Verene Shepherd | UK reparation advancements
In today’s Reparation Conversations, the Centre for Reparation Research (CRR) provides a round-up of key reparation news on the international stage. These represent successes of the movement, an indication that activism for redress for historic wrongs has not been in vain. Reparation Conversations is a collaborative initiative between the CRR and The Gleaner.
We begin with news out of the United Kingdom, where the intensification of the reparation movement and the globalisation of the Black Lives Matter campaign has led to more actions that attempt to right historical injustices. In addition to the activism around toppling statues of enslavers, some universities in the UK that have established committees or working arties to study their connection to slavery have advanced actions.
The Legacy of Slavery Working Party (LSWP) at Jesus College, University of Cambridge, has dedicated significant energy to contextualising the legacy of college benefactor Tobias Rustat (1608-1694), an adviser to King Charles II who gained immense wealth through his investment and involvement in the Royal African Company (RAC) over a substantial period, including at the time when he donated to the college. The RAC shipped more enslaved Africans to the Americas than any other institution. The LSWP has recommended to Jesus College that it make changes wherever Tobias Rustat is explicitly celebrated in the college. The Master, Sonita Alleyne, reacted by saying: “Following the LSWP’s latest recommendations, the college’s Council has considered all areas where Rustat is present in College and made a series of decisions in the honest spirit of acknowledging the past and shaping an inclusive future.” We await news of those “decisions” around memorials to Rustat.
Jesus College has also decided to return to Nigeria the Benin bronze in its possession, a statue of a cockerel that was looted from Africa and which has been housed at the college since 1905. The Kingdom of Benin, which was located in what is now, Nigeria, was one of West Africa’s major powers. It was destroyed in 1897 when British colonial forces invaded Benin City, razing it to the ground, murdering an unknown number of people and pillaging over 3,000 precious objects. Today, these Benin bronzes are scattered across imperial art musea, despite repeated demands by Nigerian leaders for their return. While institutions with vast collections of the bronzes like the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have continued to ignore requests or cite their inability to return the stolen objects, others, including Jesus College, have acted. According to a member of the LSWP, the “Okukor” has been packaged and is ready to go and would have already been returned had it not been for the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Artnet news of April 7, 2021, reports that the Horniman Museum and Gardens in London is also taking steps towards repatriating Benin Bronzes. The museum was founded to hold the collection of 19th-century British tea trader Frederick Horniman, after whom it is named, and is home to 49 works from Benin City. The collection includes 15 Benin Bronze plaques depicting Obas and other legendary figures, a brass bell that may have been worn by a warrior, and a ceremonial paddle. The University of Aberdeen in Scotland and the National Museum of Ireland have all announced plans to return Benin Bronzes in their collection to Nigeria. Manchester Museum was the first UK institution to return ceremonial items to Aboriginal groups nearly 100 years after they were stolen by British forces.
OUTSIDE THE UK
Other countries and musea around the world have been recently making a renewed push to repatriate Benin Bronzes and other looted artwork to Nigeria. For example, France and Germany have committed to handing back objects, with Germany entering talks about returning bronzes in its national collections to Nigeria. On the other side of the artefact-repatriation project, Jamaica is among countries calling for the return of unlawfully obtained artefacts as part of the worldwide call. Readers may recall that in August 2019, Minister of Culture Olivia “Babsy” Grange demanded the return of priceless Taino artefacts from the British Museum. In 1792, two statues were taken from a cave in Carpenter’s Mountain in Clarendon, a three-foot-tall wood carving of a birdman and a carving of a rain god, which are both works of art and treasures of the Taino people. Ivory Coast, Senegal, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have made formal requests for the return of artefacts.
US REPARATION WINS
In the USA, the House Judiciary Committee voted 25-17 on Wednesday, April 14, 2021, to advance the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. The bill, which is also known as HR 40, has been introduced to every Congress since Representative John Conyers first introduced it in 1989 and was on April 14 sponsored by Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX). If the bill crystallises into legislation, it would establish a national commission to study and develop reparation proposals.
A similar bill (AB 3121) was passed in California last October. A nine-member task force will make recommendations on how the state might provide reparations and who would be eligible. Appointments are still being made to the Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. Several other cities, including Chicago, New York City, and Durham, North Carolina, are now exploring similar initiatives.
Beyond the push for reparatory research and proposal development, reparation programmes that distribute tangible resources to Black communities have also been developed recently. Evanston, a Chicago suburb, pledged US$10 million raised from cannabis tax revenue to create a local reparation fund. The city launched The Restorative Housing Programme, the first initiative to be developed from this fund. The Restorative Housing Programme seeks to address housing discrimination, which in the mid-20th century produced the low rates of Black homeownership and de facto segregation seen in the city today. Through The Restorative Housing Programme, Black residents of Evanston can apply for a US$25,000 grant for home repairs or property costs. Of course, this programme is not a substitute for the broad redress owed to Black people by imperial governments. Nevertheless, as the first municipal gesture of its kind towards reparation, the Evanston programme should inspire a measure of cautious optimism while emphasising the need for affected people to define for themselves what full and true reparation should look like.
SO WHAT? THE CARIBBEAN PERSPECTIVE
These recent advances towards reparatory justice indicate that reparation is not just necessary, but possible. The countries and institutions that have enriched themselves off the suffering of subjugated peoples and their descendants are aware that they would not and could not be what they are without the historic and current labour of marginalised people. In the Caribbean, our vision for freedom and justice needs to be as creative and expansive as the nature of the evil that was committed. The resources are there. Let us prepare ourselves socially, mentally, and politically for full decolonisation.
- Verene Shepherd is the director of the Centre of Reparation Research at The University of the West Indies. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.