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Justice Beyond Fear of History

By Sunity Maharaj

 It must’ve been something truly special two weeks ago when Hilary Beckles stood before the British House of Commons and delivered the case for reparation on behalf of Caricom. In the circular nature of history, Sir Hilary was the ghost returning to the scene of the crime to demand justice.  

For the 20 or so minutes of his presentation, the House of Commons must’ve been a house haunted by the presence of ancestral spirits brought to life for a conversation across centuries. Sir Hilary himself represented the seamless connection between the past of slavery and the present of justice due. He noted that within him resonates the old triangular trade, re-incarnated in the triangle that connects him to British actor Benedict Cumberbatch and the current Earl of Harewood, given their shared ancestral history in Barbados where their people owned his people.

The Caricom argument presented by Beckles, historian, principal of UWI at Cave Hill, Barbados, and chairman of the Caricom Reparations Committee,has been substantially developed since 1985 when Chalkdust’s demanded his African grandfather’s backpay. The case joins the region’s almost annihilated indigenous people to enslaved Africans and indentured Asians as aggrieved parties in a demand for an apology and damages from eight European nations for crimes committed against them.

It asks that Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, accept the “contemporary truth” that they were:

“the beneficiaries of enrichment from the enslavement of African peoples, the genocide of indigenous communities, and the deceptive breach of contract and trust in respect of Indians and other Asians brought to the plantations under indenture, have a case to answer in respect of reparatory justice.” (See full text at http://www.cavehill.uwi.edu)

Inviting Britain to join the Caribbean in creating “a new moral order” appropriate to the 21st century,  Beckles outlined Caricom’s case for reparations, arguing that “indigenous genocide, African chattel slavery and genocide, and Asian contract slavery were three acts of a single play” by which European countries “forcefully extracted wealth from the Caribbean resulting in its persistent and endemic poverty”. 

And one might add, its modern reality of endemic institutional and psychological dysfunction.

Putting a price on the near obliteration of the Indigenous people, the enslavement and dehumanisation of millions of Africans,the injustices to generations of contracted Asians and colonial policies of divide-and-rule into Independence might well be impossible. But Caricom has devised an approach. 

It starts with one firm figure extracted from the records of the British parliament itself. This is the figure of £47 million used during debate of the 1833 Emancipation Bill in estimating the value of the 800,000 enslaved people to be freed. Beckles noted that of this amount, £20 million were given to plantation owners in reparation for their loss of property while the other 27 million was the estimated value of the free labour to be provided over four years of Apprenticeship. In essence, this latter amounted to the Africans subsidising the cost of their own freedom, a theme previously struck in 1825 when France, threatening war, demanded 150 million francs (US$21 billion at today’s value) from Haiti as reparation for loss of human property and colony. (In 1838, the demand was reduced to 60 million francs over 30 years, which was paid by the Haitians.)

Caricom’s ten-point reparation demand identifies a number of areas through which restitution should be made, including educational, health and cultural institutions and programmes, debt relief and technology transfer.

While the British firm of Leigh Day has been retained by Caricom, this is a case best fought through the court of public opinion as part of the much-needed process of discovery of self and each other. Approached thoughtfully, the reparation discussion offers a key to, finally, unlock the door to a safe engagement with our fearsome past.   

For many reasons, but especially for our own peace and progress, we of the Caribbean need to see this Caricom Reparation initiative right through to the end. If we do it right, by the time we get to some point of settlement we will no longer need it. For it is in assembling the different fragments of our common history of hurt that both victim and perpetrator might work their way to some future rendezvous with healing. “Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole,” was how Derek Walcott put it.

The greatest danger facing us is our fear of history. It is a pit so full of pain with the threat of social and psychic destabilisation that our survival instinct is to flee and forget. We fear that if we let loose the demons of our past, we may be consumed by them. Better to live in deluded harmony. 

This is why Caricom’s Reparation initiative, although important as plan, is even more critical as process. For, it carries us beyond the contestation over hurt by offering a path for all of us, coming from our different places of pain, regret and suspicion, to walk together towards a future based on a fair and just reconciliation with history.

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