Dozens of nations were involved in the slave trade. How should they compensate descendants?
The call for reparations is being sounded beyond the U.S., with activists and political leaders demanding accountability for slavery and colonization of their countries.
In Jamaica, which became a British colony in the 1650s, the government has begun a push for reparations, seeking redress for nearly two centuries of slavery on the Caribbean island.
Officials announced the effort in July, with one legislator suggesting that the government seek roughly 7.6 billion British pounds, or roughly $10.4 billion in compensation from Britain. An official amount has yet to be publicly confirmed.
“Our African ancestors were forcibly removed from their home and suffered unparalleled atrocities in Africa to carry out forced labor to the benefit of the British Empire,” Olivia Grange, Jamaica’s minister of culture, gender, entertainment and sport, told Reuters over the summer. “Redress is well overdue.”
Proponents of reparations argue that companies, individuals and governments that profited from slavery and the slave trade should provide various forms of restitution. In June, United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet released a report on racial injustice that included support for reparations, but several countries, including the U.S. and the United Kingdom, were notably absent from the discussion when the topic was raised during the U.N. General Assembly in September.
For those who support the growing movement, the question is how global powers should compensate the descendants of the enslaved people whose labor and commodification helped fuel the economic rise of several Western countries.
Millions of Africans were forcibly brought to the Caribbean before slavery was formally abolished in the majority of British colonies, including Jamaica, in the 1830s. And while Jamaica became independent from Britain in 1962, Queen Elizabeth II remains its head of state. In contrast, Barbados, another Caribbean island, became an independent republic last month, officially severing ties with the British monarchy — and renewing calls for reparations from Britain.
“The royal family benefited from slavery financially and many of our African brothers and sisters died in battle for change,” David Denny, an activist and general secretary of the Caribbean Movement for Peace and Integration, told CNN in November.
Some African and Caribbean countries are pursuing a range of actions, from apologies to financial compensation. Overall, the point, activists say, is to address the ways that slavery — and ongoing systems of discrimination and divestment — have negatively impacted people of African descent.
They agree that any plans for restitution will ultimately require fundamental shifts in the global standing of African and Caribbean nations, the African diaspora as a whole and their collective political power.
“The essence of the reparations movement is that if you cause harm to a group of people, you have a duty to repair that harm,” said Verene Shepherd, a historian and the director of the Centre for Reparation Research at the University of the West Indies. “Those who benefited from the labor of the ancestors of African people are still benefiting from the wealth. There is an intergenerational generation of wealth on one side, and an intergenerational transmission of poverty on the other.”
History of the global reparations movement
Beginning in the 16th century and continuing until the 19th century, the transatlantic slave trade forced more than 12 million men, women and children from Africa mostly to the Americas in the largest forced migration in history. Their slave labor fueled the economic boom of crops such as sugar, tobacco and cotton.
By the 1800s, the transport of enslaved Africans had drastically slowed as countries like the U.S. and Britain outlawed the slave trade, though it would take decades before the abolition of slavery followed. As emancipation spread during the 19th century, formerly enslaved men and women increasingly demanded that they receive compensation for generations of unpaid labor.
“Emancipation took very long to occur,” across countries, said Ana Lucia Araujo, a history professor at Howard University and the author of “Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade: A Transnational and Comparative History.” While the earliest calls for reparations were rarely given that specific name, the idea that people should receive some form of payment for their labor took root as abolition spread.
Demands for reparations followed emancipation, she notes, “when people realized that they got nothing with their freedom, no land, pensions, education — in some cases, no access to citizenship.”
In places where reparations advocacy did emerge in the 19th and early 20th centuries — such as Mexico, Cuba and the U.S. — formerly enslaved people called for specific forms of redress based on their respective needs.
Araujo added that the types of reparations could largely be grouped into one of two categories: morally-based “symbolic reparations,” which include apologies and actions to memorialize the history of slavery, and “financial and material reparations,” which provide resources and investments.
While reparations advocacy has been around in one form or another for more than a century, the newer, more global movement comes as an era of globalization has helped bring once disjointed parts of the African diaspora into a more universal fight for reparations for the descendants of enslaved people.
A complex global movement
Still, while reparations movements have become more interconnected, that does not mean that demands have crystalized into a singular effort. Rather, activists, and in several recent cases, national governments have adopted a mix of strategies and reparations claims tailored to their specific countries.
In Brazil, for example, a fight for land rights, centered over quilombos — rural communities established by people escaping enslavement — has been ongoing since the 1980s. Back then, the government created a pathway for these communities to receive legal recognition and rights to the land their communities were built on.
In the decades since, the Brazilian government has not recognized all quilombo communities, with many still facing the threat of eviction, and tensions have been exacerbated by the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, who has openly voiced disdain for quilombos. In 2017, he pledged that “not a centimeter would be demarcated” for the communities. Since he took office, the land recognition process has slowed further, and quilombos have received less money.
Other reparations claims have focused on funds, with advocates arguing that European nations have failed to properly compensate countries in the Caribbean and Africa for enslavement, the taking of resources and the theft of artifacts, and the specific effects of colonization on their countries.
Burundi, which was colonized by Germany before being placed under the control of Belgium after World War I, demanded nearly $43 billion in reparations from the two countries in 2020, arguing that compensation was due for a number of colonial crimes, including the kidnapping of mixed race children from Burundi and Congo in the 1940s and 1950s.
That year, Belgium’s King Philippe expressed his “deepest regrets” for colonial-era abuses in the modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo, but stopped short of offering a formal apology or discussing reparations. Last month, a special committee convened after racial justice protests in Belgium issued a report suggesting that a “comprehensive programme of reparations” be considered to address colonial offenses in Burundi, Congo and Rwanda.
Jamaica’s official call for reparations is being processed by its government before it is formally submitted. Officials and others involved in crafting the petition have declined to comment publicly on the matter since it was first announced in July, citing it as a pending legal issue.
In recent years, however, reparations supporters in Jamaica have said that money is just one part of a much larger debt owed to the Caribbean nation, noting that the country also needs increased development support, as well as increased educational awareness of the impacts and legacies of slavery and colonization.
Supporters of the financial claim also note that the British government took out significant loans in 1833 in order to pay 20 million pounds — at the time 40 percent of its entire national budget — to compensate slaveowners for the end of slavery in Britain’s colonies. Due to the large amount of interest generated by the loan, the debt was not fully paid off by British taxpayers until 2015.
“I am asking for the same amount of money to be paid to the slaves that was paid to the slave owners,” Jamaican parliamentarian Mike Henry told Reuters in July.
Those involved in crafting Jamaica’s claim said that the petition will highlight specific problems that can be traced to slavery on the island.
“When we look at reparation, we are looking at specific things to be repaired,” said Nattecia Bohardsingh, a Kingston-based attorney and junior researcher at the Centre for Reparation Research, who has played an advisory role in discussions about Jamaica’s reparations claim. “We are not saying ‘Well, we didn’t like slavery, so you should pay us some money.’”
She added that the claim will focus on the right to reparation under international law. There is precedent for countries making reparations payments, she argues, pointing to the approximately $90 billion that Germany is still paying to survivors of the Holocaust, and payments made by the U.S. government to Native American tribes for stolen lands.
“We are saying that there was a transatlantic slave trade, Africans were taken to the Caribbean, made to work without wages, made to suffer, died, had family lives disrupted. There’s evidence to support everything that we know happened on those slave ships,” Bohardsingh said. “We have the evidence to suggest that what is happening to us, whether it’s our medical conditions with things like diabetes and high rates of hypertension, can be traced back to the plantation. There is extensive work showing what happened to our ancestors.”
In addition to its financial reparations claim, Jamaica is also part of a larger demand for reparations; the country is a member of the Caribbean Community, or CARICOM, a collective of 15 member nations and five associated countries that work collectively on political and economic issues.
A year after the countries began a united push for reparations in 2013, CARICOM presented a 10-point reparations plan that, according to its website, would benefit “the region’s indigenous and African descendant communities who are the victims of Crimes against Humanity (CAH) in the forms of genocide, slavery, slave trading, and racial apartheid.”
The plan suggests several measures, including calls for formal apologies from European countries that benefited from slavery and colonization, a repatriation program that would allow people to relocate to African nations, and help address public health and economic crises in the region.
“The present status of the Caribbean — the present infrastructure, the present challenges — are linked to the past,” says Shepherd, the Centre for Reparation Research director, who also serves as one of three vice chairs for the CARICOM Reparations Commission. “We demand reparatory justice because of how the legacies of the past are having an impact on contemporary society.”
What are the alternatives to reparations?
Critics of reparations programs often argue that slavery and colonization are past offenses and don’t justify compensation.
Meanwhile, several European countries have declined to discuss reparations when they’ve been raised, or have refused to offer formal apologies for slavery and colonization. After Jamaica announced that it would pursue reparations in the summer, then-British High Commissioner Asif Ahmad dismissed the claim, saying, “When it comes to this direct request for reparations from government to government, the reason why it will not prosper is because who do we pay it to?” In 2015, then-British Prime Minister David Cameron had said that the country would not pay reparations, instead calling for Jamaica and the U.K. to “continue to build for the future.”
Speaking to revelers at Barbados’ recent celebration commemorating its status as the world’s newest republic, Prince Charles acknowledged the “appalling atrocity of slavery, which forever stains our history,” but the heir to the British monarchy stopped short of offering a formal apology.
Due to international law, offering formal government apologies for slavery and colonization would make it easier for countries to pursue reparations claims. Even when offering compensation, European countries have worked to avoid the term reparations — when Germany offered an apology to Namibia earlier this year for its role in the Herero-Nama genocide that lasted from 1904 to 1908, the country was quick to note that the $1.3 billion development aid payment it offered was one of “reconciliation,” not reparations.
There has also been legal debate over the extent that countries involved in historical abuses can be held responsible for reparations in the present, with some scholars noting that while slavery is morally abhorrent, it was not illegal internationally when the transatlantic slave trade began.
Reparations activists, however, argue that the focus on slavery’s once widespread “legality” dismisses how enslaved people suffered under the practice and gives too much weight to Western legal ideas. “European countries behave as if the law said that Africans were not people, African societies were not recognized as societies,” Bohardsingh said. “The only law that they are having a conversation about when they bring up international law is European law, which allowed for the taking of people from another continent, enslaved them, and then said ‘Well, our law said that slavery is legal, so it is legal.’”
“The question is whose law are you going to judge the legality of slavery by?” she added.
Reparations supporters have also expressed frustration that some programs offered by British institutions eager to show that they are apologetic for their role in the slave trade have been referred to as reparations, despite these programs failing to offer substantive compensation measures or other forms of restitution.
In 2020, for example, the Bank of England apologized for the role its leaders had played in the transatlantic slave trade. The bank also promised to remove the names and images of former directors who had been involved in the slave trade, and to be more inclusive of Black and ethnic minority groups.
The announcement came shortly after a different — also widely criticized — statement from the British insurance provider Lloyd’s of London included a promise to be more inclusive of Black and minority communities without actually explaining how it would do so. The company previously faced a lawsuit over its alleged role in financing fleets that transported enslaved Africans.
“Tokenistic gestures are not reparations at all,” said Kehinde Andrews, a professor of Black studies at the U.K.’s Birmingham City University and author of “The New Age of Empire: How Racism & Colonialism Still Rule the World.” He added that these sorts of announcements and programs are “worse than nothing because they pretend to be something and people celebrate them as progress.”
“We need to be careful with what is labeled and called reparations, because it can actually do more harm than good,” he said.
What is next for international reparations efforts?
As the reparations movement faces increased backlash, activists note that they’ve also seen increased support, and that they remain confident in their call for restitutions.
Proponents have called for more collaboration among supporters to build a stronger voice on reparations internationally. The CARICOM reparations plan, for example, shares several points with a 10-point reparations proposal put forward by the U.S.-based National African-American Reparations Commission, and the two groups have publicly supported each other in their push for reparations. In recent months, CARICOM nations have also pledged to work more closely with reparations advocates in Africa in an effort to better connect the efforts of different governments.
Ultimately, the various reparations efforts occurring internationally — and the intense backlash to them — suggest that progress will require a deeper understanding of how enslavement and colonization continue to impact several African and Caribbean nations.
“We need a new paradigm — we will never be developed under Western models of loans and aid to us,” Bohardsingh said. “We developed them. We have to bring this case to show the cause and effect, and how those who enriched themselves from us would not be in the situation they are in now but for what was done to us. We need reparation to get us back in a position that we would have been in without these atrocities.”
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