TWENTY million pounds.
That is the amount that was allocated to the planters for loss of their “property” after the end of British enslavement in the 1830s. Intriguingly, it is the same amount that was recently committed by the University of Glasgow to the University of the West Indies for research into development initiatives for the Caribbean.
The research will be conducted by a new institution to be called the Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research. “The agreement represents the first occasion on which a slavery-enriched British or European institution has apologised for its part in slavery and committed funds to facilitate a reparations programme.”
Not surprisingly, the news barely created a ripple internationally. Until Western governments are willing to admit their culpability in legalising and fostering the trade in human beings, the silence will continue to deafen.
Still, at the end of the brutal system of enslavement, several voices were raised in defence of people of African heritage and the need to recognise that they were at a disadvantage in many areas. From TT, Henry Sylvester Williams, CLR James, George Padmore, Kwame Ture and others organised, agitated or took part in revolution in their quest to unite the African diaspora.
From the US, scholars like WEB Dubois used his words to draw attention to the cause, even though it meant restricted movement, always being watched and having his correspondence monitored.
From Jamaica, there was the formidable Marcus Garvey who spoke across North and South America in the early 20th century, encouraging a return to Africa in order to reconnect with ancestral roots. Later, his first wife Amy continued the focus on Pan Africanism in England.
On the African continent, Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Sekou Toure of Guinea were just some of the leaders who fought for African independence from colonialism and the unity of Africans.
The concept of Pan Africanism was also expressed through artists like Fela Kuti of Nigeria who used their music to motivate and transform the African community.
Powerful contributions came from the Caribbean through Astor Johnson, Rex Nettleford, Andre Tanker and others. In the literary world, writers like Lamming, Fanon and Hodge analysed the complexities of African identity and the damaging impact of colonialism. The global Black Power movement allowed African perspectives on theatre, music and performance to come to the fore.
Today, the Pan African struggle has intensified its focus on reparations for enslavement. The majority of enslaved, more than 90 per cent, were brought to the Caribbean and South America. It is therefore only right that Caricom should have a committee lobbying for compensation for their descendants although progress is slower than many of us would like.
So how will reparations work? First, Western powers that enriched their societies by trading in human beings should publicly apologise. Then there is the matter of financial compensation.
After the various emancipation proclamations were read across different jurisdictions in 1834, 1838, 1865 or 1888, the former enslaved received neither land nor financial support to help them rebuild their lives.
Horrifyingly, in the US, the 40 acres of land legally allocated to the former enslaved were taken away when President Johnson rescinded the Lincoln law – after the designated families were already settled on the land.
The discussion about money goes beyond a vulgar quest for cash. Advocates of the reparations movement make the point that the descendants of former enslaved people are largely at a disadvantage in being able to afford housing, land or further education.
Research demonstrates that today the phenomenon of racial wealth inequality exists. In the US, “according to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, the median wealth of black households is (US)$16,000, compared with (US)$163,000 for whites.” Financial reparations may thus take the form of a lump sum, pension or grants to pursue educational or business opportunities.
Finally, the reparations discussion is about understanding the generational trauma that has been inflicted on an entire race. It is about accepting that direct interventions are needed to treat with the continuing after-effects of enslavement and colonialism.
Physical torture, separation of families, decimation of religion and culture, humans bought and sold for generations like property – the Pan African movement must continue its fight to correct this historical wrong.
Dr Eric Williams pointed out that slavery was “an economic institution of the first importance.” As such, 20 million pounds, worth some 17 billion pounds today, is not enough to compensate, but it is a good place to start.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN