The world’s major universities have a significant role to play in the debate surrounding reparations for the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
This is the view of one of the main people driving the global discussions on the issue, Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles.
Speaking on the topic, Reparations: The Greatest Democracy Movement of the 21st Century, at a three-day conference jointly held by the Faculties of Law and Humanities at UWI’s Cave Hill campus entitled, Legal History and Empire: Perspectives from the Colonized, Sir Hilary noted that these institutions drafted some of the laws governing slavery, held slaves themselves or were founded using profits generated from the slave trade.
He gave the example of “a slave trader who originally lived in Antigua, but fled after a slave revolt there and moved to Boston [and] provided the initial funding for the Harvard Law School.
He also explained that “the people who owned Dukes Plantation in Barbados [had] split their money between Barbados and South Carolina and founded Duke University, the owners of which recently donated land to UWI for a major agricultural project.
“Meanwhile, when Georgetown University was going through bankruptcy in the 19th century, it sold 200 of the more than 400 slaves it owned in order to get back on its feet,” he added.
Sir Hilary, a noted historian, also pointed out that John Locke, one of the world’s leading political philosophers who acted as an adviser to many universities in England, “owned slaves in the Bahamas and was the corporate secretary for the Royal African Company, one of the major organizations involved in the slave trade”.
The vice chancellor also said UWI had a significant role to play in the process since it was based in the region that bore the brunt of the slave trade, adding that the lands on which the Mona campus in Jamaica and the Cave Hill campus in Barbados were built were directly involved in the industry itself.
“When we began working on a new medical complex at the Mona campus nine years ago, the construction company unearthed a lot of bones, and we discovered that the two acres of land we were using for that project served as the burial ground for the slaves at the Mona and Papine plantation.”
In terms of Cave Hill, the vice chancellor said, “we have a monument here to a boy who was brought to Barbados from Guinea in 1798 when he was only three years old. He was sold to the owner of the Cave Hill estate, who recognized he was a mathematical genius and ‘showed him off’ to other people.
“Ultimately that boy became the book keeper for the plantation, a Sunday School teacher, and the first black sexton in the Anglican Church in Barbados when he took up that post at the chapel on the Cave Hill estate, which eventually became the St Stephen’s Anglican Church. So we can say the first teacher on the site of the Cave Hill campus was a slave.”
In terms of the reparations debate itself, Sir Hilary said “the main focus of this movement is the fact that you cannot commit crimes and just run away from them, using the excuse that it is ‘remote’; that it happened so long ago people have forgotten it.
“The truth is, there are people living in the Caribbean whose great-great-grandparents were slaves and they have heard stories about the slave experience over the years.”
He said debate was gaining momentum worldwide, while pointing out that recently “the Indian parliament has voted in favour of the Caribbean’s position on reparations, and the African Union has agreed to send a delegation out to the region to discuss it with CARICOM [Caribbean Community] leaders. In addition, CARICOM heads of government have sent out letters to the leaders all across Europe inviting them to hold formal discussions with us on reparations. We have not only reached out to the former colonial powers but we are also inviting Germany, Russia and Central and Eastern Europe, because as far as we are concerned, there are no minor or major players in this matter.”