The case for British slavery reparations can no longer be brushed aside

There is now a global debate focused on all those nations who built their wealth by denying black people humanity.

Ionce asked a British cabinet minister why the country had never apologised for the transatlantic slave trade. After all, this nation trafficked more enslaved Africans than almost any other – at least 3 million on British ships – yet it has only ever expressed “regret”. It’s a strange choice of words for playing a leading role in the greatest atrocity in human history.

The minister explained to me that the UK cannot apologise, because the case against it – watertight in moral and ethical terms – might then become legal too. In short, Britain won’t use the language of apology, out of fear this might pave the way for reparations.

That admission made me sit up and take notice. Because, passionate as I have always been about racial justice, I’m also not immune from the perception of reparations as – in the words of American writer Isabel Wilkerson – especially “radioactive”.

Yet I’m now seeing with increasing clarity how this perception only serves to reinforce systems of race and power. The debate about reparations has, conveniently, been branded extreme and unrealistic by those who don’t want to pay them. We happily listen to the heir to the throne – who on Windrush Day said Britain owed a “debt of gratitude” to the people of the Caribbean – while ignoring the reality that what Britain owes is, in fact, a straight-up financial debt.

The case is unequivocal. The African American intellectual WEB Du Bois was right when he described the enslavement of at least 12 million Africans as “the sum of all villainies, the cause of all sorrow, the root of all prejudice”. In the Caribbean, Britain received, in the words of Nobel prize-winning economist Arthur Lewis, 200 years of free labour – from over 15 million black people, and those who were indentured from India.

The proceeds from this enslavement, and the heavily exploitative years of “apprenticed” labour that followed it, provided the profits with which Britain modernised its economy. The systemic poverty that remains in the Caribbean can be directly traced to the era of enslavement and colonialism, at the end of which Britain walked away leaving 60% of the region’s black inhabitants functionally illiterate.

The conditions in the Caribbean were so bad that, during the second world war, Britain tried to prevent deployment of African Americans on military bases in the islands. Whitehall feared the sight of better-off black Americans might wake its colonial subjects out of the ignorance of their condition on which British exploitation depended.

The Caribbean’s “pandemic of chronic diseases” – as historian Hilary Beckles, vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies, has termed it – can be directly traced to British slavery and colonial practice. It is now a global hypertension hotspot. The high diabetes rate has left two of Britain’s former colonies, Barbados and Jamaica, vying for the dubious honour of being the per capita amputation capital of the world. “For 300 years the people of this region were forced to consume a diet based on what we produced, sugar,” Beckles explains.

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