- Letters & Opinions
A Call for Reparations for Slavery and Colonisation
by Mary Serumaga
Any hopes the Caribbean community may have entertained of Britain acknowledging culpability for slavery were dispelled by Prime Minister David Cameron’s September 2015 address to the Jamaican Parliament during a recent trade visit. Cameron summarily ruled out Britain’s accepting responsibility to make reparations; it was possible, he said, for Jamaica to move on. The issue of reparations is often clouded by the argument that the individual perpetrators of the crime of slavery are long gone and that their descendants are entitled to their inherited wealth.
Though Cameron proposed that Britain’s role in ending slavery exonerates his country from the responsibility of making reparations, the fact is that true credit belongs to ex-slaves like Olaudah Equiano, who bought himself out of slavery for £40, or the American Frederick Douglass, who escaped. Both wrote best-selling autobiographies describing the wretchedness of life as a slave and campaigned in England and Ireland for abolition until a critical mass of abolitionists was attained. Olaudah’s letters to British Members of Parliament—Lord Hawkesbury and William Pitt—survive him. Cameron’s blindness to these realities is similar to the denials made by many beneficiaries of the Nakba, apartheid, and the Holocaust: nothing to do with them.
Britain was the legal administrator of Jamaica and other slave colonies whose very existence and prosperity depended on slavery. Any actions taken by the British government in relation to her slave and other colonies is the responsibility of the State. It is disingenuous to argue otherwise. The British East Africa Company, for example, ‘acquired’ East Africa and later sold the territory to the British government, a transaction which ended in an orgy of violent repression for which Britain has accepted responsibility. Foreign Secretary William Hague said after the settlement was reached in 2013:
The British government recognises that Kenyans were subjected to torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration. … The British government sincerely regrets that these abuses took place and that they marred Kenya’s progress to independence. Torture and [End Page 1] ill-treatment are abhorrent violations of human dignity which we unreservedly condemn.
The futility of denial on the basis of the time elapsed between Abolition and the present day is illustrated by the current situation of surviving victims of the 1948 Nakba. Many are able to point out their former homes now occupied by Israelis, and some still wear their keys around their necks. So, are we to say the current occupants and/or their heirs owe nothing to these refugees? Is this on the basis they did not personally drive out the Palestinians and may even have opposed Zionism? And have subsequently been hard-working taxpayers? The fact is that it is only because the events of 1948 were condoned that the illegal settlement movement can go ahead. With the passage of time, human and physical evidence will be diminished and the events of 1948 will pass into folklore and, like the descendants of slaves, heirs of the Nakba survivors will be advised to move on.
A relevant precedent for reparations for slavery and colonialism is the compensation of Nazi Holocaust victims. Many categories of claims by Holocaust victims were rightly designated as being claimable by either the direct survivor victims or their heirs. These include the loss of parents and/or siblings; actual properties of which the victims were dispossessed (money, other valuables and household goods); and having been subjected to slave labor, denied entry to some countries (where refuge could have been sought, known as refoulement in international law), and expulsion from other countries.
Any attempt to shield taxpayers of States with unresolved criminal issues by saying they are not individually responsible for slavery and colonialism collapses completely when it is noted that Holocaust survivors and their heirs were not compensated by individual perpetrators, nor by groups of Nazi tax-payers (most of whom were still alive when the claims began to be made), but by sovereign States that carried out or facilitated the atrocities; Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium...