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Slavery reparations

Interview: Monika Griebeler, Kingston, Jamaica
March 11, 2014

How can the wrongs of slavery be put right? Fourteen Caribbean states are considering legal action against their former European colonizers. Jamaican Verene Shepherd is fighting with them for reparations.

Verene Shepherd
Image: University of the West Indies

DW: Slavery was finally abolished in the British Caribbean almost 200 years ago, in 1834. When we agreed on the interview, you said you would not answer any questions about slavery being too long ago for reparations. The mere idea of this seems outright stupid to you, does it?

Verene Shepherd: I am always amazed when Europeans say, "Who are the victims?" And we are standing right in front of them! And they say, "You are not the victims." And I'm thinking, "Hmm, really?" People should realize slavery and the slave trade were crimes against humanity. In international law there is no statute of limitation on a crime against humanity, no matter how far back it goes.

CARICOM, the community of Caribbean states, is currently considering holding former slaveholder nations - including Britain, France and Spain - responsible for what they did back then. There is even talk of suing the Europeans in the International Court of Justice. What are the plans of the reparation committee?

Our first strategy is reconciliation, mediation and negotiation. So we are calling for the Europeans to sit at the table with us and to discuss what happened in the past, the present legacies of what happened, and finally to agree on strategies to repair the damage done to people of the Caribbean by slavery. I think the court case will be plan B, maybe. But we are hoping the Europeans will sit at the table. So right now I wouldn't want to speak of a court case.

Why is the issue only being brought forward by CARICOM now?

Why not now? (laughs) That is what I would ask. This is not a new struggle. The reparation movement has a long genealogy. I would say as a historian, when enslaved people rose up to protest their enslavement, when they fought for emancipation, they were sending a signal that slavery is wrong. It is a crime against humanity. It should end. And so should the consequences.

Now the governments have joined forces with civil society, with NGOs, with the Rastafarian community in the case of Jamaica, and that is why this collective voice is stronger and that is why it looks as if it is new. But it has been a long struggle.

Illustration of slaves in Jamaica
Liberated slaves on the parade at Fort Augusta in Jamaica, 1857Image: Getty Images

So far there has been little acknowledgement on the side of the former colonizers and slaveholders. Back in 2007, the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke of "deep sorrow and regret"…

He didn't apologize, I want to make that very clear! Deep sorrow and regret is not apology! We want an apology from all the European countries who were complicit in the transatlantic trade in Africans and who were involved in plantation slavery. We are living the legacies and so we are saying: If you have done wrong to people, you really need to admit the wrong and to say you are sorry. You have to say, "We are going to work with you to solve some of these legacies of slavery today."

Usually an apology triggers the need for something else. What would that be?

We have a 10-point action plan: We want an apology. We want to address the issue of native genocide, repatriation [of Rastafari to Africa], of psychological trauma, of infrastructural development, of debt cancellation and investment possibilities. These are some of the strategies.

One of the legacies of slavery, CARICOM claims, is the financial dimension. How has slavery affected the economy in modern-day Jamaica?

At the moment of emancipation in 1834 and independence in 1962 we were told, "Go develop yourselves!" Without any resources. The extraction of wealth was one-directional. We know that there was almost like a second industrial revolution in England - transportation, banks, insurance companies. And even when you look at some of the people in England today you can trace their wealth back to their ancestors who had plantations in the Caribbean. [British Prime Minister] David Cameron is a case in point. Don't tell me that the people who are in Britain and Spain are not responsible. They are, because they are the beneficiaries of development while the Caribbean remains underdeveloped.

In his famous "Redemption Song," Bob Marley sang, "Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery." He took that from a speech by one of Jamaica's seven national heroes, Marcus Garvey. Garvey continued, "None but ourselves can free the mind." So what could former slaveholders actually do about mental slavery?

I think that people in the Caribbean coming out of enslavement and colonialism have been making great strides in freeing themselves from mental slavery. But racism and the feeling of inferiority - that is mental slavery. The "pigmentocracy" that Europeans left here that is mental slavery. When you look at the slave list today, you don't recognize many African names. People are called Mary and Jane and Sally and all sorts of Western names. Europeans took away people's names and took away the possibility of reconnection to Africa. That is mental slavery. We need a joint approach in that elimination of mental slavery. One of the institutions that helped contribute to mental slavery is the educational system. And that is why we are saying part of reparation is infrastructural development.

Today, many Jamaicans are unemployed, illiteracy is high, crime is rampant. Would you blame this on slavery or rather on bad governance in the 50 years since independence?

I reject the notion that in 50 years governments in the Caribbean could have overcome the corruption and the injustice and all the negative legacies of slavery. It is impossible.

The prospect of justice has raised a lot of attention in the Caribbean, yet many people seem preoccupied with a monetary figure. Isn't there a danger that from now on people just focus on the financial dimension?

The media have been obsessed with the issue of monetary compensation. We are not as obsessed with that issue. Any figure you would come up with would be an underestimation anyway. You will hear people talk about the 20 million pound sterling that the British planters were paid in 1834 [to compensate them for the loss of their slaves]. There are people who say, "Give us back the contemporary equivalent of the 20 million." But I just hope that at some point Europeans will understand that this is a just cause and sit at the table with us. We need to go forward, right the wrongs of the past and build a more peaceful world.

Verene Shepherd is chair of the National Commission on Reparations in Jamaica, the body preparing the country's case for CARICOM. In 2010 she was appointed to the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. Shepherd is university director of the Institute for Gender & Development Studies and a professor of social history at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica.