Saturday, May 20, 2017

Decolonization in the Caribbean #4: Waiting on Reparations

The start of each UN Committee of 24 Regional Seminar usually begins with a type of plenary or keynote speech/statement. This is usually a prominent political leader or activist from the country or region that is hosting the seminar or a high-ranking elected official of the host government. As this year's seminar is in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, attendees were treated to a speech by the country's Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves. His speech moved in and out of a variety of different topics, although there was one part that struck closest to home for me. Early on in his remarks he discussed his country achieving their independence almost 40 years earlier. He said that while he was a child raised in colonialism, he had grown into maturity through fighting for independence. For many countries, the birth of their nationhood is far in the past and so those who invoke it, do so across great temporal and rhetorical distance. But for a variety of former colonies, your independence and sometimes the end to your colonization ended quite recently, within your lifetime or the lifetime of your parents/grandparents.

Another portion of his speech that struck me was his mention of the Caribbean push for reparations from European powers for African slavery and native genocide. Colonialism is not something that disappears because of a change of flags or a change in place name. The Caribbean still struggles with that legacy and the often times exploitative international hierarchies and systems that emerged to snatch up newly independent nations. The push for reparations for the atrocities committed in European settlement and then brutal economic development of the region is unlikely to go very far. It is an issue where you can clearly connect the atrocious dots, and show the impact of the horrible forms of human displacement and human exploitation. But trying to open up the past in these ways is difficult to impossible. It requires countries, usually powerful countries, not used to saying sorry, to act against their own selfish interests and instead act in the name of justice and restorative ethics, for those who they have wronged in the past and continue to benefit from.

Below is a speech given by Prime Minister Gonsalves in 2015 in Washington DC on the topic of Caribbean reparations.

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Statement by Dr. The Honourable Ralph E. Gonsalves, Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, on the topic of "Reparations for slavery and the genocide of native peoples."
Delivered on November 4, 2015
Washington D.C.

INTRODUCTION: AN OVERVIEW

My address to this august body today revolves around the compelling subject of reparations for native genocide and African slavery from those European nations, mainly Britain, France, and Holland, which perpetrated these historic wrongs against humanity in the Caribbean during a period in excess of 200 years between the 17th and 19th centuries. The quest for reparations is not conceived as a strategic confrontation against these European nations, although it is for us in the Caribbean a defining issue in the 21st century for justice, reconciliation, and the righting of historic wrongs.

The struggle for reparations in the Caribbean involves centrally a mature conversation with those European nations for an appropriate recompense to correct the legacies of underdevelopment occasioned by native genocide and African slavery. If this mature conversation does not yield a satisfactory result for Caribbean nations, we intend to take the matter to the International Court of Justice for adjudication within the framework of international law. Criss-crossing this mature engagement is the necessary and desirable diplomatic, political, and educational endeavour in our region, our hemisphere, and internationally.

We are at an opportune moment for discourses on, and possible resolution of, the claim for reparations as part of the Post-2015 Development Dialogues, and in the context of the United Nations’ Declaration of the Decade of People of African Descent. It is an appropriate and convenient juncture for the engagement on reparations between the Caribbean and Europe to be facilitated as an especial carve-out in the Post-2015 Development Dialogues touching and concerning the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted recently in September 2015 at the United Nations’ General Assembly.

The case for reparations is unanswerably strong. It rests on moral and legal grounds. It is not concerned with the search for the direct descendants of those who suffered from native genocide and African slavery, to be paid specific sums of money. It does not involve as a starting-point a quantification claim in today’s currency of the assessed value of every person subjected to native genocide or African slavery and the assessment of the lands stolen from the native population by Europeans. It is not about the representation in today’s value of the 20 million pounds sterling paid by the British government to the slave-owners in 1834-1838 in the Caribbean; incidentally, that sum in today’s value, multiplying by the objective factor of 839, amounts to 16.78 billion pounds sterling.

To be sure, these quantification benchmarks are indicative of the extent of the recompense, and more, required as reparations to the Caribbean nations. However, our quest for reparations is about repairing the legacies of underdevelopment which exist today and which are undeniably traced to native genocide and African slavery. To this end, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) has adopted a 10-point Reparations Agenda which covers the repairing of the awful material and psychological legacies of underdevelopment in a number of areas, including the economy, poverty reduction, education, health, housing, infrastructure, culture and memorials, the demand for a European apology for native genocide and African slavery, and the special matter of repatriation, voluntarily, to Africa of Rastafarians. This Agenda is envisaged as obtaining appropriate recompense, separate and distinct from the usual discretionary international aid granted bilaterally or multilaterally by European nations to the Caribbean.

In seeking, thus far, to avoid an informed conversation on reparations the British government recites the mantra that it is interested in engaging the Caribbean with the future, not the past; but this assertion is grounded in a profound fallacy. The consequences or legacies of native genocide and African slavery are not matters of the past; they are a lived reality in today’s Caribbean. Repairing them is very much a matter for the present and the future. To amend the poetic summation of one of the iconic national poets of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the deceased Daniel Williams: “We are all time; only the future is ours to desecrate; the present is the past.” Indeed, “the past” has been shaped by the state-sponsored public policies of native genocide and African slavery, perpetrated by the respective European nations of which Britain was the most infamous in its extraction of wealth for itself and its impoverishment, and more, of native peoples and African slaves in the Caribbean.

REPARATIONS: A PHILOSOPHICAL AND LEGAL SKETCH

The righting of historic wrongs is at the heart of the case for reparations for native genocide, lands “stolen”, and slavery. It is grounded in justice and fairness. It is to be recognised, too, that the Caribbean is not coming to the issue of reparations with a blank page.

There have been several claims for reparatory justice which have been satisfied before international tribunals or settled within the ambit of international law, grounded in fairness and justice.

Indeed, in August 2001, at the United Nations World Conference against Racism, Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR) in Durban, South Africa, the then President of Cuba, Fidel Castro, addressed this matter, thus:

“Cuba speaks of reparations, and supports the idea as an unavoidable moral duty to victims of racism, based on a major precedent, that is, the indemnification being paid to the descendants of the Hebrew people who in the very heart of Europe suffered the brutal and loathsome racist holocaust. However, it is not the intent to undertake an impossible search for the direct descendants of the specific countries of the victims of actions which occurred throughout centuries.

“The irrefutable truth is that tens of millions of Africans were captured, sold like a commodity and sent beyond the Atlantic to work in slavery while seventy million indigenous people in the hemispheric perished as a result of European conquest and colonisation.”

An international legal scholar, Mari J. Matsuda, [“Looking to the Bottom: Critical Legal Studies and Reparations”, Harvard Civil Rights – Civil Liberties Review, 22, no. 323, 1987] correctly advises that a human injustice that attracts a claim of reparations must meet three basic criteria:

“The injustice must be well-documented; the historical data setting out the specifics of the injustice should withstand scientific scrutiny and be verifiable to the satisfaction of a court or tribunal.

“The victims must be identifiable as a distinct group.

“The current members of the group must continue to suffer harm.”

The political leaders in CARICOM are all satisfied that the historical data on native genocide and African slavery and the contemporary condition of the descendants of those who suffered from these crimes against humanity are such as to make a proper fit for these three criteria. The awful legacies of native genocide are real; the terrible, many-sided scars of underdevelopment are before our very eyes, sourced to native genocide and African slavery.

It is my duty to acknowledge that a bundle of legal arguments have been proffered by those who oppose reparations for native genocide and African slavery. These revolve around the doctrine of “relevant law and practice” at the time when the events giving rise to the claim of reparations, occurred; the idea of historical “remoteness” of these crimes against humanity; and the absence of the actual perpetrators of these crimes and the victims. But international law has more than adequate answers to each of these contrary legal arguments. In any event, this is not merely a legal issue; it is a profoundly moral one to be pursued through coordinated political and diplomatic efforts. My appearance here today at the OAS is part and parcel of this political and diplomatic exercise.

This informed gathering is surely aware that the CARICOM member-states and the relevant European nations have signed and ratified relevant international conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) which mandates that countries responsible for historical racism, genocide, and slavery have an obligation to assist in repairing the contemporary legacies of underdevelopment. The very 2001 Durban Conference on Racism, Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance acknowledges that slavery and the transatlantic slave trade were “appalling tragedies in the history of humanity not only because of their abhorrent barbarism, but also in terms of their magnitude, organised nature and especially their negation of the essence of the victims”. CARICOM member-states and the relevant European nations ___ Britain, France, and Holland ___are also state-parties to the International Criminal Court of Justice (ICJ) which adjudicates on these matters within the frame of international law.

Last year, CARICOM established a CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC), to pursue the claim for reparations. Its Chairman is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, the distinguished Professor Hillary Beckles, and its Vice-Chairman is the esteemed Senator Jomo Thomas, an activist lawyer from St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Professor Hillary Beckles has authored a recently-published book of huge importance entitled Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide. [University of the West Indies Press, Mona, Kingston, Jamaica, 2013]. I commend it to you as essential reading on the subject. Each member-state of CARICOM has set up, too, its own National Reparations Commission to interface with the regional coordinating body. A significant amount of preparatory work has been done by the CRC under the guidance of a Prime Ministerial Sub-Committee of CARICOM chaired by the Rt. Honourable Freundel Stuart, Prime Minister of Barbados, and on which I also sit.

The CRC, in concert with legal and other experts, is advising CARICOM on the best mode of proceeding with the claim for reparatory justice. In the meantime, CARICOM is engaged in essential diplomatic work and political sensitisation globally. Importantly, the Community of States of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAC) and numerous countries world-wide, including several in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have already endorsed CARICOM’s push for reparations. Non-governmental organisations globally have been in support.

Earlier this week, on Monday September 02, 2015, Venezuela’s President Nicholas Maduro, who was on a State-visit to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, proposed that the Bolivarian Alliance for our America (ALBA) hold a special high-level summit early in 2016 in support of CARICOM’s reparations claim. I accepted this wise and timely proposal.

In Britain, in 2007, the influential and moral voice of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual head of the Church of England and the Anglican community world-wide, Dr. Rowan Williams, was heard loud and clear on the side of justice for the descendants of slaves in the Caribbean. On March 27, 2007, in a sermon at Westminster Abbey, in London, to mark the Bicentennial of the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Archbishop Williams stated:

“We who are the heirs of the slave-owning and slave-trading nations of the past have to face the fact that our historic prosperity was built in large part on this atrocity; those who are the heirs of the communities ravaged by the slave trade know very well that much of their present suffering and struggling is the result of centuries of abuse.....Slavery is not a regional problem in the human world; it is hideously persistent in our nations and cultures. But today it is for us to face our history; the Atlantic trade was our contribution to this universal sinfulness.”

Archbishop Williams went on to proclaim that the Spirit of Jesus spoke to men and women more than 200 years ago to facilitate the end of the trade in enslaved Africans. He then posed a vital question and made a consequential plea:

“Is that spirit contemporary and alive in us today? If so, we shall have the courage to face the legacies of slavery.....we shall have the courage to turn to each nation and ask how, together, we are to make each other more free and more human.”

I accordingly adopt that very question and plea for you, the assembled Ambassadors and representatives of the member-states of the OAS. I urge you to answer it positively and render all practical support to CARICOM’s quest for reparatory justice.

ST. VINCENT AND THE GRENADINES: NATIVE GENOCIDE AND AFRICAN SLAVERY

One of the first acts of the British colonisers in 1764, one year after the conquest and acquisition of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, was to declare that all land in St. Vincent and the Grenadines belonged to the British Crown. At one stroke, they deprived the Kallinago people (so-called “Yellow Caribs”) and the Garifuna (so-called “Black Caribs ___ descendants of the original Caribs and Africans) of their land which was held in common by them. The British over-rule of St. Vincent and the Grenadines was unbroken from 1763 until internal self-government in 1969 and formal independence in 1979, save and except for a brief period, 1779 to 1783, when the French temporarily dislodged British occupation and settlement.

From 1764 until 1795, the Garifuna/Kallinago nation fought the British colonisers. The land issue was central to the popular native resistance to British colonisation. Bit-by-bit, chunk-by-chunk, the British took the lands of the Kallinago/Garifuna on one pretext after another. The British finally defeated the Kallinago/Garifuna people in 1795, and in subsequent skirmishes.

By 1800, the Kallinago/Garifuna people were practically quarantined on an assigned paltry parcel of 238 acres of land in an inaccessible area of the north east of St. Vincent. Thus, between 1763 and 1800, a period of a mere 37 years, the Kallinago/Garifuna people lost to the British the remainder of their 85,120 acres of land on St. Vincent and the 10,880 acres in the Grenadine islands. The British government sold much of the lands to the British elite or allocated lands as grants to preferred persons who had fought in the Caribbean for them or alongside them in the American War of Independence.

In a study which I have done on this land question, I have found that the British diverted into the private hands of British people some 32,694 acres of land amounting to US $469 million in today’s value. The remainder of the lands amounting to approximately 64,000 acres remained in the ownership of the British Crown.

In 1763, when the British assumed suzerainty of St. Vincent and the Grenadines there were an estimated 9,000 Kallinago and Garifuna in our country. During and after the anti-colonial struggles by the indigenous peoples, approximately 2,500 of them were killed out by the British. A further 2,445 of them (mainly Garifuna) died of diseases and starvation on the barren off-shore island of Balliceaux to which they were forcibly sent, between July 1796 and February 1797. Another 2,248 were deported to Roatan Island in the Bay of Honduras. Thus, approximately 5,000 of the indigenous peoples (mainly Garifuna) were subjected to wanton genocide and a further 2,248 deported. In this way, roughly 80 percent of the Kallinago/Garifuna nation was decimated. This is a horrendous statistic for which the British nation is culpable and responsible. The legacy of this genocide and forcible deportation is still being adversely experienced today. This terrible legacy has to be repaired. Not surprisingly, the northeast base of St. Vincent known as Kallinago-Garifuna country (“Carib country”) is still today the most pronounced area of material poverty in our nation. Hardship, pain and anguish abound despite commendable efforts by nationalist governments since 1951 to put right the legacies of native genocide. Monumental repairing is still left to be done.

It is important to note that the descendants of the Garifuna who were deported in the late 18th century to the Bay of Honduras now reside mainly in Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and the USA. They maintain a spiritual and existential bond with St. Vincent and the Grenadines which they still call Yurumein, the aboriginal name of our country.

African slavery, as an organised socio-economic system in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, arose after the British introduced plantation slavery as a systemic mode of socio-economic organisation in our country in 1764. Between 1764 and 1807, when the slave trade formally ended, 55,562 African slaves were brought to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a number less than the 62,176 who had been forcibly abducted and put on the vessels in West Africa. By the time slavery had been finally abolished in 1838, the African slave population had been reduced to 22,997, indicating a large attrition rate due to a higher mortality rate of an aging, predominantly male population, coupled with an insufficiency of reproduction.

The slave-owners were paid for their slaves in St. Vincent and the Grenadines at an average of 26 pounds sterling per slave or 21,814 pounds sterling in today’s value. The actual sum paid, totally, to the slave-owners at slavery’s end was 592,509 pounds sterling or 497.11 million pounds in today’s value, using a factor of 839 on the 1838 values.

The historical data in the respect of much of the other Caribbean countries are available in Hillary Beckles’ book Britain’s Black Debt, to which I earlier referred.

What is being said here of Britain in relation to its former British colonial possessions in the Caribbean, can with more or less equal force be said of France as regards Haiti; and of Holland in respect of Suriname.


ESPECIAL CASE OF REPARATIONS FOR HAITI

In a book An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, From Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President (Basic Civitas Books, 2007), its author, the well-known American fighter for justice internationally, Randall Robinson, provides a gripping account of France’s successful demand for reparations from Haiti for loss of property (including slaves) at the time of the Haitian Revolution. This payment of reparations from Haiti to France has contributed immensely to Haiti’s underdevelopment. It is a tale of imperialism’s unjust power and might over a poor, relatively defenceless nation.

The basic facts are these:

By 1825, twenty-two years after the death of the Haitian revolutionary leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian army was a weakened and divided force. France threatened to re-enslave Haitians, and imposed an ordinance requiring from Haiti a payment of 150 million francs and a 50-percent tariff reduction for all French ships docking in Haiti. To meet the first payment of 30 million francs under the ordinance, the government of Haiti had to borrow the full amount from a private French bank, MM Ch Ternaux Grandophe et Cie.

In 1838, after extensive negotiations, under a French-Haitian Traité d’Armité (Treaty of Friendship), the original obligation of 150 million francs was reduced to 90 million francs. Haiti was required to make
annual payments of at least 2 million francs per year over 30 years. These payments were in addition to repayment on an original 30 million francs from the first private bank. Haiti was thus coerced into borrowing commercially to pay a hugely unjust obligation to France.

As late as 1915 , or 111 years after the successful slave revolution in Haiti, some 80 percent of the Haiti government’s budget was being paid out in debt service to French and American banks on loans that had been contracted for Haiti to pay reparations to France.

In 1922, seven years into a 19-year American military occupation of Haiti that resulted in the death of 15,000 Haitians, the USA imposed a US $16 million loan to the Haitian government to pay off its so-called “debt” to France.

The American loan was finally paid off in 1947. Haiti was left virtually bankrupt and impoverished. It has never really recovered from this unjust imperial imposition.

In the early years of the 21st century, President Jean Bertrand Aristide of Haiti pushed the issue of righting this historic wrong. He made an unequivocal the demand for reparations from France for slavery and genocide.

Aristide was involuntarily removed from office. Did his call for reparations lead to his fall from office? Many thoughtful people think so, although the matter perhaps had other subsidiary complications.

A CARICOM push for reparations necessarily includes Haiti as a very special case. Haiti is very much on board in our multi-lateral quest.

CONCLUSION

I appeal to all right-thinking persons in the Caribbean, Britain, France, Holland, Africa, the Americas, and the entire world, to embrace reparations for slavery and native genocide as just. The case for reparations is unanswerably strong. Those who have been opposed or indifferent to reparations, I urge you to rethink the matter, search your soul, and identify with the claim for appropriate recompense in repairing the terrible legacies of native genocide and African slavery in the Caribbean. The rethinking and soul-searching of the eighteenth century British slave-trading sea captain John Newton, who came to a full understanding of the unspeakable crime of slavery on his way to his calling as a preacher of the Gospel, is apt in the circumstances. In 1772, he penned the hymn “Amazing Grace” which has moved generations of hardened sceptics, cynics, and wayward souls, particularly its first verse:

“Amazing Grace! (how sweet the sound!)
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind, but now I see.”

Thank you!

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