By RON FANFAIR
While Caribbean people seek to liberate themselves from mental slavery, they still have an obligation to pursue reparatory justice and hope that Europeans will do the morally correct thing and make amends for historic wrongs, says University of the West Indies (UWI) social history professor Dr. Verene Shepherd.
In its bid to secure reparations from Europe for the suffering and evils inflicted on millions during the slave trade, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) has adopted a plan setting out areas of dialogue with former slave-trading nations, including the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
A formal letter of complaint was also sent to these countries.
Dr. Shepherd, the chair of the National Committee on Reparation (Jamaica) and one of three vice-chairs of the regional CARICOM Reparation Committee, said just a few European countries have so far acknowledged receipt of CARICOM’s letter.
“They have not responded to any of the substantive requests, for example a meeting at which there could be a frank and open discussion about past, present and future relations,” she said in a recent lecture at the University of Toronto. “Where the UK is concerned, some argue that that country’s posture is not surprising for history has shown that Britain has not always lived up to its responsibilities.”
The Caribbean countries say they will allow “a two-year period to elapse” before formally taking the matter to the World Court for adjudication.
The 10-point plan seeks an official apology, repatriation and funded resettlement, an Indigenous Peoples development program, the establishment of cultural institutions, the development of an African-knowledge program, psychological rehabilitation, technology transfer, attention to illiteracy eradication and the public health crisis and debt cancellation.
“Debt cancellation is included on the basis that the Caribbean governments that emerged from slavery and colonialism have inherited the massive crisis of community poverty and institutional unpreparedness for development,” said Shepherd, who did a one-year fellowship at York University 15 years ago. “The pressure of development has driven governments to carry the burden of public employment and social policies designed to confront colonial legacies.
“This then is a comprehensive development plan because the region believes it has a right to development, especially within the context of the dichotomous economic rationale of colonialism which said that Europe had the right to development, but not the Caribbean. Development consists of removing various types of freedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency. Development requires the removal of major sources of freedom – poverty, poor economic opportunities, social deprivation and neglect of public facilities.”
Though Caribbean leaders haven’t assigned a financial cost to implement the package, Shepherd said it exceeds the Can$30,515,480 pay out given out in 1834 by planters on the eve of emancipation as recompense for slave property.
In addition to that amount, she said an estimate done by British bankers, actuaries and economic historians of what Britain owes its former Caribbean colonies is roughly Can$14 billion.
Shepherd, who has done extensive research on Jamaican economic history during slavery, migration and Diasporas, said reparatory justice is a critical part of the journey to post-colonial reconciliation.
“It is by no means a new movement,” said Shepherd, a UWI lecturer since 1988 and the second female – the late Guyanese-born Elsa Goveia was the first – to hold a professorship in the Mona campus history department. “The policy and practice of reparatory justice has been a feature of European/Caribbean jurisprudence and history for over two centuries. It has always been conceived of as a way to redress wrongs, current or historic, and achieve peace and reconciliation.
“The pioneers of the reparation movement were enslaved Africans all over the Caribbean who knew their illegal entrapment in Babylon was a violation of their human rights and struggled to end the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans and enslavement. In the immediate post-slavery period, the newly emancipated took up the struggle, enforcing ideas of moral economy in their efforts to secure land and decent wages for decent work.”
While the Caribbean seeks ways to achieve reconciliation with its former colonizers by negotiating a reparatory justice program, Shepherd – who chaired the Jamaica Bicentenary Committee set up to mark the 200th anniversary in 2007 of the abolition of the British and United States slave trade – said people in the region have engaged in self-repair, seeking ways to achieve mental emancipation, pride in their race and socio-economic and political independence development.
The theme of her address was, “Reparation, Rehabilitation & Reconciliation: The Politics of Memory in Caribbean Societies.”
“We have engaged in revisionist education, especially history education in the hope that racist Eurocentric narratives of our past will be replaced with a truer reflection of our roles and contributions to history,” said Shepherd. “We have tried to eradicate the structural discrimination in the education system and the racist and classist social systems that denigrated Blackness and ranked people according to skin shades, customs left in place by the colonizers. We have elevated our own people to the status of heroes and heroines, building sites of memory in their honour at home and abroad.
“We have been particularly interested in psychological rehabilitation because the psychological harm that brutal acts during the century of racial apartheid in the post-slavery period have inflicted on the people of the region is immeasurable.”
The lecture was organized by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education’s social justice education department in collaboration with the U of T’s Caribbean Studies Program, the Diaspora and Transnational Studies Program and the Women and Gender Studies Institute.