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  • Britain’s Black Debt—Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide by Hilary McD. Beckles
  • Rupert Lewis
Britain’s Black Debt—Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide. By Hilary McD. Beckles (Kingston, University of the West Indies Press, 2013) 292pp. $70.00 cloth $30.00 paper

This volume of Caribbean economic history argues the case for reparations from Britain on the basis of the wealth created from the exploitation of enslaved African labor and native genocide, as well as an enduring negative influence on the region. Beckles makes use of the fact that Britain paid compensation to the slave plantation owners in 1834 on the eve of the abolition of slavery. Slavery relegated enslaved Africans and indigenous peoples to the status of non-persons or property with no right to life (15). The case is also made on behalf of the indigenous populations of the region and the genocidal wars that were conducted against them. Drawing on the work of Craton, Beckles points out that “between 1492 and 1730, the native population of the Lesser Antilles fell by as much as 90 per cent” (24).1

Beckles updates with current economic research the work of Eric Williams, whose Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill, 1944) helped to provide a framework for Britain’s Black Debt, Beckles also cites Randall Robinson’s The Debt: What America Owes Blacks (New York, 2000), as well as the writings of Lord Anthony Gifford, member of the British House of Lords, who has argued the moral and legal case for reparations.2

Beckles details the growth of the British economy, the development [End Page 420] of the British financial and insurance systems, and genealogical evidence concerning the growth of the British bourgeoisie and their links with the royal family through marriage. Indeed, the cover of the book has a photograph of Queen Elizabeth II “with her cousin, the 7th Earl of Harewood, at his sugar plantation (the Belle) in Barbados in 1966. This plantation was bought by the earl’s ancestor in 1780 with 232 slaves” (frontispiece). The earls of Harewood also had plantations in Jamaica and the third earl was a British member of parliament (130). In 1776, “some forty members of the British parliament were making their money from West Indian [slave] plantations” (131).

In 2007, the British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed regret for slavery during the events marking the bicentennial anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade by the British Parliament. But he stopped short of an apology, which could have led to discussions about remedial measures. The church was also deeply implicated in slavery. A total of 128 clergy are listed as having received compensation for the abolition of slavery (110). The Anglican Church, which was also a major proprietor in the Caribbean, tendered an apology in 2007 for its involvement with slavery.

Demographic studies show that during the eighteenth century, British ships carried 3 million Africans out of Africa, bound for one place or another in the Americas, twice the number of Africans that other nations relocated (83). By 1775, the British West Indian plantations “were valued at £50 million (£ 71.7 billion in 2010)” (91). Beckles argues that this past experience has had negative psychological, material, and social consequences for the descendants of the enslaved.

Beckles led the Caribbean lobby for reparations at the 2001 conference on racism in Durban, South Africa. The position taken by government delegations from the United States and the European Union was that slavery should have been a crime against humanity, though it was not considered so at the time. Beckles draws on the anti-slavery movement in Britain as well as the liberal philosophical, religious, and legal traditions of Europe, however, to show that the institution and practices of European slavery in the Caribbean were highly contested and that a considerable body of opinion opposed slavery on moral grounds.

Beckles still leads a campaign in the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa to gain public support for reparations. He is also advising prime ministers of the Caribbean Community to adopt a common position regarding reparations the better to continue the discussion with the British government that began in 2007.3...


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