Sun | Jan 20, 2019

BOOK REVIEW:Justice long overdue!

Published:Sunday | December 7, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Glenville Ashby.

Glenville Ashby, Reviewer

Title: Britain's Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide

Author: Professor Sir Hilary McD. Beckles

Publisher: University of the West Indies Press 2013

"We must acknowledge in some form that modern British society owes much of its prosperity and many of its institutions to what happened all those years ago."

- Vincent Cable, member of parliament, debate on the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade, House of Commons, March 20, 2007

The above quote is used by Professor Hilary McD. Beckles in this, his seminal work. It proves the very crux of his thesis.

There was a time when mention of reparations for Caribbean slavery was a moot subject. Not that the thought was never embedded in the hearts of millions. But it was so emotive, so tempestuous an issue, that it was never lucidly and structurally articulated. Advocates feared raising Cain, and being forever ostracised as racial provocateurs and conspirators of bilking the system.

That was in an era, though, that academics, intellectuals and social activists confronted a neocolonial and imperialist bulwark advanced legal and exculpatory factors to minimise one of the most brutal chapters of history. Slavery was whitewashed as regrettable, though indispensable for social and economic progress. Sadly, some among the progeny of the enslaved learned to accept this twisted reasoning.

Now, Beckles has reopened the dialogue that some Caribbean intellectuals started. This is no easy task. It requires a mastery of logic, law, history and social psychology. The ability to persuade is equally vital. Fortuitously, Beckles is fully endowed and may well convince the most obdurate opponents of reparations. Seemingly reasonable arguments by detractors are dismantled, weighed down by their own inherent shortcomings and Beckles' piercing analysis and academic rigour.

focal point

Readers are not fed with scenes of unfathomable torture, murder and rape. Nor do the high infant mortality rate that characterised generational cycles of enslavement and the genocidal frenzy that exterminated the region's indigenous people become a focal point. The carnage is evident, but Beckles avoids reinforcing the obvious. He must appeal to reason, to the mind, the intellect and not solely to the heart. He avoids emotionally charged confrontations that have never bore tangible fruits. His approach is measured, deliberate and aimed at debunking myths and advancing irrefutable facts.

He decries the argument that Africans gained handsomely from slave trafficking, stating, "... the limitation of this scholarship is found in the empirical evidence which shows that slave ships departed London, Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow, and elsewhere laden with textiles, glass beads, pistols, and other such items, to be exchanged for 15 million African bodies - the youngest, strongest and healthiest. The unwillingness of these scholars to consider the unequal, exploitative terms of trade implicit in this commercial culture remains endemic to the historiography."

It is within the parameters of international human-rights law that Beckles presents his ironclad arguments.

What then constitutes a meritorious claim? Beckles affirms that the injustice must be well documented, the victims must be identified as a distinct group, and the current members of the group must continue to suffer harm. He then cites the United Nations charter on human rights to determine the case for redress, adding that, "the critical issue here is that in respect to crimes against humanity, there is no hiding behind national law". He adds that, "International law provides for the prosecution of such crimes even when national law might be used by the perpetrators, to justify or 'legalise' actions. This is an important aspect of law that supports litigation in respect to slavery, slave trading and genocide."

Beckles' work best reflects the emerging Zeigeist. Architects of internecine violence, ethnic cleansing and genocide are now identified, if not prosecuted. And while the International Criminal Court falls short of judicial impartiality, there is a definitive moral archetype under which we are now governed.

Holocaust suits

In the last decade, Jewish groups have won suits against banks, insurance companies and other industries that profited from the Holocaust. The southern Moravian Church has issued apologies for their role in slavery in the United States. The Catholic Church has apologised for wrongs perpetrated during the Inquisition, and the British government was forced to pay restitution to more than 5,000 Kenyan survivors of the 1953 Mau Mau massacre.

There is jarring evidence that Barclays Bank, Lloyd's Bank, and the Royal Bank of Scotland, among other banking institutions, reaped handsomely from slavery. There is also documentation of the staggering profits made by slave traders. According to Beckles, "Slave trading was big business; it utilised advanced management, complex financial arrangements and state of the art investment instruments... it was not a poor man's business. The trade called for an enormous sense of global enterprise and considerable entrepreneurial confidence."

Even more startlingly and brutally ironic was the compensation commission established after emancipation that determined actuarial calculations on West Indian 'slave values'. Notably, 45,000 individual claims were settled. Beckles writes, "Slave owners, then, won three decisive battles in securing reparations for their property rights in enslaved Africans. First, they received cash values to refinance their business; second, they were able to make new investments, mostly in British stocks; and third, they succeeded in holding on to their West Indian enterprises."


Undoubtedly, the road towards reparation is complex and potentially tortuous. Beckles chronicles the political intrigue and conspiracy by the United States and European powers to remove Haitian president Bertrand Aristide from office after he demanded some 21 billion dollars in restitution from France - the equivalent of 90 million gold francs - that Haiti was forced to pay in claims over property lost during the Haitian Revolution in order to end diplomatic and economic strangulation. It was a financial blow that crippled the former colony centuries later. Indeed, a telling lesson.

Despite Britain's refusal to offer an official apology for slavery and a Balkanised response in the Caribbean to the reparation issue, there is a palpable momentum to revisit slavery at a political and legal level.

On the heels of the historic UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, several commissions have been established.

Notably, Beckles emphasises that seeking redress should never be confrontational but rather a means to engender a sense of fairness and reconciliation.

He seals this argument early in his treatise. "Reconciliation," he says, "must be the dominant ideology of the 21st century, and the sooner societies act, the greater will be the benefits. The reparation discourse seeks to foster and facilitate this process."

Ratings: Essential

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