We present and encourage progressive Caribbean views of Caribbean and world affairs.
By Bridget Brereton
Today we commemorate the end of enslavement in the formerly British Caribbean, including T&T. So this is a good time to notice an important book recently published by my distinguished UWI colleague Sir Hilary Beckles, entitled Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide.
This book sets out the case for reparations from Britain for the destruction of the indigenous people of the islands under British control, for the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, and for slavery itself as practised in the British colonies. (Of course, several other European powers were also involved, as well as slaveholders in the US and Latin America—not to mention the vast Arab-controlled trade in enslaved Africans—but Beckles deals with the case specifically against Britain.)
The objective of the book is political: to push the global reparations movement by putting the English-speaking Caribbean in the vanguard of that movement. As Beckles insists in his Introduction (entitled “My Journey with Slavery and Reparations”), “the causal link between the crimes of slavery and the ongoing harm and injury to descendants is everywhere to be found in the Caribbean. The pain of enslavement and the injury of its injustice haunt (its) citizens…Slavery and genocide in the Caribbean are lived experiences despite over a century of emancipation. Everywhere their legacies shape the lives of the majority and harm their capacity for advancement”.
Chapter 1 lays out the principles of reparations in present-day international law and diplomacy. In this context, he emphasises two key points, which are further developed in the rest of the book. First, that black slavery in the Caribbean was historically unique: the victims were legally defined as chattel, property, exactly like non-human livestock; their enslavement was lifelong; and their children inherited the status (you were a slave if your mother was).
Second, Beckles argues that the trade in black bodies, and slavery itself, were recognised to be criminal at the time by contemporary English law and morality. The colonial laws which established chattel slavery were not seen as valid “at home”, in Britain, amounting to an implicit recognition that it was illegal; the African slave trade was described as “a criminal commerce” from the beginning of English involvement in it. This is a key point to counter the argument that both the trade and slavery were legal at the time, and therefore were not “crimes against humanity” when they were practised.
Beckles is an eminent historian, and chapters 2 to11 set out the historical data which inform the reparations case. The “genocide” of the indigenous Kalinago (“Island Caribs”) of the British Windward Islands is detailed in chapter 2. The few surviving descendants, now mainly living in Dominica and St Vincent—Beckles does not mention the Garifuna of Belize, descended from exiled “Black Caribs” originally from St Vincent—have a clear claim for reparations from Britain, he believes.
Chapters 3 to 11 deal with the heart of the book, the British trade in enslaved Africans and the slavery system itself. Though the information here is not exactly new, Beckles marshals the facts in a compelling way, showing how every branch of the English, then British state was involved in both: the monarch, parliament, the judges, the Church of England, the Bank of England. Outside the state, aristocrats, gentry, business firms, London financiers, banks and great cities profited by “criminal enrichment” from the profits of trading in, and exploiting, enslaved black people.
Following the lead of Eric Williams in his seminal work Capitalism and Slavery, and several later scholars, Beckles shows how important the slave trade and the profits of Caribbean slavery were to Britain’s economic development, especially between 1660 and 1800. It’s not that the African trade and Caribbean slavery “caused” the Industrial Revolution, but they did play an important role in its timing (early, the first in the world) and its pattern and course.
The last of the “historical” chapters, 11, deals with the “reparations for slave owners”—the 20 million pounds, an immense sum in 1830s values, granted by parliament to compensate the former owners for the loss of their property. Drawing on recent scholarly research by British historians, especially Nicholas Draper of London University, Beckles shows both how much this sum really represented at the time, and how many institutions and people—from the British state to lords and ladies, the church, members of parliament, city firms, banks—pocketed the money. It was like a huge stimulus package for the British economy. The former chattel got nothing at all, and only a few abolitionists even suggested that they deserved some compensation.
Chapters 12 to 15 describe the present-day reparations movement as it has developed since about 2000, especially the involvement of the English-speaking Caribbean countries and the predictably negative response of the British government. Beckles himself has been the leading non-governmental voice from the Caribbean ever since the Durban UN conference in 2001, so this is very much an “insider” account, taking the narrative up to 2012.
Not everyone will agree with Beckles’ arguments or conclusions, but the case he presents for Britain to pay her “black debt” is compelling historically, morally and legally.
• Bridget Brereton is emerita
professor of history at UWI, St Augustine
(Trinidad Express, August 1st. 2013)