What is the legacy of slavery—in dollars? Some 175 years after Britain freed its last slaves, 14 Caribbean nations are demanding financial compensation for the legacy of centuries of the Atlantic slave trade. Members of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM)—an alliance of former British colonies, Haiti (a former French colony) and Suriname (a former Dutch one)—are already tallying and cataloguing slavery-era damages. They demand that Britain, France and the Netherlands issue an official apology for slavery—and then pay up.
“[Our] struggle for development resources is linked directly to the historical inability of our nations to accumulate wealth from the efforts of our peoples during slavery,” said Baldwin Spencer, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda. That sentiment was echoed by Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines: “Look, the Germans paid the Jews . . . ”
Things got rolling in July, when each country agreed to set up a National Reparations Committee. Last month, CARICOM held a Regional Reparations Conference, where attendees discussed slavery’s broad and varied legacy. The group has hired Leigh Day & Co., the London-based law firm that recently represented a group of Kenyans in their successful compensation case against Britain, over the use of torture by British colonial officers in the 1950s. Lawyer Martyn Day tells Maclean’s that CARICOM’s “intention is to see whether an amicable solution can be reached.” But if a negotiated settlement fails, Day will take the case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Britain officially ended its slave trade in 1807, but it did not free its last slaves in the Caribbean until 1838. Over the centuries, Britain shipped some 3.4 million Africans across the Atlantic Ocean as slaves.
But Europe’s fallen empires and chastened superpowers have long been loath to acknowledge past wrongdoings. Willy Brandt—the former West German chancellor who, in 1970, famously fell to his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto monument—remains one of the exceptions.
Indeed, critics charge that the Caribbean group’s threats will amount to little—and that Britain is not legally liable for centuries-old claims. Others insist that Caribbean nations already receive compensation: in the form of development aid. To make its case valid, says Martyn Day, CARICOM must focus on the present-day legacy of slavery—rather than the suffering of long-deceased slaves.
The Caribbean lobby has yet to place a dollar value on its grievances—but a number of commentators have urged it to look back to 1833, when Britain’s Parliament ordered compensation for former slave owners to the tune of $33 million—which was a staggering 40 per cent of government expenditures.