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Reparations for Slavery in the Caribbean

Written by Christine Nymark.
Nominated by Professor A. Diptee.

In July of 2013, fourteen Caribbean countries that make up the Caribbean Common Market and Community, (CARICOM) agreed to strike the CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC). The purpose was to establish the basis for a claim to reparations from the Government of Great Britain and seven other European countries that benefitted from the enslavement of African peoples and contributed to the demise of indigenous communities in the Caribbean (CARICOM, Reparations).

Slavery is said to have contributed a lasting negative legacy of structural racism which has led to underdevelopment and underinvestment in the Caribbean. While seeking a full apology, and financial compensation, CARICOM has highlighted six issues it sees as priorities for a program of reparations: Public Health, Education, Cultural Institutions, Cultural Deprivation, Psychological trauma, and Scientific and technological backwardness. In addition they have asked for support for a repatriation program. The need for action on each of these issues has resulted from the “crimes against humanity” practiced by colonial powers through the sanctioning of slavery (CARICOM, Reparations).

In seeking reparations, CARICOM has relied on the definition of crimes against humanity as set out by the United Nations in the “Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparations for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law.” The definition in Section V. 8 reads as follows:

For purposes of the present document, victims are persons who individually or collectively suffered harm, including physical or mental injury, emotional suffering, economic loss or substantial impairment of their fundamental rights, through acts or omissions that constitute gross violations of international human rights law or serious violations of international humanitarian law. Where appropriate, and in accordance with domestic law, the term “victim” also includes the immediate family or dependents of the direct victim and persons who have suffered harm in intervening to assist victims in distress or to prevent victimization. (UN: 5).

Further, the guidelines suggest that remedies are required and should be proportionate to the “gravity of the violations and the harm suffered” (UN 5). CARICOM’S claim for reparations for slavery meets this test of gross violations of international human rights on a number of levels.

The United Nations’ guidelines are also clear that where it comes to crimes against humanity, statutes of limitations do not apply. Clause 6 states “…statutes of limitations shall not apply to gross violations of international human rights law and serious violations of international humanitarian law which constitute crimes under international law” (UN 5). In this respect, the CARICOM claim remains valid notwithstanding the passage of time.

Sir Hilary Beckles, Chairman of the CRC, makes a strong case for reparations in his article “Slavery Was a Long Time Ago”: Remembrance, Reconciliation and the Reparations Discourse in the Caribbean”. He claims that English plantation owners, the clergy, political institutions and commercial players engaged together in the slave trade by dehumanizing Africans as nonhuman (Beckles). Enslaved Africans were treated as property. From this, European nations, especially Britain, benefitted enormously and unjustly. Slavery and special laws provided the basis for terror, assault, punishment, rape, exploitation and even forced reproduction, and ultimately death. This has left an unsavory legacy that has crippled the Caribbean countries’ ability to develop at an acceptable rate (Beckles).  Beckles highlighted two examples of the enduring impact of slavery in an address to the British House of Commons on July 25, 2014, as follows:

Jamaica, Britain’s largest slave colony, was left with 80% black functional illiteracy at independence in 1962. From this circumstance the great and courageous Jamaican nation has struggled with development and poverty alleviation. The deep crisis remains. This parliament owes the people of Jamaica an educational and human resource investment initiative.

Barbados, Britain’s first slave society, is now called the amputation capital of the world. It is here that the stress profile of slavery and racial apartheid; dietary disaster and psychological trauma; and the addiction to the consumption of sugar and salt, have reached the highest peak. The country is now host to the world’s most virulent diabetes and hypertension epidemic. This parliament owes the people of Barbados an education and health initiative.  (CARICOM: Beckles)

He concluded stating, “This legacy of rubble and ruin, persistent poverty and racialized relations and reasoning, that continue to cripple our best efforts has been daunting.”  He invokes the government of Great Britain to assist the Caribbean to heal and rehabilitate.  Beckles also stated that 5.5 million enslaved Africans were brought into the British held Caribbean islands. At abolition, only 800,000 remained constituting a 15% survival rate. He called this genocide and for this he claims redress and reparations.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade database sets the numbers at 12.5 million slaves shipped from Africa during the four centuries of the slave trade, while 10.7 disembarked (Ellis et al). These numbers attest to the fact that there was a robust market in slaves moving from Africa to the Caribbean for over 4 centuries and that millions died at sea. In their analysis of the slave trade in Jamaica, Trevor Bernard and Kenneth Morgan (2001) illustrate the increase in shipments chronicling the need to counteract the death rate of slaves.

Between 1655 and 1808, 3,2432 known voyages from Africa shipped 915,204 Africans to Jamaica. Of these slaves, just over three quarters (701,046) were retained on the island. Adding a further 168,165 Africans who died or disembarked on route to Jamaica, a total of 1,083,369 Africans were intended for the island. (Bernard and Morgan, 207)

Bernard and Morgan add “Enormous imports (of slaves) were needed to counteract the demographic instability of the slave regime in which deaths always outnumbered births and female fertility was exceptionally low. Africans suffered from a range of mortal disease, poor diet, malnutrition, a debilitating work regimen, and brutal treatment” (207).  Data to support these statements come from diaries, shipping and disembarkation records, records of sales and plantation financial records as well in some cases, from official government records. There is no escaping the validity of the data on the size of the slavery market and the impact on human lives. They provide solidity to the case for reparations.

Records also indicate that many European states were directly involved in the slave trade. Indeed many European states codified slavery as a legitimate business activity, setting out the principles for the governing of the enslaved by their masters as well as constraints on the behavior of the slaves themselves. Some codes did not recognize any civil rights for the enslaved. Slave accounts of their treatment indicate that these codes had little effect, given that they were not enforced. “However, it is likely that degrees of difference were of little import to the enslaved populations, and that the overriding reality of slavery was a mix of fear, anger, and resistance to the deprivation of their liberty and the constant threat of violence” (Foote: 61). These codes are irrefutable evidence of states involvement in slavery as a crime against humanity and therefore culpability.

Further proof of state involvement in chattel slavery in the Caribbean rests on the fact that the British government, at abolition, paid plantation owners 20 million pounds as compensation for the loss of their property, at that time 40% of the country’s’ expenditures (CARICOM, Beckles). One stark example, “Lord Harewood received 26,309 thousand pounds from the (British) treasury for the freedom of 1,277 enslaved persons in his possession” (Walwin: 48). Worse is the fact that the government also legislated the payment of a further 27 million to be paid by the enslaved through free labour under the 4 year Apprenticeship program that was introduced as a transition from slavery (CARICOM, Beckles). There must be compensation for the decedents of the enslaved for these measures introduced to ease the impact on the enslavers without consideration for the enslaved.

As the plantation economy took hold, the slave economy became critical to the financial viability of the islands and their colonial overlords. The pace of movement and purchasing of slaves escalated as African slaves replaced indentured servants, and slavery became the dominant source of labour for the expanding sugar economy. Eric Williams seminal work Capitalism and Slavery, makes the case that the wealth from the sugar trade helped fuel the British economy significantly. Foote notes, “The rise and fall of Mercantilism is the rise and fall of slavery” (138). Bernard and Morgan estimate that “between 1748 and 1755, the value of the sugar exports from Jamaica to Britain rose from 688,000 pounds to 1.618,000 primarily as a result of the growing volume of trade (211). In his own account in 1938, Winston Churchill makes clear the economic benefits of slavery in the Caribbean on the British economy when he stated “Our possessions of the West Indies, like that of India … gave us the strength, the support, but especially the capital, the wealth at a time when no other European nation possessed such a reserve…” (Beckles 2007:22).  This statement clearly acknowledges the financial benefits accrued by the British from the buying, selling and labour of slaves.

Slaves were often sold forward to new owners, ripped from their families and communities of friends and moved to areas where they knew no one. These kinds of situations clearly would have affected the slaves psychologically, leading to severe and ongoing trauma. Mary Prices’ account, as recorded verbatim by the Anti-slavery Society in England in 1828 provides a good example of how the loss of personal liberty was experienced violently by a slave and had long-term impacts. Mary was born a slave in Bermuda as the offspring of female slaves were automatically enslaved through legislation (Foote: 76).  At the age of twelve she was separated from her family, resold and sent to a far away location. On the ill treatment she received at the hands of her mistress she says, “To strip me naked-to hang me up by the wrists and lay my flesh open with the cow-skin, was an ordinary punishment for even a slight offence” (Foote: 78). She makes it clear in her testimony that this was a traumatic experience that she has never been able to forget. There are numerous accounts of this kind of abhorrent treatment. Violence and social disruption occurred regularly across the islands as witnessed from both owner and slave accounts. Bernard and Morgan conclude, “… the common experience for Africans in Jamaica was flux, chaos, movement, and frequent separation from friends, family and countrymen” (223). This kind of treatment had to have affected the psyche of slaves and their descendants in unquantifiable ways and cannot be judged as anything but a violation of human rights and a justification for reparations.

CARICOM is not the first to seek reparations for human rights violations. Many precedents exist for reparations for crimes against humanity. Following the Second World War, Israel received reparations from Germany for the loss of Jewish lives during the Holocaust. The British government has paid reparations to the Maori people in the form of cash, and land settlements. (Beckles: 21) More recently, although claiming that this settlement does not constitute a precedent, nor represent any acceptance of liability, the British government has settled with Mau Mau survivors of the Emergency of the 1950’s with a payment of about 19.9 million pounds to 5,228 Kenyans who suffered torture at the hands of the British colonial government (Hague). These situations pale in comparison to the numbers that suffered under slavery.

While CARICOM remains hopeful that the issue can be resolved by negotiations, they are not opposed to taking the issue to the International Court in the Hague and to that end have engaged legal counsel to establish the legal case. In the face of The U.K. governments responses to date that option may be required. The current position of The UK government as stated by a Foreign Affairs spokesman is “Slavery is and was abhorrent. The United Kingdom unreservedly condemns slavery and is committed to eliminating it.” Reparations are not an answer in their view. “Instead we should concentrate on identifying ways forward with a focus on the shared global challenges that face our countries in the 21st century” (Al Jazeera, 2014). This response is coded with legal caution and stands far short of a willingness to compensate for the horrors of slavery in the past. Therefore the facts outlined above will be critical in actively pursuing reparations for slavery in the Caribbean.


Beckles, Hilary McD. (2007) “‘Slavery was a long, long time ago’: Remembrance, Reconciliation and Reparations Discourse in the Caribbean.” Ariel. A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 38, No. 1.

Beckles, Hilary McD. (1985) “Plantation Production and White Proto-Slavery: White Indentured Servants and the Colonization of the English West Indies, 1624-1645” The Americas. Vol. 41 (3).

Bernard, Trevor and Morgan, Kenneth. (2001) “The Dynamics of the Slave Market and Slave Purchasing Patterns in Jamaica, 1655-1788.” William and Mary Quarterly. Vol. 58, (1).

Brooks, Courtney “Caribbean Countries unlikely to seek slave trade reparations from Europe” Al Jazeera America, 12 January, 2014.

CARICOM Reparations Commission Press Statement. Delivered by Professor Sir Hilary Beckles (Chairman) on behalf of the CARICOM Reparations Commission Press Conference Regional Headquarters, UWI. Caribbean Community Secretariat. (10 December 2013).

“Chairman of CARICOM Reparations Commission Addresses British House of Commons.” Delivered by Professor Hilary Beckles, Caribbean Community Secretariat (16 July 2014.).

Ellis, David; Behtrendt, Stephen; Richardson, David; Klein, Herbert. (1999) The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD ROM. Cambridge.

Foote, Nicola. (2013). The Caribbean Reader. Routledge. New York.

Hague, William The Right Honorable. (2013) Statement to Parliament on Settlement of Mau Mau claims. House of Commons, London.

United Nations. Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparations for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of Humanitarian Law. New York. 15 December 2005.

Walvin, James. (2005). “The Colonial Origins of English Wealth: The Harewoods of Yorkshire.” Journal of Caribbean History, Vol. 39, No. 1.

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