Caribbean Payback

Europe's Former Colonies Battle For Slavery Reparations

Congos celebrate the triumph of good over evil with costumes, music, and dance all along Panama's Caribbean coast.
Every Ash Wednesday, Congos, descendants of Africans who escaped slavery after their arrival in Panama during Spanish colonization, celebrate the triumph of good over evil with costumes, music, and dance. (Carlos Jasso / Courtesy Reuters)

In early March, Caribbean heads of state met to discuss a range of issues affecting the region, including economic development, climate change, and trade agreements. But at the very center of their agenda was a debate about history, race, and trauma -- specifically, the financial, psychological, and cultural traumas of the slave trade and the structural racism that continues to haunt the Caribbean present.

The pressure to hold such a debate has been steadily building since last July -- although from another perspective, it has been building for hundreds of years. Either way, Caribbean nations are now determined to seek reparations from western European governments for centuries of slave trading and brutalizing colonial rule. And they have made clear that they are in search of much more than dollars (although money is certainly part of the equation). They are calling for Europe and the Caribbean to collaborate in writing a new shared history of empire and colonialism -- a history that would enable the region’s population to productively reimagine its present and future politics.

The sudden energy around reparations is striking. Through the early 1970s, most Caribbean territories were still under European control. The Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) was established in 1973, growing slowly from four members to its current size of 15 members and associates (Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Montserrat, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turks and Caicos). But it was not until July 2013 that Caribbean heads of state called for a CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC). Only a few months after its establishment, the CRC -- which is chaired by Hilary Beckles, pro vice chancellor at the University of the West Indies and the author of a leading text on reparations, Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide -- issued its first region-wide call for restitution. 

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