August 27, 2013

The Reparations Committee has a monumental task

Tue Aug 27, 2013

The lecture delivered last week by Professor Sir Hilary Beckles of the University of the West Indies on Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide was of great educational value to all who heard it.{{more}}

Many among us who are skeptical about the move towards reparations, if we are honest, could not have come away from that presentation without questioning the positions we hold. The apathy or antipathy towards reparations, is, in some cases, because partisan politics dictates that anything embarked upon by the Government should be opposed; but we believe in most cases, it is because of a superficial understanding of our history and of the basis of the reparations claim.

The concept that reparations is about Caribbean people standing around, hands outstretched, waiting to receive a cheque for billions from the British is unfortunate. Reparations is about an apology from those who wronged us and a willingness on the part of the wrongdoers to play an important role in repairing the damage done to our communities.

The local reparations committee, under the leadership of lawyer and social commentator Jomo Thomas, was set up in May, 2013. The committee has been given three tasks, one of which is to carry out a research and educational programme in St Vincent and the Grenadines on reparations for genocide and forced deportation of the Garifuna and Callinago people, for native lands stolen and for the enslavement of Africans in SVG.

The committee has also been mandated to work with the government and other Caribbean governments to pursue the claim for reparations and inform government policy regarding reparations here in SVG. While all three tasks are of grave importance, we are of the view that most of the committee’s resources should be expended on the implementation of an educational programme at all levels, and using all available media.

When one listens to the arguments put forward by some of our people who claim to be opposed to reparations, one realizes that the propaganda of European governments has taken root in our societies, which is exactly what the Europeans want. They are counting on the likelihood that we, as a people, will be unorganized and not take the time to educate our masses in any meaningful way on why the call for reparations is just and should be pursued.

Among the issues raised by those who question the effort is that African slavery was legal in Britain at the time, so there is no legal case for that country to answer. During his lecture at the Methodist Church Hall last week, Professor Beckles, citing the case of Adolf Hitler (and the German government) and the Jews, made the point that there is precedence in international law that if a moral offence, which is at the level of a crime against humanity is committed, a government cannot hide behind laws which they created to make their actions legal.

Similarly, there is the claim that because Africans on the African continent were involved in the Slave Trade, we should blame not only the Europeans, but also our own foreparents, the Africans. It is true that Africans were involved; the Slave Trade could not have taken place at such a magnitude and for as long as it did, without local support. However, just because there were African collaborators, it does not mean that the African society as a whole was in support of what took place. There is evidence to show that there was a massive objection to the Slave Trade, against which many Africans fought. The fight was, however, against the monumental military strength of the Europeans, who worked systematically to destabilize and destroy African communities and turn one against the other.

There is also the talk that the current reparations effort should be a bottom-up, grassroots effort, not something pursued by governments. The fact is, the reparations call has been made by the Rastafarian movement for over 40 years. It is now time for our governments to take the baton and put their resources behind the effort. The British government will not engage civil society or even an individual former British colony on reparations, in any serious manner. This is why CARICOM must come together to see this through.

Many of our citizens will no doubt bristle at the suggestion that they are not sufficiently informed on the nature, scope and impact of African slavery in the British Caribbean, the theft of our lands or the genocide of the Black Caribs. The truth is, unfortunately, the majority of our people are making judgments on the reparations issue based on what we learnt from the limited history curricula of our schools.

The Reparations Committee has its work cut out for it in the implementation of its education programme, and should be given full support. Besides Sir Hilary’s book (Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide), two other texts immediately come to mind as required reading. Walter Rodney’s seminal work “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” and “The Black Carib Wars: Freedom, Survival and the making of the Garifuna” by Christopher Taylor should help in broadening and deepening our understanding. (Listen to an audio recording of Sir Hilary’s lecture on Searchlight’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/Searchlight1)