Danny Roberts | Church, reparation and healing
This is an extract from a presentation to the Gardner's View Baptist Church, Bull Bay, as part of the NCR's Black History Month celebrations.
Let me first of all try and make out the case for reparation and the search for reparatory justice before I talk a little about the role of the Church in so far as it sets the context for reconciliation and healing. And let me, in doing so, call upon you for even greater support as champions and missionaries for reparation.
Of all the atrocities and crimes against humanity across civilisation, chattel slavery represents the most ruthless and barbaric. It was also the most lucrative of European institutions, through the transatlantic slave trade and the exportation of sugar from the West Indies, which fuelled European development. Eric Williams, in his book Capitalism and Slavery, traced the contribution of slavery to the development of the industrial revolution and British capitalism. The profits from the slave trade were crucial to the advancement of the British Atlantic economy of the 18th century and provided the foundation for the wealthiest nations today.
It was the profits of plantation slavery that helped to build banks like Barclays, financed the experiment in the steam engine invention, and provided extravagant dwellings that have dotted the landscape of major cities in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Slave labour was put on 18-hour shifts to drive the production of sugar for the benefit of European development.
There is a strong and compelling economic argument, therefore, for reparation if we accept - only if we accept - that the economic value of the sugar produced for the British imperial powers was determined by the total amount of the socially necessary labour of our foreparents.
HUMANS, NOT PROPERTY
To accept that, we first have to accept that our foreparents were humans and not property. That no slave was uprooted from Africa, but was a human being. That the evil of chattel slavery is to seek to deny us of our humanity and dignity, which would, therefore, deny us of our right to be compensated; or seek to deny the immutable fact that the passage of time cannot diminish our humanity, dignity, and self-worth.
There is also the moral, ethical, and psychological aspects of slavery, which must be considered. Under international law, degrading and inhumane treatments are matters that the courts would seek to quantify and compensate the victims for. The UK Parliament formally abolished torture in 1640, fifteen years before laws were passed to justify the brutal oppression by the British of the indigenous descendants and Africans in the West Indies. The Nuremburg Charter and the Convention of the Crime of Genocide provided the legal basis in international law for a claim for reparation.
Africans were considered 'natural slaves' based on the colour of their skin. They were often referred to as 'thinking property'. They were considered three-fifths of a human being. According to Professor Joy Leary, "It was the relegation to lesser humanity that allowed the institution of chattel slavery to be intrinsically linked with violence, and it was through violence, aggression, and dehumanisation that the institution of slavery was enacted, legislated, and perpetuated by Europeans."
The scholarly work of Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, vice-chancellor of The University of the West Indies, in his book Britain's Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide, led regional governments to establish the CARICOM Reparations Commission. Professor Beckles chairs the commission.
But we do not need man-made laws to tell us that slavery was a crime against humanity. The Bible tells us in 1 Timothy 1:9 that the law is laid down for the lawless and disobedient, including slave owners. More important, the Bible condemns race-based slavery and "man stealing" and teaches us that all men are created by God and made in His image.
PRECEDENT FOR REPARATIONS
This makes the second point for reparation based on the moral, psychological, and ethical arguments. Is there precedent for reparation? Yes, there is. In 1825, with its warships at the ready, France demanded that Haiti to compensate it for the loss of slaves and its slave colony to the tune of 150 million francs, which is the equivalent of $21 billion today. Haiti was forced to pay reparations for its freedom.
The British government also compensated the British planters to the tune of £20 million after Emancipation in the West Indies.
Germany has paid US$89 billion in compensation for Nazi crimes since 1952. Britain paid the Mau Mau of Kenya 20 million pounds in 2013 for the killing and torture it carried out against the people in the 1950s.
There has been much controversy about the role of the Church in slavery, and the extent to which much has been said and done to teach that the various kinds of slavery are incompatible with Christians' conception of charity and justice. We now know that religion was used to suppress resistance and promote obedience to the slave masters. The laws throughout the West Indies prohibited missionaries from preaching to the enslaved. Both Baptist and Methodist missionaries were refused licence to preach and so were openly defiant and faced prosecution.
We know of the charismatic leadership of Samuel Sharpe, who led the war in 1831, and of the Baptist preacher, Paul Bogle, who was the main advocate for the rights of our people in the Morant Bay war in 1865. We know of the role of the Church, predominantly the Baptist Church, in the civil-rights struggles in the United States during the 1960s. Professor Verene Shepherd pointed to the fact that many non-conformist churches joined the anti-slavery movement in Europe, a safe distance from the Caribbean.
But regardless of the controversial role religion played during the slavery period, the modern Church, I believe, would have a keen interest in restorative justice. The cause of reparation and restorative justice must form a wholesome part of religious teachings.
The healing process must begin in and with the Church. Healing must begin with a change in the narrative. The truth is, if you do not believe in reparation, you are unwittingly accepting that narrative that our foreparents were nobody.
The Church must join with the reparation movement to build self-esteem among our black ancestry; to help the process of healing from injuries past; to help us to know ourselves; and to bring about the kind of socialisation that closes the racial/class divide where people believe that their only chance of a better life in Jamaica lies in the bleaching of their skin.
- Danny Roberts is head of the Hugh Lawson Shearer Trade Union Education Institute and a member of the National Council on Reparations. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.