Can slavery be absolved by reparations?

slaveryL’esclavage, pratiqué par les grandes puissances en devenir de la Renaissance et de l’époque moderne, stigmatise encore et toujours la hiérarchie contemporaine des états. A l’heure de la mondialisation, les écarts se creusent entre les acteurs de celle-ci et les laissés-pour-compte. Aujourd’hui, ces derniers expriment leur mécontentement aux organisations internationales et aux pays concernés.

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The CARICOM countries are currently asking France, Britain and the Netherlands for reparations for the enslavement of millions of people between the Sixteenth and the Nineteenth century. CARICOM, a regional intergovernmental organization with 15 member states in the Caribbean, may seek to take legal action if these reparations are not paid.  It has hired a prominent law firm called Leigh Day to weigh in on these negotiations. That same law firm has recently made Great Britain agree to compensate Kenyans tortured during colonial rule.

Such reparations would be used to help improve the region’s weak infrastructures and promote education and health. Oddly enough, Spain and Portugal, two big participants in slavery and the slave trade, are not involved.  The two Spanish-speaking countries of the region, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, are not members of the CARICOM.

The Slave Trade was an enormously profitable business for the colonial empires, especially Britain which was able to spur its industrial revolution as a result.  Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor at the University of the West Indies stated: “We are focusing on Britain because Britain was the largest owner of slaves at Emancipation in the 1830s. The British made the most money out of slavery and the slave trade – they got the lion’s share.”  Great Britain managed to coordinate the dividends of slavery with industrial advances that largely contributed to making it the world’s most powerful empire during the 19th century.

When slavery came to an end, slave owners were given huge compensation by the British Crown (20 million pounds, the equivalent today to 76 billion pounds). David Cameron’s affluent ancestors, for instance, were among them. They allegedly owned 200 slaves. The freed slaves, however, received no compensation for their sacrifice.  After Abolition, countries which had struggled to conquer their independence were suddenly left without the social and economic means to build a new society.

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The CARICOM countries are therefore arguing that history has put them on the wrong path to development. “Our constant search and struggle for development resources is linked directly to the historical inability of our nations to accumulate wealth from the efforts of our peoples during slavery and colonialism,” said Baldwin Spencer, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda. Independence without a foot to stand on did not help nation building. William Hague, Great Britain’s Foreign Secretary deemed slavery and slave trade “brutal and mercenary” but stated in his office that Great Britain ought not to pay indemnities for recompense.

As a matter of fact, it has been argued that British citizens actually fought to abolish slavery and the slave trade. It was Great Britain that abolished slavery in 1833 but, already in 1807, it had ended its commerce through the Slave Trade Act, bravely initiated by William Wilberforce.

European governments such as the UK, France or the Netherlands maintain that the lagging economy of the Caribbean countries is not due to slavery and its impacts. Some experts argue that economic hardships of CARICOM countries are not due to slavery but to post abolition policies implemented by governments. Others assert that the assistance provided by the European Union is poorly handled by local authorities.

Furthermore, a large share of the UK’s population is against paying reparations: should people be held accountable for events that took place long before they were born?  Should the British sue the Italians for enslaving them during the Roman invasions? By contrast, after World War II Jewish people received compensation because their persecutors were still alive.

Slavery, which is still practiced, must be fiercely combated. Education, research, books and films like, Lincoln, Amazing Grace and public debates about slavery go a long way to raising public awareness.

Maybe the solution is better redistribution of aid to the development of educational and healthcare systems. Or maybe the answer is not money, but a fair bilateral exchange in order to achieve a relation of “quid pro quo”.

Jules BRUNIER & Samuel MATA

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