Three prophets of reparations
In light of the recent global anti-slavery and anti-colonial protests, a burning issue that has not been prominently addressed is that of reparations for the victims of these two evil scourges in the Americas, the Caribbean, and Africa. How can Western nations who enslaved and colonised black people over five centuries repair this pernicious damage that has left these regions with the triple burdens of a lack of development, diseases, and deadly conflicts? This remains a festering wound that needs to be urgently addressed. Three Prophets have been at the forefront of these debates: African-American lawyer, Randall Robinson, and the Barbadian and Nigerian historians, Hilary Beckles and Ade Ajayi.
As the 400th anniversary of American slavery was commemorated last year, the thorny issue of reparations for descendants of this exploitative system of enforced servitude and uncompensated labour has once more come to the fore. Similar campaigns also exist in Africa and the Caribbean. Rather perversely, it was slave-owners – and not the slaves themselves or their descendants – who were compensated by the American and British governments for the loss of their “property”. The British government, for example, paid the contemporary equivalent of £200 billion to slave-owners after it abolished slavery in 1833. Democrats in the United States (US) House of Representatives and Senate have now belatedly embraced the cause of reparations, and some institutions like Brown, Harvard and Yale universities that benefitted from the slave trade have started to acknowledge their role in this sordid commerce, and began putting programmes of restitution in place.
The most articulate American crusader of reparations has been the activist Randall Robinson who led the civil society anti-apartheid struggle in the US in the 1980s through his NGO, TransAfrica. He has consistently argued for reparations in order to close the 250-year gap between white and black Americans created by plantation slavery. As Robinson correctly noted: “the black Holocaust is far and away the most heinous human rights crime visited upon any group of people in the world over the last five hundred years”. He urged America’s largely white ruling class to redress these historical wrongs, if the country is to have a future as a united people. Robinson further noted that Germany paid Jews reparations for the devastating but much shorter Holocaust (1933–45) – estimated at $60 billion – while Japanese Americans interned in concentration camps by President Franklin Roosevelt during the Second World War (1939-1945) were also compensated with a $1.2 million payment. He further observed that indigenous populations received land and money for the Australian government’s genocidal campaign against them: between 1788 and 1901, this population was reduced by 90% from an estimated 750 000 to 50 000, mostly through violence, dispossession, and disease. Members of Canada’s Inuit indigenous group also received $700 million in compensation from the government.
To understand the structural impact of slavery to which Robinson is alluding, one should note that during the current COVID/19 crisis, African Americans have overwhelmingly been among its fatalities, accounting for 30% of deaths, though constituting only 13% of the US population. The diet of black Americans have made them more vulnerable to diabetes, asthma, hypertension, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, lung disease, and other chronic illnesses. Continuing discrimination in health, education, employment, and housing have further exacerbated this situation.
In the Caribbean, Hilary Beckles has led the reparations debate, consistently noting that “slavery and genocide in the Caribbean are lived experiences despite over a century of emancipation. Everywhere their legacies shape the lives of the majority and harm their capacity for advancement.” Modern illnesses common among Caribbean citizens like diabetes and hypertension can be traced directly to the bad diet and other ailments inherited from the era of European slavery and colonialism. Beckles thus called for an apology and the need for Britain to take responsibility for its crimes against humanity committed in the Caribbean.
Reparations should, he argued, be paid by the British state, its banks, merchant houses, insurances companies and the Church of England, which all benefited directly from slavery. The West Indies had, after all, noted Beckles, been the “hub of the British Empire” where most of its wealth had been generated, particularly after losing the US as a colony in 1776. A 2004 estimate of the cost of the slave trade to the Caribbean arrived at a figure of £7.5 trillion. Beckles therefore urged Britain and other European states involved in the slave trade – Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, France, Denmark and Sweden – to pay reparations to Caribbean nations in order to repair this damage. He currently chairs the Caribbean Community’s (CARICOM) Reparations Commission, established in 2013, to pursue compensation from European nations for the Transatlantic slave trade. National committees on reparations have thus been established across the region to achieve this goal.
In August 2019, Scotland’s Glasgow University agreed to raise £20 million to establish a joint Centre for Development Research at the University of the West Indies (UWI) to start to atone for having benefitted from Scottish slave traders in the Caribbean. All Souls College at England’s Oxford University also announced an annual scholarship for Caribbean students, and provided a £100,000 grant to a college in Barbados, for having received funding from a Barbadian-born eighteenth-century British slaver, Christopher Codrington, after whom the main college library is still named. In the African context, the late Ade Ajayi was a member of the Organisation of African Unity’s (OAU) Eminent Persons Group on Reparations in 1992-1993, which – through the 1993 Abuja Declaration – demanded that the West recognise its moral debt to Africa and its diaspora for slavery and colonialism, and pay these populations full monetary compensation. Late Nigerian businessman-politician, Moshood Abiola, was a prime mover of this group, which he chaired. Other members included Kenya’s Ali Mazrui and Jamaica’s Dudley Thompson. Ajayi, a key member of the panel, was undoubtedly the most eloquent continental advocate of reparations until his death in August 2014. As he noted in 1993: “The Crusade for Reparation is … to seek to understand the African condition in depth, to educate the African and the non-African about it, to seek an acknowledgment of wrongs which have impaired the political and socio-economic fabric of Africa and, through restitution or reparation, to attempt to give Africa and Africans a fresh start.”
Ajayi noted that discussions about the contributions of the slave trade to the West’s industrialisation have been neglected, and also criticised the ambiguous or indifferent attitude of African scholars to this issue. He argued that a major motive of European colonial rule was to keep African labour in a cheap state akin to slavery, using methods perfected during two centuries of Caribbean colonialism. He further noted that about one million Africans had died defending the territories of their European colonial masters during two World Wars (1914-1918; and 1939-1945).
Ajayi thus called for four key measures to achieve reparations: domestic education and mobilisation in African societies; documentation and research on the costs of slavery and colonialism; making a cogent case for reparations; and agreeing on the strategy, manner, and mode of reparations, having placed the issue on the agenda of the United Nations (UN). Reparations are an emotive issue that all progressive activists across the globe should embrace. One can not acknowledge the pernicious impact of five centuries of Western slavery and colonialism on Africans, African-Americans, Caribbeans, and South Americans without supporting the necessary measures to repair these glaring historical crimes against humanity.
Professor Adebajo is director, University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, South Africa.