Britain’s slave trade ended in 1807, and the slaves in its Caribbean colonies were freed by 1838. Former slave owners successfully made approximately 47,000 claims against the British government for loss of human property. The former slaves got nothing.
Almost two centuries later, there is much talk in the Caribbean about redress. In July an official reparations commission was established by Caricom: a conglomerate of former British colonies, Suriname and Haiti. This committee has reportedly approached a British legal firm, Leigh Day, for advice on pursuing reparations.
Historically, there have been few great wrongs assuaged with cash. World War II emerged in part due to attempts to make Germany pay for World War I. On the other hand, in 1952, seven years post Auschwitz, West Germany and Israel signed a financial agreement.
Legal action brought by the Leigh Day firm resulted in Britain making financial concessions averaging £2,600 ($4,000) each for 5,228 now elderly Kenyans who were brutally mistreated during the suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s. Currently, Britain’s courts will not consider claims for atrocities occurring before 1954.
The slave owners are all dead. Despite this, Caricom feels there should still be payments forthcoming from Britain, France and the Netherlands. At the time of emancipation, approximately 2- 3,000 slave owners lived in Britain. Their descendants and residual wealth (if any) are now scattered throughout the world. Liverpool, once a wealthy slave port has a large Afro-Caribbean population. If the governments are to pay, which in turn means the people have to pay, they too would be financially obligated to contribute to the reparations fund.
It is impossible to calculate the damages caused by slavery to the formerly enslaved. With Caricom requesting compensation at a national level. Countries with the largest populations of slave-descendants: America and Brazil—would be the primary beneficiaries.
In Trinidad and Guyana, the black population is eclipsed by descendants of Indian indentured labourers. Trinidadian Hindu leader Sat Maharaj argues that the Indo-Caribbean population also deserves compensation. He is also of the opinion that the scope of liability be broadened to include Islamic countries that imported slaves, and African countries whose merchants sold slaves to Europeans.
Most Caribbean countries are at the very least fairly successful middle-income countries. The Bahamas has a GDP per head close to that of Spain & Italy. Barbados has scores higher on the UN Development Programme’s human-development index than any of its much larger South American neighbours. Only Haiti ranks among the world’s poorest.
Should compensation to the region be based on today’s needs or the wrongs of the past?