You’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.”
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.” 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.
In 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? 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.
 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.
 See Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 2008), pp. 165-172.