By PATRICK HUNTER
This past week a news report emerged from the Caribbean that was a welcome gesture of renewal. Caribbean360, an online newsletter based in Barbados, reported on a lecture by the Principal of the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI), Sir Hilary Beckles. Sir Hilary’s message was an urging to CARICOM to start the process of seeking reparations for the enslavement of Africans in the Caribbean.
Caribbean360 reported Beckles as saying:
“That while all races experienced some form of slavery, African slavery was unique in its scope and brutality. Comparative studies note that it was the only system of slavery in which people were viewed legally as property and seen as non-humans.”
(Beckles) “Urged Caribbean countries to emulate the position adopted by the Jews who were persecuted during the Second World War and have since organised the Jewish Reparation Fund.”
African-Americans have been in the lead, for a long time now, of calling for reparations for the crimes committed against Africans for slavery. The United Nations has responded to the issue by declaring that the transatlantic slave trade and slavery were crimes against humanity, and as such, removed limits on prosecution for those crimes. Of course, those responsible for the pursuit of the trade cannot be brought to justice, so the next best thing would be for those that sanctioned and gained from the trade to make a concerted effort in repairing the damage caused.
A few years ago, the Jamaican government established a reparations commission. Its purpose was to conduct hearings among Jamaicans and research as to what forms reparations should take. The commission stalled, apparently due to lack of financial support. Its chair, Professor Barry Chevannes of the UWI, has since passed away. However, only last year, the Jamaican government announced plans to re-start the commission. Verene Shepherd, also a UWI professor who succeeded Rex Nettleford on the UN’s International Working Committee on African Descendants, chairs the re-established commission.
Almost as soon as the commission was set up, Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller seemed to stab at the heart of the Commission’s work. The prime minister declared that Jamaica will not be seeking financial compensation from Britain, but would apparently be satisfied with an apology.
One assumes that a decision was made in cabinet to re-instate the commission and its objectives, which would include a determination of what demands would be made, if any, and what form reparations would take. This was the message from Youth and Culture minister, Lisa Hanna, who had responsibility for the commission. Simpson-Miller’s statement not only limits the boundaries of its inquiry, as far as I am concerned, it kills it.
Not surprisingly, there has been little said, or reported, about the commission since late last year. Indeed, the website establish by the old commission has not been updated since 2009. That begs the question: Is Jamaica moving ahead on this, or not?
The Government of Barbados has also established a reparations task force. Barbados has been a strong, vociferous leader for the demand for reparations and was critical in bringing the matter to the UN World Conference Against Racism, in Durban, South Africa in 2001, through its Commission for Pan-African Affairs, then led by David Comissiong.
The fact that CARICOM should have been a major driving force behind this reparations movement is not a new idea. In 2002, Africans and African descendants from all over the world attended a conference in Barbados with the expressed objective of pursuing reparations. CARICOM has essentially balked on taking a position on the subject. One would have hoped that with the combination of support from Jamaica and Barbados and former President of Guyana, Bharrat Jagdeo, the Caribbean organization would have adopted this undertaking.
Haiti, also a member of CARICOM, has also been in the forefront of demanding the refund, with interest, of monies paid to the French as compensation for the “loss of their property” – enslaved Africans.
It is important to understand that the call for reparations is not based on some ridiculous notion that individuals of African descent will get a cheque, or a bag full of money, as compensation for the horrors and experiences of our ancestors. Compensation could include a variety of measures such as a fund that underwrites the free education of peoples of African descent for a period equivalent to the slave trade, healthcare and other social supports.
In 1993, the British-Jamaican lawyer, Lord Anthony Gifford, presented a paper to the First Pan-African Congress on Reparations: The Legal Basis of the Claim for Reparations. If you have not read it, it is worth reading. Gifford was a member of the original Jamaica commission. The late Dudley Thompson was an ardent supporter of reparations and was a member of the Group of Eminent Persons commission that was established to further develop the reparations position.
A lot of the basic work has been done. Now, let us get on with it.