The case for reparations for the descendants of the victims of the horrific transatlantic slave trade is a case every human being keen on justice must support. Professor Sir Hilary Beckles and other notable Caribbean personalities have made it their struggle to ensure the European nations engaged in that crime pay compensation for what was done to the people of the African continent over the centuries.
Slavery ended over 150 years ago, and several people, even within our region, have argued that seeking reparation for the enslavement of so many Africans by Europeans is a futile act. I heard recently a caller to a local radio call-in programme arguing that such a move was unnecessary and that slavery existed all over the world and continued to exist. He even entered into the discussion the reports that Africans themselves sold their own brothers and sisters into slavery.
If this type of thinking is prevalent within our shores, then the case for reparations must also be made to our own people. I know several articles have been written and town hall meetings held to sensitize our society to the strong and viable case for reparations, and more I am sure will be done. We must all add our voices of support. It is not futile.
All forms of human bondage and slavery are wrong and evil. Slavery existed for many centuries in many forms, and continues even today in various ways often cloaked in a manner that one wouldn’t see it as slavery.
But the transatlantic slave trade was unique in its horror and its impact on the world –– an impact that continues to be felt today centuries after the first ship took in chains Africans from their homes and villages, and transported them thousands of miles away to be condemned to conditions not even fit for animals.
UNESCO has described the transatlantic slave trade thus:
The transatlantic slave trade is unique within the universal history of slavery for three main reasons: its duration –– approximately four centuries; those vicitimized: black African men, women and children; the intellectual legitimization attempted on its behalf –– the development of an anti-black ideology and its legal organization, the notorious Code Noir.
As a commercial and economic enterprise, the slave trade provides a dramatic example of the consequences resulting from particular intersections of history and geography. It involved several regions and continents: Africa, America, the Caribbean, Europe and the Indian Ocean.
The transatlantic slave trade is often regarded as the first system of globalization. According to French historian Jean-Michel Deveau the slave trade and consequently slavery, which lasted from the 16th to the 19th century, constitute one of “the greatest tragedies in the history of humanity in terms of scale and duration”.
The transatlantic slave trade was the biggest deportation in history and a determining factor in the world economy of the 18th century. Millions of Africans were torn from their homes, deported to the American continent and sold as slaves.
I urge those who do not support the case for reparations or those who remain on the sidelines to research the transatlantic slave trade and read the horrors endured by millions of our fellow human beings. Since the United Nations has declared 2015 to 2024 as the International Decade For People Of African Descent, it makes it so much more opportune and relevant that the people of this region truly learn and appreciate what happened to their forefathers. Understanding what occurred would be a first step towards seeking true justice.
The United Nations has brought to the fore the issues of the transatlantic slave and resulting calamitous effect on a whole population.
In an article posted by Nick Chiles of the Atlanta Black Star in March he reported:
Visitors to the United Nations headquarters in New York will get a powerful reminder of the brutality of the transatlantic slave trade and its enormous impact on world history through a visually stunning new memorial that was unveiled yesterday in a solemn ceremony. There were speeches intended to touch the emotionality of a system that operated for hundreds of years, killing an estimated 15 million African men, women and children and sending millions more into the jaws of a vicious system of plantation slavery in the Americas.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called slavery “a stain on human history”.
UN General Assembly president Sam Kutesa said slavery remained one of the “darkest and most abhorrent chapters” in world history. It was only fitting that the ceremony take place at a site surrounded by the looming skyscrapers of New York. Slavery was the economic engine upon which American capitalism was built, providing the seed money for United States businesses to create the most vibrant economic system in the world . . . .
During his speech unveiling the memorial, Ban Ki-moon spoke directly to black people in the Americas and the Caribbean who are descended from the enslaved black people who were sacrificed.
“I hope descendants of the transatlantic slave trade will feel empowered as they remember those who overcame this brutal system and passed their rich cultural heritage from Africa on to their children,” Ban said.
In his remarks, he singled out black women in particular, noting that a third of those black people who were sold as slaves from Africa were female.
Reparations will not repair all the damage done by the brutal system of slavery, but it will be the start to economic redress by those nations that profited greatly from the blood, sweat and lives of the thousands of African men and women and children who through no choice of theirs endured unspeakable hardships to build up these empires.
Europe and the rest of the world recently celebrated 70 years since the end of World War II –– a war that was waged to free Europe from the clutches of a maniacal Nazi system that sought the elimination of Jews and other persons who were not considered to be of “pure white” blood. A reported six million Jews were killed in that Holocaust. In 1952, seven years after the war had ended the state of Israel signed a “reparations agreement” with West Germany. The agreement came into force on March 27, 1953. According to the agreement, West Germany was to pay Israel for the slave labour and persecution of Jews during the Holocaust, and to compensate for Jewish property that was stolen by the Nazis.
Imagine a mere seven years after the Holocaust a reparation agreement was put into effect for the Jewish people!
There is precedent, and there is a legitimate right for the descendents of the transatlantic slave trade –– whose foreparents, traumatized, murdered and enslaved, far exceeded six million –– to seek redress through reparations.
Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, chairman of the CARICOM Reparations Commission, in his address to the House of Commons last year stated clearly: “The crimes committed against the indigenous, African, and Asian peoples of the Caribbean are well documented. We know of the 250 years of slave trading, chattel slavery, and the following 100 years
of colonial oppression. Slavery was ended in 1838, only to be replaced by a century of racial apartheid, including the denigration of Asian people.
“Indigenous genocide, African chattel slavery and genocide, and Asian contract slavery were three acts of a single play –– a single process by which the British state forcefully extracted wealth from the Caribbean, resulting in its persistent, endemic poverty. I wish to comment, as a result, on the 1833 Act Of Emancipation, and how this august Parliament betrayed the enslaved people of the Caribbean by forcing them to pay more than 50 per cent of the cost of their own emancipation. This is an aspect of the history long hidden from public view.
“We know, for example, that this Parliament in 1833 determined that the 800,000 enslaved people in the Caribbean were worth, as chattel property, £47 million. This was their assessed market value. We know that this Parliament determined that all slave owners should receive just and fair compensation for the official taking away of their property.
“We know that this Parliament provided the sum of £20 million in grants to the slave owners as fair compensation for the loss of their human chattel. And we know that this Parliament determined that the enslaved people would receive none of this compensation. The argument made in this House was that ‘property’ cannot receive property compensation. This Parliament, in its Emancipation Act, upheld the law that black people were not human, but property.”
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace, and secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association.