Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Moral case for reparations

In March this year, Caricom issued a ten-point statement asserting that the descendants of enslaved Africans, as well as the descendants of indigenous peoples in the Americas should receive reparations from European governments which had been involved in the slave trade. 

Apart from the historical wrong, the Caricom Reparations Justice Programme (CRJP) argues that the economic, psychological, and health impact of slavery on Africans require compensation.

The Sunday Express contacted several experts to get their views on the issue. The first point in the CRJP argues that the Europeans committed genocide on native Caribbean populations. 

• See Box.

Historian Bridget Brereton, author of A History of Modern Trinidad – 1783-1962, said in a telephone interview, “The United Nations may have a strict legal definition of genocide which doesn’t fit these historical events, but what happened was close enough.” She notes that diseases such as smallpox were the main cause of the deaths of the native populations, who had no immunity, but adds that the Spaniards “were not averse to clearing the islands” when it suited them.

On the second point, Prof Brereton said, “In the United States, racism was sanctioned by law. This wasn’t the case in the British Caribbean. But informal racial apartheid did exist. The French Caribbean situation is more complicated, because blacks had the right to vote. And it did exist in the Spanish Caribbean after slavery.”

In respect to the issue of debt cancellation and economic compensation, the Sunday Express contacted UWI economist Dr Roger Hosein. 

“Reparations may have some basis,” he said in an e-mailed response. “The other side of the coin is whether the market access opportunities offered to the Caribbean via the various Lome interventions and now the EPA Cariforum were fully utilised. And how does one determine the net economic position? This may take many years, if not decades, to resolve.”

Points #9 and #10 are also forms of aid, but recent research suggests that aid undermines economic and political development. The economist William Easterly in The Elusive Quest for Growth notes that Western nations spent US$1 trillion in foreign aid between 1950 and 1995, based on the economic theory that this would lead to economic development. 

Easterly’s data showed that only 17 out of 88 countries that got aid also had increased investment. Political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita demonstrates in The Logic of Political Survival that “Foreign aid per capita is either insignificantly or inversely related to...economic growth rate, educational attainment, or a host of other indicators of quality of life.”

Dr Hosein also argued that, because this matter might take so long, the Caricom reparations lobbyists should pay more attention to helping the region design more workable solutions to the problems of persistent fiscal deficits, high unemployment rates, and a stagnating integration process.

In respect to Point#8 – the psychological effects of slavery on African descendants – the Sunday Express contacted psychiatrist Gerard Hutchinson. 

“The key question is whether psychological trauma can be transmitted across generations,” Prof Hutchinson noted in his e-mail response. “The current thinking is a cautious yes, but of course this could apply to any population and, for now, only for two generations.”

Hutchinson provided the Sunday Express with links to experiments showing how stress could be transmitted across generations due to what are called “epigenetic effects”. However, most of these experiments were done with mice, but behavioural traits in animals may not apply to human beings and the effects vanished by the third generation. Apart from that, epigenetic research is still in its infancy and the mechanism by which traits may be passed on are still not well understood.

“Because it is such a potentially emotive topic, it’s difficult to be objective,” Hutchinson noted. “For example, a social worker in the US, Joy De Gru, wrote a book called Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome  which has not really been vindicated but still gets quoted a lot. I think a lot depends on the social environment that children grow up in. If they are exposed to racism/discrimination and institutions that don’t work, they are more likely to have social problems.”

He disagrees with the Caricom statement’s assertion that regional integration would help heal the trauma of slavery for African descendants. “It comes back to adequate and effective education and health, support, and hopefulness about the future,” Hutchinson said.

The 10-point statement is also problematic in containing some assertions which are not factual. Point #6, for example, asserts that “Some 70 per cent of blacks in British colonies were functionally illiterate in the 1960s when nation states began to appear.” But in Barbados, the official literacy rate in 1950 was 75 per cent; in Jamaica in the 1940s, it was already 68 per cent; and, in that same decade in Trinidad, literacy was 77 per cent.

Similarly, point #5 argues that diabetes and hypertension among Afro-Caribbeans is a direct outcome of slavery. While there is some scientific support for this argument, there is also evidence that Afro-Caribbeans were physically healthier than their African counterparts. 

Those born in Trinidad and Cuba were significantly taller than those born in Africa, implying that the creole slaves were healthier. Historians Kenneth Kiple and Virginia Kiple, in an article titled Deficiency Diseases in the Caribbean, note that, “West Indian diets were at least more protein laden than those of West Africa and were probably of better overall quality.” 

Moreover, the life expectancy in Barbados and Jamaica in the 21st century is 73 years, whereas in Trinidad, which had a much shorter experience of slavery, it is 70 years. 

Life expectancy in developed nations ranges from 75 to 79 years, and the world average is 70. So the Afro-Caribbean population is not as sickly as posited in the Caricom statement.

Nonetheless, Brereton asserts: “I think there is a solid moral and legal case for reparations. I think Caricom is on the right track in putting the issue forward.”

Caricom’s 10-Point Action Plan


The healing process for victims and the descendants of the enslaved and enslavers requires as a precondition the offer of a sincere formal apology by the governments of Europe. 


A Repatriation programme must be established and all available channels of international law and diplomacy used to resettle those persons who wish to return. A resettlement programme should address such matters as citizenship and deploy available best practices in respect of community re-integration. 


The governments of Europe committed genocide upon the native Caribbean population. Military commanders were given official instructions by their governments to eliminate these communities and to remove those who survive pogroms from the region. 


European nations have invested in the development of community institutions such as museums and research centres in order to prepare their citizens for an understanding of these Crimes Against Humanity (CAH). Descendants of these CAH continue to suffer the disdain of having no relevant institutional systems through which their experience can be scientifically told. This crisis must be remedied within the CJRP. 


The African descended population in the Caribbean has the highest incidence in the world of chronic diseases in the forms of hypertension and type two diabetes. This pandemic is the direct result of the nutritional experience, physical and emotional brutality, and overall stress profiles associated with slavery, genocide, and apartheid. 


At the end of the European colonial period in most parts of the Caribbean, the British in particular left the black and indigenous communities in a general state of illiteracy. Some 70 per cent of blacks in British colonies were functionally illiterate in the 1960s when nation states began to appear. 


The forced separation of Africans from their homeland has resulted in cultural and social alienation from identity and existential belonging. 

A programme of action is required to build ‘bridges of belonging’. Such projects as school exchanges and culture tours, community artistic and performance programmes, entrepreneurial and religious engagements, as well as political interaction, are required in order to neutralise the void created by slave voyages. 


For over 400 years Africans and their descendants were classified in law as non-human, chattel, property, and real estate. This history has inflicted massive psychological trauma upon African descendant populations. Only a reparatory justice approach to truth and educational exposure can begin the process of healing and repair. 


The Caribbean was denied participation in Europe’s industrialisation process, and was confined to the role of producer and exporter of raw materials. Generations of Caribbean youth, as a consequence, have been denied membership and access to the science and technology culture that is the world’s youth patrimony. Technology transfer and science sharing for development must be a part of the CRJP. 


Caribbean governments that emerged from slavery and colonialism have inherited the massive crisis of community poverty and institutional unpreparedness for development. The pressure of development has driven governments to carry the burden of public employment and social policies designed to confront colonial legacies. This process has resulted in states accumulating unsustainable levels of public debt that now constitute their fiscal entrapment. This debt cycle properly belongs to the imperial governments who have made no sustained attempt to deal with debilitating colonial legacies. Support for the payment of domestic debt and cancellation of international debt are necessary reparatory actions.