which incorporated his name into their children in recognition – it seems to me to be an illuminating story and a potent example."

The Hogg family were not unique. The wealth and political good fortune of 19th Century British Prime Minister William Gladstone had its origins in the £83 (US$127.6) million, at today’s value, of “compensation” given to his father, John Gladstone, for slaves he owned in British Guiana and Jamaica. 

But it was not individual families alone that helped to create African slavery and that benefitted from it; it was the British state as whole – its successive governments that provided subsidies for the trade; that adopted legislation that facilitated it; and that were complicit with the governments of their colonies in adopting laws that designated African slaves as “real estate” – people stripped of human identity, including life, and, therefore, to be treated like land, houses and buildings. 

Remarkably, it was also the British State, including the British people, who paid “compensation” to the slave owners while completely disregarding any obligation whatsoever to 655,780 people, who were enslaved and cruelly exploited. To do so, the British government borrowed £20 million which is £76 (US$117) billion, at today’s value, from the Rothschild Banking Empire. The sum amounted to about 40 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product at the time. As Caribbean Economic Historian, Sir Hilary Beckles points out: “They all recognised that British citizens were socially empowered by the white supremacy culture so effectively institutionalized on a global scale by slave owners”. 

British exploitation of people in the Caribbean did not start, or end, with the enslavement of Africans. In a new book entitled, ‘Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide’, Beckles, records the systematic “elimination” of the Kalinagos – the original people of the Eastern Caribbean islands. It was the first act of genocide in the Western Hemisphere, and it was executed with the full knowledge and approval of the British authorities. 

African slavery was followed in some Caribbean countries – Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Suriname in particular - by indentured servitude of people from India bonded to an estate and its owners, deprived of normal liberties, subjected to cruel and inhuman treatment. It was what the respected British historian, Hugh Tinker, described as “another kind of slavery”.

Each of these episodes of subjugation, exploitation and brutalisation of human beings was justified on the racial supremacy of the white race. And while Britain was the principal beneficiary, other European nations – France, Spain and Portugal especially – shared in the spoils of human degradation. 

Except for the blindest and unrelenting apologists for the acts of genocide and enslavement, it is impossible to discard Beckles’ assertion that these were “crimes against humanity”. As he says: “The wealth of the (British) Empire required the abandonment of all known laws, conventions, moral parameters, political practices and legal frameworks and the creation of a new and unprecedented labour system”.

When the vast majority of the original people of the Caribbean were extinguished forcing the brutalised handful who remained into submission; when slavery was abolished with no recompense to the Africans for the deprivation of their liberty, the people of the Caribbean were left destitute, deprived and disadvantaged. In Beckles’ words:“They got nothing by way of cash reparations to carry them into freedom. No land grants were provided. No promissory notes were posted”. 

That today the people of the Caribbean have built modern societies despite the conditions they were handed at slavery’s abolition, is a tribute to the resilience, capabilities and high quality of human beings that European states considered ‘chattel and real estate’. That they have produced Nobel Prize winners, great athletes and fine intellectual thinkers who have commanded high positions in the international community in business, medicine, the law, and technology is testimony to the wrongness of the “white” supremacist doctrine.

Their achievement re-enforces the position that their enslavement, their servitude and the infamous acts of violence against them were wrong, and it cannot be right that those who were the principal perpetrators of those wrongs benefitted while they were left as nothing more than a human catastrophe.

The Caribbean would today have been much further along the road of social and economic development if even half of the “compensation” given to slave owners had been given to slavery’s victims 175 years ago.

There is a compelling case for reparations to the nations of the Caribbean on behalf of the people who were the victims of slavery. Nick Draper and the team and University College London, and Hilary Beckles in his new book have provided the basis for, at the very least, a reparations dialogue.