Carlos Jasso / Courtesy Reuters 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.

Caribbean Payback

Europe's Former Colonies Battle For Slavery Reparations

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. 

After a two-day, closed-door meeting last month, representatives from CARICOM emerged with a unanimous agreement on a ten-point program for reparations for “native genocide and slavery.” If all goes according to plan, high-ranking representatives from the Caribbean nations and the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and France (and perhaps also Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden) will gather at a mid-year conference to discuss how to move forward with reparations. If the former colonial powers refuse that invitation, the Caribbean nations intend to pursue legal remedy under the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. CARICOM has already retained counsel in preparation for a negative response from Europe.

The CRC reparations program passed last month can be neatly divided into two types of repair -- literal and figurative. The literal repairs essentially involve the transfer of money. For example, the program calls for former colonial powers to provide resources to address public-health crises such as hypertension and Type 2 diabetes that the CRC claims are directly related to legacies of racial slavery and apartheid. (Africa-descended people in the Caribbean have the highest rates in the world of both diseases.) It also calls for debt cancellation and for financial resources to attack illiteracy, improve the acquisition of new technologies, and assist the descendants of slaves who wish to resettle in Africa (also known as repatriation).

But even if European governments came together and provided the money to address all of these repairs, their work would be far from over. The figurative repairs sought by the CRC are less expensive but far more complicated. They include a formal apology for the slave trade, as well as programs to ease the social alienation and support the psychological rehabilitation of the descendents of slaves. Crucially, the CRC would also like European countries to provide resources to build new cultural institutions, such as museums, in the Caribbean dedicated to telling a history that moves beyond the still-dominant narrative of a benevolent colonial past.

Of these repairs, the apology would seem the easiest. But even that would likely prove tricky for European governments. In 2007, the bicentennial of the abolition of the British slave trade, Tony Blair, then British prime minister, turned down a chance to deliver a formal apology, reportedly because it would appear to be a legal admission of guilt and thereby incentivize more aggressive calls for reparation. Rather than apologize, Blair expressed "deep sorrow and regret" for his country’s participation in the slave trade.

But such calculations of self-interest do not necessarily need to determine the European response. Eight years before Blair's hedge, the city council of Liverpool -- one of the world's most active ports in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and one of only three English cities sanctioned to participate in the trade -- formally apologized for its role and promised "to work with Black communities and others in Liverpool to tackle racial inequality."

Liverpool was also a model in creating the very kind of cultural institutions that the CRC is now demanding that European countries help build in the Caribbean. In the early 1990s, after lobbying by local activists (both black and white), the National Museums Liverpool (which administers the museums at the city's Albert Docks) set about designing an exhibit at the Maritime Museum cataloging the local history of the slave trade and the larger global slave economy. The exhibition, titled "Transatlantic Slavery: Against Human Dignity," opened in 1994; traffic to the museum doubled almost immediately. In 2007, the "Transatlantic Slavery" exhibit moved from the Maritime Museum’s basement to a new International Slavery Museum, housed on the third floor of the Maritime Museum, where it became part of an expanded collection examining historic and contemporary forced labor. At the gala dinner celebrating the museum’s opening, David Fleming, the director of National Museums Liverpool, made a powerful declaration about the need to remember the histories of racial slavery and its legacies in Liverpool and beyond:

The day will come when it is impossible to imagine that a young man should be murdered by white thugs on the streets of Liverpool simply because he was black. Tragically, that day has not yet come, neither in Liverpool nor in any other British city. And it is because that day has not yet come that the International Slavery Museum is needed. It is needed, yes, to help illuminate one of the darker, more shameful, and neglected areas in our history -- an era in which this city played a pivotal role.

Liverpool has set a high standard -- one that, in most cases, Caribbean cultural institutions have struggled to live up to. One might think that Barbados -- given its status as a founding member of CARICOM, the fact that its prime minister chairs CARICOM’s subcommittee on reparations, and that one of its leading scholars, Bickles, is managing the reparations project -- would be a model for these cultural issues for the rest of the region. But the reality is far more troubling.

Although Barbados’ parliament commissioned a reparations task force in November 2012 (thereby making Barbados one of the first Caribbean countries to establish a national commission on the topic), the country has not yet made good on its calls for a "Multi-Ethnic Research Centre, a National Museum of Slavery, and a Centre for Reparations Research." While the impressive Barbados Museum and Historical Society has dedicated one of its eight galleries to the study of Africa and its cultural connection to the Caribbean and started building a slave trade archive, the museum remains largely focused on British planter life, the colonial elite, and life among garrisoned British troops. Meanwhile, most other cultural sites in Barbados that explore the country's past are routinely marked by sins of omission. They seem determined to do anything but acknowledge the African slave trade and the daily punishments of slave life on the island's sugarcane plantations. 

This reluctance is made plain at one of the island's principal heritage tourist attractions, Sunbury Plantation House. The Sunbury House was built in the mid-seventeenth century on land deeded to one of the first European settlers on the island. Although the sugarcane fields are still there, the house is now a separately owned property that is open for tours, regular lunchtime meals, biweekly private dinners, and weddings and receptions. The house showcases [BL1] exquisite period furniture, an impressive collection of hand-drawn art that features [BL2] African slaves in parade dress and costume, and a wide assortment of tools that were used in the house, the gardens, and the fields. Tour guides will tell the visitor everything there is to know about the many plantation owners and the house's decor. The guides, however, make no mention of the lithographs picturing slaves, nor do they address the fact that slaves used the tools that are on display. In fact, visitors to Sunbury House will not hear a word about slaves or slavery, only "workers." Considering the fact that there were more than 200 slaves working at Sunbury prior to the island's only slave rebellion in 1816, the word choice is striking. So is the description of the house on its Web site: “In the extensively landscaped grounds are more fine authentic examples of old carts and machinery used in the last century to cultivate the land. Sunbury Plantation House, located in the tranquil St. Philip countryside is a living monument to plantation life of bygone era, carefully restored and lovingly cherished by its owners for posterity, for the enjoyment of generations to come." 

It is important to realize that these challenges are not unique to Barbados. Newly independent island nations throughout the Caribbean have long wrestled with the tensions between economic development, tourism, and cultural repair. More often than not, tourist dollars have won the day. Complex elements of Afro-Caribbean traditions such as masquerade and carnival became stripped of their anti-establishment politics and were mass-marketed by hotel managers to a visiting public as mere performances. In Curaçao, to cite but one example, "national unity" became the explicit guiding logic when it came to determining representations of cultural heritage. This meant that talking about the history of the island's slave economy (and its literal colonial beginnings as a slave market) was deemed too divisive. Afro-Curaçaoan heritage and any examination of the social history of slavery did not begin in earnest until 1998, when the Museum Kura Hulanda was founded and began to mount exhibitions directly related to the island's history with slavery. 

When CARICOM demands cultural reparations, it will be seeking to fix the wayward cultural narratives on offer by such institutions as the Sunbury Plantation House. The CRC program emphasizes the importance of museums as a form of public education and a source of political narratives: "European nations have invested in the development of community institutions such as museums and research centers in order to prepare their citizens for an understanding of [crimes against humanity]." Further, these museums and research centers "serve to reinforce within the consciousness of their citizens an understanding of their role in history as rulers and change agents." CARICOM argues that the lack of similar institutions in the Caribbean has prevented educators and researchers from adequately addressing the traumas that still affect the descendants of the African slave trade.

With some curatorial effort, the Sunbury House could easily be turned into a place that reflects on the relationship of forced labor to the island's political economy and, in turn, to the economies of the Atlantic empire. Former colonial powers have an important role to play in helping such institutions make this shift. European countries have the relevant historical and administrative expertise to help them change their scripts and retrain their tour guides to be expansive in the ways they connect the past to the present.

But the collective silences at Sunbury are but one example of a larger failure by colonial powers and their former colonies to foster conversations about their bloody history with slavery. It has been easier for the former colonizers to focus on the former colonies’ political institutions rather than more stubborn social issues, just as it has been more comfortable for postcolonial governments in the Caribbean to lean on the tourist trade with former colonizing powers to feed the islands’ coffers. Ignoring the shared history of slavery has achieved a working peace, perhaps, but it has been at the expense of the social equalities in the Caribbean and the many descendants of slaves quietly forced to suffer second-class education, job opportunities, and health-care delivery systems. For the advocates of reparation, this refusal, or inability, to talk about the past has created a festering wound for Afro-Caribbeans. In the eyes of the CRC, the Caribbean has become a place where the majority of inhabitants do not know their own history or, if they are hungry for it, cannot find it anywhere. They are struggling to live in the middle of a fundamental erasure.

This is the crux of the most challenging aspect of reparations. Finding the funding to improve physical health and welfare is mostly a matter of freeing up money. But it will be much more uncomfortable for European governments and Caribbean elites to participate in a cultural reframing of identities. For CARICOM, getting these privileged parties to think carefully and honestly about the sources of their plenty will be a tall order, far taller than any sugarcane stalk might ever grow.

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