After intense lobbying, pushing and prodding from one of the region’s most militant heads of government, Caribbean trade bloc leaders have finally agreed to make some key moves toward demanding payment from former European colonizers. Leaders hope to achieve reparations for the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, in which millions of Africans died and untold numbers of others were forced to work mostly on plantations without earning a single cent.
Wrapping up four days of talks at their main annual summit in Trinidad over the weekend, leaders say they have agreed to set up national reparations committees in each of the 15 member states as a first step toward tackling an issue from which they had previously shied away.
Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of St. Vincent and ironically, a Caribbean national of Syrian-Lebanese origin, is the man to take some of the credit for literally forcing colleagues to deal with the contentious issue. Some regional educational schools like the University of the West Indies’ Barbados campus had written volumes on the subject and had been urging regional politicians to make payment for slavery a Caribbean front-burner issue.
An official announcement from Port of Spain, the Trinidad capital, stated that “the meeting agreed to the establishment of a national reparations committee in each member state with the chair of each committee sitting on a CARICOM Reparations Commission. The heads of government of Barbados, St. Vincent, Haiti, Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad will provide political oversight,” the conference’s official communiqué noted.
Until the meeting last week, Gonsalves had been using nearly every speaking opportunity to raise the subject, saying that he had dedicated his life toward making the British and other colonial powers pay for the genocide against people of African origin. He also said that the average lifespan of a St. Vincent male national is 74, and at 67, he has but a few years left to wage a justifiable and righteous campaign “to demand a proper historical recompense for genocide for the land and for African slavery and for us to reclaim our history.”
Gonsalves has suggested that the 90,000 acres of land British invaders and colonizers stole from Garifuna Indians, the island’s original inhabitants, is today worth millions. The values of lost lives would be worth even more, he said.
He pointed to the fact that the British government even compensated slave owners for the loss of slaves after abolition but has never thought it decent to pay the descendants of slaves themselves.
“Great homes in England—lord this and lord that—were financed by the compensation money for the slaves. So when I talk like this you, you have some people saying Ralph is against the British. I have nothing against the British. I have nothing but admiration for the British and their achievement, but there are some things for which we must take account,” he persistently argued.
CARICOM’s announcement said that Antigua’s Baldwin Spencer was also strongly in support of reparations, noting, “We, as political leaders, must encourage our various reparation agencies to continue the education of our Caribbean people and our diaspora and enhance their awareness of the reparations issue.
“We know that our constant search and 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 and colonialism. These nations that have been the major producers of wealth for the European slave-owning economies during the enslavement and colonial periods entered independence with dependency straddling their economic, cultural, social and even political lives.”