‘Legality’, morality and reparations
April 23, 2024

‘Legality’, morality and reparations

A most interesting battle is developing in Barbados based on claims for reparations for the crimes of African slavery and colonial plunder. The claims are bound to have far- reaching implications not just in Barbados and for Barbadians, but also in our country and the rest of the Caribbean in general.

The controversy is based on plans by the government of Barbados to acquire portions of an old slave-owning plantation for a housing scheme for low- and middle-income Barbadians. This, the government claims, is to satisfy the need of many thousands who are in dire need for housing in a country where a privileged few, derived from the slave-owning class, still own and control much of Barbados’ lands.

However, the plans are being opposed by supporters of the Reparations movement there. It is not the land for housing which has caused the controversy, but the fundamental principle of the Barbados government using taxpayers’ funds, estimated to be in the region of Bds$8 million to fund the housing project. What has made the issue more galling is that the lands are part of one of Barbados’ most notorious slave plantations, Drax Hall, a bedrock of both transatlantic slavery and the plantation system in the Caribbean.

This is based on the history of slavery and colonialism in the Caribbean, Britain seizing these islands and awarding lands to people like the ancestors of the current owner of the Drax Hall estate, Sir Richard Drax.

Not only is he one of the richest parliamentarians in the UK, but even after discussions with the government of Barbados, he has openly refused to agree to any claims for reparations.

While the Barbados government strongly supports the reparations claims, it also points out that the poor people of the St. George parish where Drax Hall is situated, are in such dire need for housing, that they cannot wait years for the resolution of the reparations battles to achieve their basic right. The Barbados government is therefore planning to use the legal acquisition procedures which will involve paying compensation based on current market value.

This has infuriated the Reparations supporters who insist that given the history of colonial seizure of lands, it is wrong to use the resources of the victims of slavery to pay for lands illegally seized in the first place.

It has raised what is sure to be a key question as claims for reparations are advanced. This focuses on the issue of current legality, based on a system put in place by colonialism, as against the principled and just claims for reparations. It is a matter not just for Barbadians but for the entire Caribbean.

For instance, the government of St Vincent and the Grenadines has indicated its intent to acquire the offshore island of Balliceaux as a heritage site in memory of the Garifuna people who were exiled there on the way to British deportation to central America. What if the current claims to legal ownership are found to have been based on illegal colonial seizure in the first place? Should our government pay compensation for the island?

It is an issue which pits the morality of compensation claims for reparations against the “legality” of a system put in place by those who seized these lands in the first place.