On Monday of this week, Feb.27, the descendants of a slave-owning British family which owned a plantation, slaves and all, in Grenada, was due to take an historic step of trying to atone for the family’s role in profiting from slavery. The Trevelyan family was due to make a public apology for the family’s role in that sordid chapter of colonial rule and to underline its genuine commitment by establishing a US $100,000 Family Reparations Fund to benefit descendants of those who suffered literally under the slave whip.
The offer has stirred up controversy not just in Grenada but in the rest of the Caribbean and further afield. It is not the first step in that direction. Late last year, the Church of England (Anglican Church) also offered a public apology for its role in slavery and announced the establishment of its own Reparations Fund, to the tune of some 100 million pounds sterling.
It was not the first such offer, for the billionaire founding Chairman and CEO of Digicel, Dennis O’Brien had earlier made public an O’Brien Repair Initiative on the same basis. The Dutch government also apologized to the government and people of its former colony Suriname for its own blood-soaked role in slavery and plans a similar Reparations Fund.
Controversy and mixed responses have followed all these announcements, even among supporters of the reparations claims.
While some have welcomed the initiatives, though disagreeing with the compensation sums mooted, or questioned how genuine the apologies are, other vocal advocates of reparations have been quite vocal in their opposition, almost to the point of hostility in some cases.
For these, the apologies offered amount to “hypocrisy” and the sums likened to “peanuts” and “chicken feed”, compared to the enormous sums extracted from the violently- forced labour of African men, women and children.
That there should be such strong reaction should not surprise anyone who understands the horror of slavery and how it was used to impoverish and dehumanize an entire race for centuries, while enriching another. This was the classic example of what Dr Walter Rodney explained as the dialectics governing development for a few at the expense of underdevelopment of hundreds of millions of victims.
One however has to make an effort, albeit a tremendous one, to try and be rational in the circumstances. The offers may well be hypocrisy in some cases, even possibly cynical attempts to deflect the ire of black people and their pent-up anger, not only at what was done to them, but the stubborn refusal of the guilty to be contrite and to atone for such cardinal sins. Yet the fact that at least such individual offers have been made at least lays the basis for dialogue on the matter now that the cards have been laid on the table. We have to learn how to handle our emotions in the situation and avoid throwing out the proverbial “baby with the bath water”.
That is why I began this article last week by emphasizing the need for broad unity of our people on such an important issue. Those among us who like to pride themselves as being hardliner “Black heart” men and women, would immediately dismiss any thought of dialogue on the matter but if truth be told, collecting “we grandfather back-pay” isn’t going to be easy. We may have set up high-level Reparations Committees including a regional body, but the hard work of educating our people and winning hearts and minds to our cause has yet to be done. Egos are not the issue here; we are dealing with the future of generations.
One of the dangers that we need to avoid is that of what is called ultra-leftism, people who profess not only to know all, but have little tolerance for views which differ from their own. History has numerous examples of how such attitudes lead to division, bitter ones sometimes, often making mountains out of molehills and inventing supposedly “irreconcilable differences”. Under slavery there were differing degrees of suffering but all suffered, house slave and field slave alike, they were all slaves. Reparations apply to all the descendants of slaves, and we must be respectful of that.
This matter of lack of unity and especially the danger of ultra- leftism cannot be ignored. It is true that some people may feel more strongly on some issues than others, they may even be “right” in their perceptions or understanding, but the primary task is to win as many as possible to the “right” cause, not to ignore or ostracize others who may share differing views. If we are still not aware of how divisions arising from ultra-leftism and intransigence can be dangerous, we need to look no further than Grenada and how divisions in the once impregnable national movement led to tragedy, invasion and the reinstatement of the hold of imperialism which had been broken. We cannot afford this in our quest for Reparations.
(Final instalment next week).
Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.