Slavery reparations: chaining the Caribbean to its past

This week, leaders of 15 Caribbean nations joined together with UK law firm Leigh Day to issue a list of demands to European nations for reparations to heal the damage caused by the transatlantic slave trade.

This move isn’t really surprising when you consider the propensity of European public figures to apologise for the actions of their long-dead ancestors. Back in 2007, Tony Blair took it upon himself to express his ‘deep sorrow and regret’ for Britain’s part in the slave trade. Even 12 Years a Slave actor Benedict Cumberbatch has been at it, citing his role in the film as a ‘sort of apology’ for his own slave-owning ancestors.

Everyone agrees that the transatlantic slave trade was a barbaric episode in humanity’s history. Thankfully, it also ended two centuries ago. Everyone involved is long dead and the ideas underpinning the slave trade have been thoroughly discredited. At this point, it is part of history, and history doesn’t belong to particular groups of people. The actions and ideas of those who have died cannot be directly attributed to their descendants. Just imagine a criminal’s great grandchildren being held responsible for their wrongdoings; most of us would be horrified.

In the end, the demand for reparations come across as a desperate bid from Caribbean nations to push themselves up the international-aid pecking order over other developing countries. But, in fact, this will only work to stunt development. By identifying its populations as suffering ‘psychological trauma’ carried over from the days of slavery, Caribbean nations are chaining their citizens to the past, rather than asserting their citizens as active agents, capable of overcoming the past and building a better future.

This seems a far cry from the Caribbean described by CLR James, writing in his appendix to the second edition of The Black Jacobins in 1962:

‘The West Indian writers have discovered the West Indies and West Indians, a people of the middle of our disturbed century, concerned with the discovery of themselves, determined to discover themselves, but without hatred or malice against the foreigner, even the bitter imperialist past. To be welcomed into the comity of nations, a new nation must bring something new. Otherwise it is a mere administrative convenience or necessity. The West Indians have brought something new.’

Rob Harris is the project coordinator for the education charity WORLDwrite’s new multimedia project, Every Cook Can Govern: Documenting the life, impact and works of CLR James. For further information about the project, email world.write@btconnect.com.

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