Late one afternoon in March, officials unveiled a monument at the University of the West Indies, in Cave Hill, Barbados. The ceremony featured African drumming, a lecture, a prayer and a song by a school choir with the chorus “We cry for the ancestors!”
Those ancestors, 295 of whom have their names on the monument, were slaves who once lived where the campus now stands. What today is a university was once a plantation. What is now a nation was once a colony. In Barbados and throughout the Caribbean, slavery remains a vivid and potent metaphor, and a cultivated memory.
Presiding over the event was Sir Hilary Beckles, the head of the university and a prolific historian. He and his Jamaican colleague Verene Shepherd have supported the recent call by the 15-member Caribbean Community for Britain, France and the Netherlands to pay an undefined amount in reparations for slavery and the slave trade. The group plans to file suit in national courts; if that fails, it will go to the International Court of Justice.
Uniting the Caribbean around any kind of policy is not easy. The region is linguistically and politically fragmented, with links to former colonial powers or the United States often trumping cooperation. But with this new call, the community, known as Caricom, is tapping into one thing that all its member states have in common: the lingering effects of slavery.
As early as the 1790s, one French antislavery activist argued that the enslaved could easily ask not just for freedom but for repayment for generations of unpaid labor. But at the time of emancipation, the British granted not the ex-slaves but their former owners “reparation” in the form of a large financial indemnity.
Haiti won its freedom in 1804, but in 1825, facing isolation, it agreed to pay an indemnity to France in return for diplomatic recognition. The money was used to compensate French plantation owners.
Finally, in 2001 France decreed slavery a crime against humanity.” And the United States Congress formally apologized in 2008 for the “enslavement and racial segregation of African-Americans.” But Caricom argues that only reparations can reverse the long-term harm. As Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, said, “We have to have appropriate recompense.”
The claim is not, however, about compensating individuals, but their communities. Caricom is making a provocative argument: While many countries in the region are in debt to Europe, it is actually Europe that owes the Caribbean. Historians of the Caribbean have long argued that national inequality is a direct result of centuries of economic exploitation.
The foundations for this argument go back to a 1944 book by the Trinidadian historian Eric Williams, “Capitalism and Slavery.” Williams had to pay $500 to help subsidize its publication by the University of North Carolina Press, but the book became a classic, and he later became his country’s prime minister.
His argument, that the profits from the slave trade and slavery were the foundation for Britain’s Industrial Revolution, spurred decades of debate and research, and today there are hundreds of books on slavery’s impact on the modern world. But knowing that is one thing; figuring out what to do is another. In 2003, Haiti’s president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, called on France to repay the 1825 indemnity - because to pay France, he said, Haiti had had to borrow money from French banks, entering a century-long cycle of debt.
But a French commission concluded that, while there was a historical responsibility on France’s part, financial reparation was not the solution. Its report suggested that French aid to Haiti was a kind of “reparation” and urged more of it.
After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, President Nicolas Sarkozy offered an aid and debt-forgiveness package to the country. But the French government never officially apologized, let alone offered compensation.
Despite the justification for the Caribbean nations’ claim, European governments are likely to respond similarly this time. Perhaps, though, something more will come of this. In the United States, calls for reparation have served mostly as a catalyst for debate. One way to make the point that something is important, after all, is to attach a monetary value to it.
The discussions around reparations, in the Caribbean as in Europe, might become an occasion to delve into history, to mourn but also to confront the many ways in which the past shapes the present.
What would it mean to truly rid our world of the legacies of slavery? In the Caribbean, it would mean undoing the divisions created by colonialism through regional cooperation and reduced dependence on foreign aid and banks.
It would mean ending the mistreatment and stereotyping of the people of Caribbean heritage, and in particular Haitians, who were the pioneers in the overthrow of slavery and have been paying for it ever since.
In Europe and the United States, it would mean abandoning condescending visions of the Caribbean and building policies on aid, trade and immigration based on an acceptance of common histories.
It would mean, above all, consigning racial discrimination, exploitation and political exclusion to the past. That would be the truest form of reparation.
The New York Times
Laurent Dubois is a professor of romance studies and history at Duke University.