27th Sep 2021

Caribbean states seek slavery reparations from Europe

  • Napoleonic fort in Guadeloupe: the scene of an anti-slavery rebellion in 1802 (Photo: sybarite48)

Fourteen Caribbean nations are seeking reparations from Britain, France and the Netherlands for over 400 years of slavery brought to their islands by the former colonial powers.

Caribbean leaders made their case at the United Nations' general assembly last week.

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“The awful legacy of these crimes against humanity ought to be repaired for the developmental benefit of our Caribbean societies and all our peoples. The European nations must partner in a focused, special way with us to execute this repairing," said the Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves.

Gonsalves is spearheading the effort on behalf of the Caribbean Community (Caricom), a regional organisation which focusses on economic integration.

Caricom has now hired British human rights law firm Leigh Day to prepare the legal challenge with the International Court of Justice based in the Hague.

Leigh Day has already successfully fought for compensation for hundreds of Kenyans tortured by the British in the so-called Mau Mau rebellion in 1952-1960.

Some of the 14 nations, such as Jamaica and Antigua-Barbuda, have already tried to seek compensation on their own.

But earlier this year, all 14 Caricom nations decided to back a joint effort and focus on Britain, France and the Netherlands to pay for their role in the Atlantic slave trade.

A compensation figure has not been floated yet, but it could be to the tune of several hundred billion euros.

Verene Shepherd, chairwoman of the national reparations commission in Jamaica, said that when Britain allowed slaves to be free, in 1834, British settlers were compensated with the equivalent of €240 billion.

"Our ancestors got nothing. They got their freedom and they were told 'Go develop yourselves'," Shepherd said.

“The cause is just. And whatever the outcome is going to be, we are going to press on. Remember, slavery lasted 300 to 400 years. In the scheme of things, we have not been fighting a long time," she added.

In 2007, marking the 200th anniversary of the British prohibition on the transportation of slaves, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed regret for the "unbearable suffering" caused by his country's role in slavery.

But financial compensation was not mentioned.

As for France and its ties with former colony Haiti, Nicolas Sarkozy - president at the time - spoke about the "wounds of colonisation." When asked about reparations, he said Paris cancelled a €56 million debt and approved an aid package that included €40 million in budget support for the Haitian government after the devastating earthquake of 2010.

“It’s a historic wrong that has to be righted,” Gonsalves told the Miami Herald. “Look, the Germans paid the Jews. There were reparations for the Japanese and the Maori in New Zealand.”

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