Imani Tafari-Ama | Paying the price of reparations
Laura Trevelyan, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) journalist, is a household name. She is known for her cutting-edge coverage of global news from New York and Washington. Now, she has gained more prominence because of her revelation that her family’s considerable fortune was garnered on the backs of enslaved Africans. The family went public this week with the confession that their ancestors participated in the Maafa, the Holocaust of enslavement. They are documented as having owned over 1,000 Africans over multiple generations on five plantations in Grenada.
The Trevelyans’ family coffers were augmented by some £3 million in 1838 as part of the compensation that Britain paid to the planters at Emancipation. This payment was compensation for the loss of the dehumanised African population, which was regarded as property. Of course, the victims of this debacle got nothing, which is why reparative justice remains an outstanding demand of the descendants of those who suffered this wrong.
Ironically, Ms Trevelyan is being represented as something of a hero for visiting Grenada, where she produced a documentary ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jDFqy_8qlww) about this dastardly history. She set something of a precedent by apologising for the wrongs committed by her ancestors. She urged the British monarch and royal family to follow suit. This precedent should, indeed, be followed by the stiff-necked beneficiaries of similar largesse. However, Europeans have maintained stoic silence in response to the Caribbean Community’s (CARICOM’s) 10 Point Reparations Plan. They know, of course, that there is a political economy of saying I am sorry. The next logical step after an apology would entail paying compensation for the harm done.
Ms. Trevelyan acknowledged that in Grenada, she witnessed the enduring impact of enslavement. This is visible in the prevalence of health problems like obesity. She has collaborated with the Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies (The UWI), Prof Sir Hilary Beckles, to establish a £100,000 compensation package as a reparation gesture to the people of Grenada. Even Ms Trevelyan acknowledged that this is a paltry sum in proportion to the damage that was done and the profits that the Trevelyans reaped.
Prof Hilary Beckles is the author of several books, including Britain’s Black Debt, which outlines the principal Caribbean enslaver’s outstanding obligations to the progeny of the enslaved. He is also the titular head of the Caribbean’s reparations movement despite the anachronism of having been knighted by the British Queen. This calls into question the nuances of complicity that postcolonial states maintain with the very structures that designed their disadvantage.
Beyond the big-ticket debate in Jamaica about holding a referendum and or following Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados’ lead to acquire republic status is the current conundrum of Commonwealth lawyers switching from using the abbreviation QC to KC after their names following the death of Queen Elisabeth II and the ascension of King Charles III to the British throne. How do you get to be celebrating a British monarch in your professional designation?
Why does Jamaica drag its feet about discarding the trappings of subservience despite over 60 years of independence? What is the de facto benefit of remaining entrapped in the so-called Commonwealth, which Jamaica experiences as the de jure common poverty? Maintaining the British monarch as the head of state, the head of the judiciary, and the head of The UWI begs the question that decolonising our institutional structures, practices, and identities is all overdue. However, the invidious colonial mindset persists in the practices because of the interests that the powers-that-be invest in maintaining this charade.
In her documentary, Ms Trevelyan said it made her feel sick to hear her historian host at The UWI, Nicole Philip-Dowe and historical novelist D.C. Campbell describe what she called “a system of profit, built on torture”. She also explained that her family’s considerable crimes had been intentionally erased from living memory. The skeletons in their closet only spilled out because of the inquisitiveness of the present generation.
As a commentator on the Trevelyan video noted, it is remarkable that the Trevelyans can trace their lineage back six generations. On the other hand, a significant part of the enduring trauma that the descendants of the enslaved population experience is the inability to connect with their ancestors because of the deliberate expungement of this data by the British as a key strategy for erasing African cultures and replacing it with a pseudo-British identity as a form of power and control.
A surprising exception to the loss of memory of African identity happened in the United States Virgin Islands (USVI) – St Thomas, St John, and St Croix. These islands have been colonised since 1917 by the United States. The USVI were formerly known as The Danish West Indies because for 250 years, they were colonised by the Danish Empire. The Moravians, who were entrenched in the Danish West Indies after the six-month 1733 African rebellion, were meticulous about documenting the original names of the enslaved and the names they assumed at baptism. This means that people from the USVI can trace their ancestry back to the African Continent.
Decolonisation is now the buzzword in academic circles. But one cannot contemplate a project of decolonisation without asking, for whom is this problematic most important? Whose rights were most violated under the colonial system? Who suffers most from inequities entrenched in the maintenance of the colonial apparatus? On whose backs in general and bodies on the whole does the whip of disadvantage propelled by the enduring legacy of colonialism fall heaviest? Which sector of most populations tend to be most vulnerable to states’ negligence to implement obligations of human rights and citizen security?
If we all know the answers to these questions, we may agree that the black body is at the fulcrum of (post)colonial contradictions. As a schoolgirl said to Laura Trevelyan, the maintenance of inter=generational power relations is evidenced by racism and colourism. This contradictory psychosocial system is at the heart of present-day power hierarchies. It is in the mindset arena that the reckoning must begin. Kudos to Laura Trevelyan for kick-starting the compensation conversation, but the materiality of decolonisation should be calculated relative to the profits reaped rather than composed of token gestures catalysed by guilt complexes.
- Imani Tafari-Ama, PhD, is a Pan-African advocate and gender and development specialist. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org