Letters & Opinion

Dollars and Sense… If Emancipation Was Free, How Much Will Reparations Cost?

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Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

The Caribbean is not seeking charity or sympathy, but for Britain to pay its historical debts spanning centuries to an entire people transcending 14 nations. Reparations is Britain’s outstanding Black Debt and while it has been an elusive goal for centuries, the descendants of African slaves in the Caribbean and the USA have never had the world discuss the issue as it is being now by those promoting it on, across and between continents.

As we get ready to observe another Emancipation Day holiday here and in most Caribbean territories that suffered from Slavery, the question most being asked in 2020 is: Will we get Reparations soon?

The question is understandable, given the way the Reparations cause has mushroomed across America and Europe as a result of the Black Lives Matter protests in the USA and consequent on the continuing discussions on Reparations being encouraged across the region, all year round, by the CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC) under the chairmanship of the distinguished Barbadian and Caribbean academic Sir Hilary Beckles, who is also the Vice Chancellor of the University of

The West Indies (The UWI).

Sir Hilary and the CRC continue to press for Britain and the other European countries that benefitted from slavery to come to the table to discuss Reparations for slavery and native genocide before and during the transAtlantic Slave trade which the world has accepted as being the worst Crime Against Humanity known to Humankind.

Naturally, the first thing that still comes to many minds whenever the Reparations issue comes up is money: How much those demanding it want, who will pay, who will receive, how it will be distributed and how much each person will get. This expectation is still very much alive across the Caribbean among citizens who have not yet been fully informed about the basic demands of CARICOM nations, who have made it clear it’s not just a question of dollars, but more one of dollars and sense. What CARICOM wants is for Britain and the European Union (EU) member-states concerned to agree to fund a Caribbean Development Plan (akin to the Marshall Plan after World War II) that will address the lasting needs created by the legacy of slavery across the region. What the guilty European nations don’t want, however, is to have to accept responsibility for their atrocities, to apologize and atone in practical ways — like Germany did with Israeli Jews, like the US did with Native Indians before and Americans of Japanese descent during World War II, like the Japanese did with the South Koreans treated like chattel during war — and like the British did with the Kenyan Mau Mau victims of colonial tyranny in the 1960s at the hands of British soldiers.

The British agreed to and paid £20 million to the UK salve asters and mistresses who lost their slaves in the Caribbean and Europe, which totals over £300 Billion today — and which sum the British government only finished paying in 2015. The Americans on the other hand, back in 1776 promised each of the Black ex-slaves who fought for US independence ‘40 acres and a mule’, which they still haven’t got to this day, over 200 years later.

The Caribbean and American African descendants seeking reparations for slavery are at pains to calculate just how much is owed in dollar terms or hard cash, as several different formulae are being offered for consideration. In any and all cases, however, the estimates run into scores and hundreds of billions of US dollars, English Pounds or Euros. Estimates started as far back as 1939 when a UK-based young Saint Lucian economist named W. Arthur Lewis outlined a blueprint in his

‘Labour in the West Indies’ (1939) to make the case for Britain paying for over 200 years of unpaid slave Labour and the additional costs of underdevelopment of the British West Indies up to that time. Sir Arthur, who was already a leading personality and the youngest Black lecturer on the British university circuit at age 27 when he left the UK to tour the West Indies in the throes of the 1938 revolutions by the poor and working black majority in the British Isles, did not venture to offer a figure for reparations payments, only a formula to approach how to arrive at one.

Some researchers have written about the role reparations payments can play in making life better for recipients, if channeled properly, while others insist any money has to be placed in a fund outside the reach of transitional politicians in government. However, arriving at a round figure for reparations in 2020 would be impossible outside of those demanding and those being called on to pay agreeing to formulae for measurement of debts and entitlements, quantities to be paid and a payment process.

Besides, CARICOM has repeatedly made it clear from 2013 — when the CRC was launched — that it’s not seeking a cash payment, but instead, a covenant inspired by Reparatory Justice in which Britain and the European countries concerned would agree to fund certain development initiatives identified by the CARICOM that would be to the mutual and general benefit of all Caribbean people and not only to the descendants of slaves.

Be that as it may, the CARICOM demands for Reparatory Justice will bring a cost — and it will be a lot.

Just how much it will be is left to be seen, but it cannot be anything less than the £20 million Britain agreed to be paid to slave owners after Emancipation million (which amounts to over £300 billion pounds today and which Britain just finished paying just five years ago to the heirs and successors of the enslavers, including with taxes paid to the British Treasury by African and Caribbean slave descendants who are citizens of Britain today.

The USA’s reparations bill will most likely be much larger than CARICOM’s, what with the millions more persons involved and affected, and the multitude of other causes enveloped in the general fight against institutional anti-black racism in the USA. In both cases, European and American apologists who argue that slavery happened too long ago, and the heirs and successors of enslavers should therefore not have to atone for the sins of their forefathers also argue that the sums involved would be impossible to estimate, far less to pay.

But is that really so? Not from the evidence…

In the USA and the U.K., the immediate responses to the challenges of COVID 19 have laid bare their ability to pay reparations debts, no matter the cost. The US quickly found and allocated the trillions of dollars necessary to meet the health challenge — and to keep Wall Street going. The Europeans, on the other hand, have just agreed to a €790 COVID bailout — and spent four days earlier this week disagreeing over whether it should be distributed as loans or grants before agreeing to

give each other more and lend less. The U.K., on the other hand, also early in the day, easily rolled out £800 billion to fight COVID across the Kingdom. It’s clear from all the above, therefore, that it’s not a question of the inability of the British, Europeans and Americans to pay reparations, but their unwillingness and stark refusal to even entertain discussions on the issue.

The US Senate and the corporate bigwigs in both the Republican and Democratic parties will ensure reparations does not make it to the top of the American government’s agenda for as long as Donald Trump is in office; and Boris Johnson is set to preserve the traditional Conservative Party position of simply refusing apologize for slavery, lest that leads to interpretation as a legal confession of guilt.

In considering taking the call for reparations to the international court circuit, CARICOM has to make an overall legal case that must include financial estimates at national levels that will help lead to a formula for a regional estimate.

But the CRC has made it clear that it’s not about negotiating financial settlements to be distributed to individuals, but instead a financial package to finance a Caribbean Development Fund to address the legacies of slavery and native genocide.

The backlash from the Black Lives Matter protests on both sides of the Atlantic has resulted in many of the multinational corporations associated with and that benefitted from slavery offering atonement by way of pennies instead of dollars.

But a recommended model has been laid by Bristol University, which has agreed to apportion £20 million pounds to a Reparatory Justice programme with the CRC, to atone for the role its founders played in preserving slavery and its institutional benefits from the slave trade.

The Caribbean is not seeking charity or sympathy, but for Britain to pay its historical debts spanning centuries to an entire people transcending 14 nations. Reparations is Britain’s outstanding Black Debt and while it has been an elusive goal for centuries, the descendants of African slaves in the Caribbean and the USA have never had the world discuss the issue as it is being now by those promoting it on, across and between continents.

Barbados Prime minister Mia Mottley, who has CARICOM responsibility for Reparations, has expressed support for the proposal by CRC Chairman Sir Hilary Beckles for a Marshall Plan type of arrangement as contained in the Lewis Plan that will see the enslaving states agree to pay their historic debts.

It is now for the CARICOM governments to meet especially on Reparations and to reaffirm decide on the next step in failed their seven-year effort to get the UK and EU to come to the table. This step will be assisted by governments empowering national reparations committees to work with official legal departments (Offices of Attorneys General, Directors of Public Prosecution and Ministries of Legal Affairs) and stakeholder organizations (like Bar Associations and like legal entities) at the national and regional levels to start making the legal cases for reparations.

In Saint Lucia’s case, this assignment will be at least doubly difficult from the standpoint that two cases will have to be made, against Britain and France, each of which enforced and benefitted from slavery on the island that exchanged hands between them 14 times.

The emphasis of CARICOM is on Reparations from Britain and the EU for Slavery and Native Genocide in the Caribbean when the British ruled its West Indies colonies and just as they easily found and agreed to a formula after Emancipation to pay the British slavers for loss of their slaves, so it should be even easier in the 21st Century to similarly assess and calculate a total sum to be paid for reparations to the 14 countries and people across the Caribbean still suffering from the legacies of slavery centuries later.

However, in this case of the continuing demands for reparations in which CARICOM is insisting on implementation of a plan akin to that proposed by Sir Arthur Lewis, it’s not just about the dollars, but more about the sense behind the overall proposal for Britain to pay its Black Debt over 180 years after Emancipation.

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