Slavery and Reparations: A Voice from Barbados and a Report from Ghana

atlanticYou’ve probably heard about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s powerful Atlantic cover essay, “The Case for Reparations,” which appeared two weeks ago and has ignited a nationwide political conversation about the legacy of slavery and racial oppression in the United States. The level of debate among Coates’s many academic admirers and critics—including political commentators on both the Left and the Right—has been very high.

A striking feature of the conversation so far has been its intense and virtually exclusive focus on the history of black slavery and white supremacy inside the United States. Of course, there are good reasons for this: as Coates has pointed out in two sharp rebuttals to right-wing critics, “The Case for American History” and “The Radical Practicality of Reparations,” the local, state and national  governments of what is now the United States have often if not always served as the chief architects of racist policy, from 17th century Virginia to 20th century Chicago. If the question of just reparation for over three centuries of exploitation and tyranny deserves a serious hearing, surely the U.S. Congress is as appropriate a venue as one can imagine.

Nevertheless as I’m sure Coates understands, the history of Atlantic slavery and racial domination extends far beyond the borders of the United States. Two weeks ago I was in Accra, where the University of Ghana hosted a conference in honor of the great historian Paul Lovejoy, whose work on the history of African slavery has spanned the globe from the Sudan to Haiti. The keynote speaker was Sir Hilary McDonald Beckles, pro-vice-chancellor at the University of the West Indies, and a distinguished scholar of Caribbean history. Beckles’s talk was titled “Reparations for Chattel Slavery: The Diaspora-African Divide in the Reparatory Justice Movement.”

Sir Hilary Beckles

Sir Hilary McDonald Beckles

The lecture drew on Beckles’s recent book, Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide, and reflected his current effort to rally broad support for an international struggle for “reparatory justice.”[1] Given the current national conversation about slavery’s legacy, and Beckles’s stature as a historian of the Atlantic world, I thought some of our readers might be interested in a condensed summary of the talk.

Beckles began with a bold prediction: “The global reparations movement is going to be the greatest political movement of the 21st century.” It took over a hundered years of organized political struggle, he noted, for the anti-slavery movement to achieve its aims; and it took another hundred years for post-emancipation societies in the Caribbean to free themselves from the weight of European imperialism and form independent nation-states. The international struggle for reparatory justice, he argued, might take a whole century as well, but it too would triumph in the end.

Beckles is a man of considerable personal charisma, in the tradition of West Indian scholar-politicians from Eric Williams and Walter Rodeney to current St. Vincent’s Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves. Even the usual academic conference atmosphere—a windowless university classroom, half-filled with tired and professionally skeptical historians—could not stifle the inspirational quality of his words. Yet the bulk of Beckles’s talk was not given to inspiration but rather the knotty dynamics within the reparations movement itself.

Beckles led Barbados’s delegation at the World Conference against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001—a meeting overshadowed in the United States by the September 11 attacks three days after it ended. At Durban, Beckles recalled, the leadership of the African caucus ultimately refused to support a Caribbean-backed resolution avowing that slavery and the slave trade were “crimes against humanity,” and should be subject to reparations. For Beckles, this was a stunning betrayal—“the most significant rupture in Pan-African history in the past 200 years.”

So long as Africa’s leadership fails to support an international demand for reparations, Beckles argued, the rest of the world could continue to ignore or evade the issue. For the most part, the United States and European governments have rejected all international discussion of reparations; in 2006, then-PM Tony Blair expressed “deep sorrow” for Britain’s role in the slave trade, but refused to offer a formal apology.

At Durban in 2001, Beckles remembered the “surreal theater” of the black British Baroness Valerie Amos leading a phalanx of historians and legal scholars into the conference, and making three major arguments: first, that since the slave trade was not “illegal” under British law until 1807, it was not technically a crime, and could not be subject to legal restitution; second, that the slave trade was a “joint venture” between Europeans and African leaders, limiting British culpability; and third, that even if the slave trade could be termed a crime, it was a crime whose reparation was “too large be imagined.” (Here Beckles shared his own 2001 reply to Baroness Amos: “I have a very large imagination.”)

Beckles laughingly rejected these arguments—any argument against reparations that rested on the letter of eighteenth century law, he said, could be safely dismissed; and the role of Africians the slave trade was undeniable but did virtually nothing to diminish British guilt. Could the presence of “local collaborators” in any other historical context be used to exculpate the chief instigators and beneficiaries of such horrific crimes?

Returning to the African leaders’s rejection of reparations at Durban, Beckles argued that African politicians lacked a serious emotional and political understanding of the slave experience in the Americas. Even African historians, he said, have shown too much enthusiasm for the eventual European edicts of emancipation in the mid-nineteenth century. Here Beckles’s own arguments became explicitly historical.

In the Caribbean, Beckles declared, the parliamentary legislation of that ended slavery nevertheless accepted—and even reinforced—the “chattelization” of African people. The £20 million in compensation that went to British Caribbean slaveholders in return for emancipation made that principle clear. (At 40% of Britain’s total budget in 1833, he noted, it also served as “the greatest stimulus package the world has ever seen.”)

Lauding UCL’s new projects to measure the legacy of British slavery, Beckles argued that historians would do better to take their eyes off the formal emancipation edicts and examine the direct instructions that government officials sent to banks in order to disburse the compensation package. These, he said, better reflected the actual motivations behind and nature of emancipation—which he described not as a liberation but a “reformation of slavery,” a modest reform that allowed a smooth and sanitary transition from bondage to apartheid, without troubling the entrenched power or socio-economic structure of the West Indian colonial regime.

Britain's Black DebtIn this respect, Beckles’s emphasis on the continuing effects of imperial subjugation, in the long century after emancipation, mirrored Coates’s own focus on racist policy in the 20th century United States. Just before it gained independence in 1962, Beckles pointed out, colonial Jamaica was nearly 80% illiterate—in large part because Britain had kept it that way. The cover of Beckles’s book juxtaposes an 18th century illustration with a 1953 photograph of Queen Elizabeth II visiting her first cousin, the 7th Earl of Harewood, at his sugar plantation in Barbados. True reparatory justice, for Beckles, must address the crimes of imperialism as well as the crimes of slavery.

Here Beckles argued the Caribbean and African nations could make common cause in the struggle for just restitution. Earlier this year, fifteen Caribbean nations gave their formal support to a task force, chaired by Beckles himself, that is hoping to restart the conversation about slavery, imperialism, and reparations on an international stage. Beckles’s trip to Ghana, he said, is part of a broader diplomatic effort to lobby African leaders and intellectuals to support the Caribbean struggle.

Like Coates himself, Beckles was more concerned with building the moral case for reparations—as a just and necessary response to historical crimes—than spelling out the details of a practical policy of restitution. The “ten-point action plan”  produced by the Caribbean commission covers a wide range of grounds, from a “full formal apology” by European governments to more concrete forms of reparation, including assistance for public health, education, and cultural development. Beckles freely admitted that the Caribbean coalition itself was divided on the question of tangible restitution, with some nations (Jamaica) stressing the importance of the apology alone, while others have demanded aid equivalent to Britain’s original compensation to West Indian slaveholders.

Many questions remain—and Beckles did not have the chance to answer all of them in Ghana. Given Europe’s well-established unwillingness to join a serious conversation on the subject, it remains unclear how the Caribbean movement will proceed—even if it does win the support of African nations. If the global reparations effort does move forward, what would be the role of ex-slaveholding nations like the United States and Brazil? More broadly, does placing emphasis on reparations, as Saidiya Hartman has argued, indulge in the regressive politics of supplication, as opposed to the far more urgent politics of solidarity?[2] Is it possible to expect the triumph of a movement for “reparatory justice” without mounting an even larger challenge to our current global political economy?

Beckles obviously thinks so. This summer, he said, the Caribbean commission will formally invite European governments to participate in a new round of negotiations, under the framework of the U.N.’s ongoing convention on racial discrimination.  Whatever happens to the U.S. national conversation about reparations in the coming months, it will be worth keeping an eye on Beckles and the Caribbean struggle for reparatory justice on the international stage.


[1] For a fuller summary of Beckles’s book, see Albert Brophy’s recent review essay (paywalled): “The Case for Reparations for Slavery in the Caribbean,” Slavery and Abolition, vol. 35, no. 1 (2014), pp. 165-169.

[2] See Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 2008), pp. 165-172.

7 comments on “Slavery and Reparations: A Voice from Barbados and a Report from Ghana

  1. Seth Rockman says:

    Thanks so much for this reporting– very helpful!

  2. burstmaj88 says:

    I saw Nick Draper’s book mentioned on the UCL Legacies webpage, it’s happening on both sides of the Atlantic — good. Several other works are coming-out about slavery’s influence on modernity (modern institutions, etc.).

  3. sandvick says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    Here’s another discussion regarding reparations, but this post focuses Britain’s culpability. This discussion stems from Hilary McDonald Beckles recent book entitled Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide.

  4. Anonymous says:

    If the global reparations effort does move forward, what would be the role of ex-slaveholding nations like the United States and Brazil? More broadly, does placing emphasis on reparations, as Saidiya Hartman has argued, indulge in the regressive politics of supplication, as opposed to the far more urgent politics of solidarity?

    The United States Capitol currently features the More Perfect Union exhibition, including a Senate roll call on the Jay Treaty. The 1795 Senate deferred debate on a caveat to free trade that would’ve restricted U.S. commerce with the British Caribbean until the 1815 Treaties of Ghent and Paris.

  5. […] attention Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on reparations has received is remarkable and welcome. But like most the […]

  6. […] Slavery and Reparations: A Voice from Barbados and a Report from Ghana […]

  7. Dear Prime Minister Cameron,

    I noted your recent generous offer of 25m pounds as a partial contribution for the repatriation of Jamaicans imprisoned in Britain. The problem, as I understand it, is that since Britain is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) so then the appallingly bad prison conditions in Jamaica, if the UK convicts were transferred to a Jamaican prison, would breach the ECHR provisions and amount to cruel and inhumane treatment. Your offer then, being faced with a call for payment of reparations for slavery, is to substitute an offer of increased aid for the Caribbean and avoid reparations payments – is this not your strategy? Seems less than clever at best and at worst a racist insult. Forget the examples of the Canadian apology to the First Nation natives and reparations paid by the Canadian government; or, the substantial payment to the Jews for a significantly shorter historical time of suffering a crime against humanity; or the apology by the Government of New Zealand and payment of reparations to the Maoris – simply ignore these – right? One really can’t deny that these quite recent precedents do exist – can one? So what makes the Caribbean claim that different?

    The figure of 400m pounds to the Caribbean in aid, is a paltry sum when viewed in the overall context of the UK’s overseas aid budget being/ is more than £11 billion annually, with not much at all coming to the Caribbean as bilateral aid. More importantly, when viewed in the overall historical context of the 300 years of free labour building Britain during the slavery and colonial period, the figure offered as presumably an alternative payment for reparations is simply laughable. Britain has no problem with the funding; it does, however, have a huge problem with its global credibility if this issue of reparations is viewed with honesty and sensibly with sensitivity and open eyes. It is a drop in the bucket for Britain to address this claim – but it seems as if some have no shame!

    Consider your family’s own benefit by inserting the name Cameron to ascertain how much was paid as reparations to the Cameron slave owner family –

    Might I also contrast your approach to payment with a reflection on British responsibility in a modern sense, for the care and protection of persons who suffer from mental illness in the Turks and Caicos Islands ( TCI). The Islands do not have a mental hospital, but instead a section in the Lunatics Ordinance in the TCI requires transfer of the mentally ill to be hospitalised in Jamaica. Indeed the Turks and Caicos finds itself under ECHR jurisdiction. Yet, to save money the British Governor declared the prison a hospital for the care of the mentally ill. See below, the treatment of a Jamaican schizophrenic inmate, if you doubt me ( he died in his cell):-

    Might I therefore suggest that for the UK to meet its ECHR responsibility in the Turks and Caicos Islands, the 25m pounds be diverted and applied now as a matter of necessity and urgency to its own British colony for a state of the art mental health hospital. Thus, then the UK meets its ECHR obligations in its own colony of the Turks and Caicos Islands.

    Prime Minister Cameron, I go further. It is absolutely appalling the approach that you have taken to this quite serious and important issue of reparations in the Caribbean. I shall substantiate and validate my last comment. It was you who recently referred to the “swarms” of refugees/ migrants into Europe. Do you not understand that it was British policy to support the US in its invasion of Iraq and then, as the whole world sees, made Iraq a ‘failed state’. Then even with that recent miscalculation the UK again was fully committed to the bombing and destruction of Libya. Tell me – where do the majority of these terrorists and refugees come from? Whose policies bred them; who funded and trained them; and – who now with astounding consistency wants to have the Caribbean abandon its claim for reparations? Who? There is nothing that you say and/or do that can be wrong – is it not so?

    The real legacy and issue in the Caribbean is the lack of inter-generational capital at the end of the slavery and colonial period which can be discerned by considering the following data – in data. This represents GDP per capita as sourced from the International Monetary Fund. Draw your own conclusions based on reliable sources.

    In both a historical and contemporary sense there remains a case for reparatory justice. The way forward will have to be, by your choosing after having addressed the Jamaican Parliament, a case before the international Court of Justice and an assessment of the claim’s total value.

    Again, the approach via aid is wholly inadequate. As you well know this is a device to get British companies overseas work; monies not even leaving Britain in certain instances; high end professional jobs and consultancies on construction and other projects for British professionals; and at a disproportionate advantage to the donor country. “Aid” in this sense is false symbolism and not exactly reparations – is it not – and if your approach were to be accepted, you would in actuality be pacifying the Caribbean’s claim for reparations at knock down basement bargain price. Let’s analyse for a moment. In the 1830s there was a politically motivated prolonging of the emancipation declaration. In fact, there were women groups and persons of conscience in Europe who well before Wilberforce and Pitt had wanted immediate emancipation. But, what actually happened? The politicians prolonged the process to ensure that they could pay to the enslavers ( and themselves) the spoils of the enslavement and then left the enslaved with not one jot for their centuries of extracted free labour. Is this not simply disgraceful? Do you not have a human conscience? Look at what the Canadian and the New Zealand governments did – do you not have an iota of equivalent grace and dignity? When we move forward to the proposed 25m pounds prison ‘contribution’ to Jamaica are you for a moment in any way aware of what you are saying and doing? You are going back at least two centuries in your approach to this issue of reparations. First, the idea of paying not the group descended from the people who worked and laboured but the ones who by force, violence and torture had labour extracted for free over centuries is nothing short of disgraceful. Indeed that was then, and you, no doubt will say that this is now. But the British response as then is being replicated now. Why so? Well – you are offering to pay just about nothing and you are ensuring that yet again Britain takes all the lucre, but pretend that the UK is doing some great good for the Caribbean. Not so?

    Your motive and approach is fully understood. However, weighing the horrors and contemporary consequences of slavery, is it you as Prime Minister or is it Britain as a country that is so shameless and blameless? Just consider the recent case of the Kenyan claims for compensation for being tortured in concentration camps during the Mau Mau period. The UK went as far as hiding some of the official records and files from the claimants’ lawyers, until discovered and released under court order.

    Thus, here we go again. But, isn’t it not now time that we address this reparations claim in a mutually respectful, honest, dignified and just manner? No less should be sought; no less is deserved to the Caribbean.

    Prime Minister Cameron, truth be told, I am a “nobody human rights lawyer”. You are perfectly free to ignore my correspondence – or – you might from your high office begin to consider the quite substantial issues I have raised. Myself, a humble person, not in the least with any states’ resources at my disposal. But – again – truth be told – I have my mind, my heart, my conscience and I would like to believe, the capacity of any other human being who believes that the cause that I have here defended and supported is a worthy and perfectly justifiable cause, and can now say ( to yourself Prime Minister Cameron) – why not so?

    Courtenay Barnett ( a supporter of the reparations claim)


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