Fourteen Caribbean Nations Demand Reparation from Colonial Britain*
By Matt Blake
More than 150 years after Europe abolished slavery, the Caribbean is preparing to sue Britain for its part in the wholesale trade of human beings.
A coalition of Caribbean leaders will meet today in St. Vincent to discuss a landmark legal claim for reparations – that could run into the hundreds of billions of pounds – for a legacy that many say still lingers across the palm-fringed archipelago.
A map shows the main transatlantic slave trade out of Africa during the slave trade from 1500-1900
Caricom, a group of 12 former British colonies together with the former French colony Haiti and the Dutch-held Suriname, believes Europe should pay for a range of issues spawned by slavery, from poverty and illiteracy to ill health.
But is says the UK in particular should pay the most even though it was the first to abolish slavery in 1833.
The case has been prepared by a British law firm that recently won almost £20million compensation for hundreds of Kenyans tortured by the British colonial government during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s.
Today’s claim, which also targets Spain, Portugal, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, comes at a pertinent time for the issue of slavery – just a week after Steve McQueen’s epic 12 Years A Slave won the Oscar for Best Picture in Los Angeles.
‘Over ten million Africans were stolen from their homes and forcefully transported to the Caribbean as the enslaved chattels and property of Europeans,’ the claim says. ‘The transatlantic slave trade is the largest forced migration in human history and has no parallel in terms of man’s inhumanity to man.’
It continues: ‘This trade in enchained bodies was a highly successful commercial business for the nations of Europe.
‘The lives of millions of men, women and children were destroyed in the search of profit. Over ten million Africans were imported into the Caribbean during the 400 years of slavery.
‘At the end of slavery in the late 19th century, less than two million remained. The chronic health condition of Caribbean blacks constitutes the greatest financial risk to sustainability in the region.’
Caricom has not specified how much money they are seeking but senior officials have pointed out that Britain paid slave owners £20 million when it abolished slavery in 1834. That sum would be the equivalent of £200 billion today.
Britain currently contributes about £15million a year in aid to the Caribbean through Department for International Development in a drive to further develop ‘wealth creation’.
The subject of reparations has simmered in the Caribbean for many years and opinions are divided. Some see reparations as delayed justice, while others see it as an empty claim and a distraction from modern social problems in Caribbean societies.
Slavery ended throughout the Caribbean in the 1800s in the wake of slave revolts, and left many of the region’s plantation economies in tatters.
If the leaders decide to go ahead, a legal complaint will be filed against European states, possibly opening the way for formal negotiations.
‘Undoubtedly, Britain faces more claims than anyone else because it was the primary slave power and colonial power in the Caribbean,’ Martyn Day, the British lawyer advising the Caribbean nations, said in an interview. ‘Britain will be very much at the forefront.’
Britain’s government is aware of the proposed legal action, the Foreign Office said.
‘Slavery was and is abhorrent. The United Kingdom unreservedly condemns slavery and is committed to eliminating it,’ a spokesperson said, adding that reparations are not the answer. ‘Instead, we should concentrate on identifying ways forward with a focus on the shared global challenges that face our countries in the 21st century.’
Legal experts, however, say the lawsuit would be a long shot at best.
‘There is no legal basis for a claim for reparations,’ Robert A. Sedler, a professor at Wayne State University Law School, said.
‘Slavery was legal at the time, and international law was not a part of the law of the European states. Moreover, a long period of time has passed, and all the victims of slavery are long dead,’ he added.
Some reparations cases have popped up in the United States over the last decade, but no one has been awarded compensation.
However, if negotiations open ‘the European nations might decide to apologize for slavery and to provide some financial assistance to the Caribbean nations,’ Sedler said.
The legal strategy rests on the fact that the European states targeted by Caricom have all signed the International Convention on the Elimination of All Racial Discrimination, which makes it ‘a duty to do all in their power to eradicate racial discrimination,’ said Day.
The Caribbean effort is being led by Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, who has doggedly pursued the issue for the last four years.
When Gonsalves found out last year that London’s High Court ordered the British government to pay compensation to survivors of Kenya’s Mau Mau uprising, he contacted Day, whose law firm Leigh Day, represented the Mau Mau.
The British government paid £19.9 million ($33 million) to 5,228 survivors of torture during Kenya’s 1950s Mau Mau uprising, and formally acknowledged that ‘Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill treatment and that these abuses took place and that they marred Kenya’s progress towards independence.’
Gonsalves said slavery so traumatised society in Caribbean countries that they have still not fully recovered.
The reparations claim takes into account what its authors say are slavery-related chronic diseases such as hypertension and Type 2 diabetes, widespread illiteracy, the lack of museums and research centers for Caribbean history, the lack of respect for African culture and identity, continuing psychological effects of centuries of slavery, and the lack of scientific and technical know-how to compete in the global economy.
In December 2013, the Caricom Reparations Commission decided on six factors for the claim: public health, education, cultural institutions, cultural deprivation, psychological trauma, and scientific and technological backwardness.
Estimates vary as to how many were enslaved. According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, the British Caribbean had 2.3 million slaves, the French Caribbean had 1.1 million, the Spanish Americas had 1.3 million and the Dutch Americas had about 445,000.
Slaves laboured mainly in sugar and coffee plantations and were forced to work around the clock in the fields during harvest, according to Kathleen Monteith, head of the History and Archeology Department at the University of the West Indies.
The international convention against discrimination says significant attempts should be made to solve matters amicably but if no resolution is reached the Caribbean nations can take their case to the International Court of Justice.
Day hopes to present formal complaints to the European states at the end of June. If a European state were to refuse a Caribbean nation’s request for talks on its particular claims, then a formal legal complaint would be made.
‘The Western powers will at least give a sympathetic ear,’ he said. ‘The knee-jerk reaction will be to say no (but) Western powers will want to be seen as dealing sensitively with this.’