05 November 2013

US Virgin Islands Legislature conducts hearings on Danish Slavery

"The economies of Denmark and other European nations were built on the backs of centuries of uncompensated forced labour of enslaved Africans. It is the same racist mindset which sustained this massive "crime against humanity" which now denies any culpability." - a Virgin Islands historian     


Sens. Nereida Rivera-O'Reilly, Terrence Nelson and Kenneth Gittens at Wednesday's hearing on a reparations related bill.

A small, far-left Danish political party has called on the government of Denmark to apologize for its role in the transatlantic slave trade, St. Croix slavery reparations activist Shelley Moorhead told a Senate panel Wednesday.

Moorhead was testifying to the Culture, Historic Preservation, Youth and Recreation Committee in opposition to a resolution asking the U.S. Congress to set up a truth and reconciliation committee on the topic.

"Today's headlines in Denmark read that the Unity Party asks Denmark to apologize for its slave past,” Moorhead testified. It is the first Danish political party to do so, he said.

The party, a coalition of several smaller parties called "Enhedslisten" or "Unity Party," or Red-Green Alliance, controls 12 seats in the 175-seat Danish parliament, making it the fifth largest party in parliament, and the fourth largest left of center party. It is a member of the current governing coalition of parties.

The party is acknowledging the V.I. Legislature taking up the question of slavery apologies and reparations, Moorhead said.

Reports in Danish newspapers, including the English version of the largest Danish paper, The Copenhagen Post, quote party officials saying the Danish government should weigh in before the V.I. Legislature votes on the bill.

"Denmark has a gruesome history with active involvement in slave trade," Unity Party foreign affairs spokesperson Nikolaj Villumsen said in a Danish radio interview, according to the Post. "An official apology is important for two reasons. One is to pay sympathies to the descendants of slaves and the other reason is to have a debate in Denmark about our slavery past," the Post quotes him as saying.

But that view is not universal. The far right party, Dansk Folkeparti, which has 22 seats in parliament, said that Denmark shouldn't be held responsible for something that happened "200 years ago."

"That is completely nuts. You could say that these people should feel lucky that they are now American citizens in a free country and not in Ghana," DF spokesperson Soren Espersen told Politiken newspaper in Denmark. (wow...)

The Copenhagen Post reported that Denmark has previously declined to address reparations "because it could affect ties with the U.S." 

The committee was hearing testimony on a bill, sponsored by Sens. Sammuel Sanes and Judi Buckley, that would urge Congress to establish a truth and reconciliation commission. [Bill 30-0196]

Moorhead and several other testifiers, including Dr. Chenzira Kahina and former Sen. Usie Richards, said they opposed the bill partly because it asks Congress to act instead of creating a local commission, and because it is weaker than past resolutions approved by the Legislature.

The bill's intent "is both contradictory to reparations for the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands and in direct contravention of the Legislature's expressed intent and action" in a 2005 resolution "to condemn the institution of slavery and seek reparations from Denmark," Moorhead said.

He said he objects to Congress setting up the commission, reading from his prepared remarks that "it can and should be argued that "THIS is OUR effort," and, WE the descendants of the enslaved, those who suffered (and continue to suffer) for the establishment and administration any such relevant commission. As for your governor .. well, I gon leave ahyou mek da argument." (Note: The spelling here is from Moorhead's written testimony)

Richards said "we should not be encouraged to go to the United States Congress to create an entity to speak on our behalf." Instead the Legislature could create a commission and name its members, he suggested.

Sanes said he developed the bill over the past decade, working with St. Croix activist Edward Browne, and he asked Browne to explain why it called for asking Congress to act. Browne testified that Danish government officials had told him in no uncertain terms they would not speak or negotiate with any nongovernmental entity or any component part or territory of another sovereign nation, but only with that sovereign government.

Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson asked Richards if he agrees it is appropriate to go to Congress or not. Richards replied that nongovernmental organizations could not negotiate with the government of Denmark, but the government of the Virgin Islands could act and he sees "no reason to wait."

Several testifiers suggested the territory needs a single, unified strategic plan for reparations and that the Legislature should get more input from local organizations while preparing the plan.

Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone joined the meeting toward the end, saying he would speak to his fellow senators and the governor and "see if a comprehensive approach can be worked out."

"Whether we agree or disagree that this is the way to get there it is important that we are sitting down to have this discussion," Malone said.

Nelson moved to hold the bill for further discussion and amendment. Voting to hold the bill for amendment were Nelson, Malone, Sens. Kenneth Gittens, Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O'Reilly and Myron Jackson. Sens. Tregenza Roach and Janette Millin Young were absent.

Jackson and Malone said there would be further hearings on the topic in both districts.


This is about centuries of forced labour of enslaved Africans. This free labour made an enormous contribution to building the economy of Denmark (as well as France, U.K., the Netherlands, Spain, the U.S. and others). When slavery was ended, it was the former slaveholders - not the former enslaved - who were compensated, with the former enslaved left to fend for themselves under new forms of oppression such as colonial governance which has inevitably led to the political underdevelopment of dependencies. The organic link between slavery and colonialism is well established. 

The world has rightly condemned slavery and the horrific Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade as crimes against humanity. This is why the Caribbean countries have taken three of these E.U. countries to the International Court of Justice on the basis of just claims for reparation. 

This is not simply a request for an apology for the crimes perpetuated by someone's ancestors. Rather, this is a call for reparation for past crimes committed by European and North American nations whose people now enjoy a standard of living built on man's inhumanity to man.

Lest we forget.