Britain’s Black Debt: The Logic of Reparation

An account of the launch of Hilary Beckles’s book, Britain’s Black Debt, in Jamaica

The launch of the book Britain’s Black Debt by historian Hilary Beckles, Principal of the Cave Hill Campus on May 2 was as solemn and grand an event as the weight of reparations from Britain for the crime of slavery demanded. The auditorium of the New Medical Sciences Building on the Mona Campus of the University was full, with ushers politely showing attendees to their seats. Here and there you could see clumps of Rastafarians equipped with small drums and instruments which they shook and beat whenever a speaker said something they approved of.

Kellie Magnus @kelliemagnus
Beckles: 300 years of salt pork has led to chronic illnesses. Rasta man shouts out: fire bun!

@kelliemagnus I find huge flags waved at high speeds right by the ear more dramatic #strategiestosurvive3hourbooklaunch

Kellie Magnus @kelliemagnus
Gonsalves calls for intl conference on reparations. Offers St Vincent and the Grenadines as host #britainsblackdebt

anniepaul @anniepaul
Sigh RT @kelliemagnus: After 67 minutes Gonsalves says, “I turn now to part two of the book.” #britainsblackdebt

RT @keimiller: Gonzales has moved on to 2nd topic: slavery. Hope its not as long as Roots.

@touchofallright to @BigBlackBarry

dude–you shld be at this launch for “britain’s black debt: reparations for caribbean slavery and native genocide”

BigBlackBarry @BigBlackBarry
@touchofallright nobody doan invite me to these jiggy functions. How it can name black an Barry nat dere?

The flippancy of the tweets I’ve chosen to quote above are no reflection on the subject of the book itself but more the outcome of a captive audience equipped with social media and able to chafe publicly at the undue length of the ceremonies. Lord Anthony Gifford who has researched the subject of reparations extensively and campaigned for it, was short and incisive but by the time the guest speaker, the Honorable Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, finished his expansive official speech many of us had to leave without hearing the author of the book respond. This was a pity because I had come mainly to hear Beckles on a subject that I’ve thought and written about myself.


In fact the event reminded me that one of the earliest columns I wrote for the Sunday Herald (March 10, 1996) was titled The Logic of Reparation. I remember being stunned at the time when Rupert Lewis congratulated me on being the first columnist to tackle this troublesome issue in the mainstream media (Jamaica’s come a long way since the mid-nineties). My own interest in Reparations was sparked by my conversations with a family friend, Ras Makonnen, aka George Nelson, a feisty Rastafarian public figure who had he not succumbed to cancer would probably have been Mayor of Portmore today. Big George as he was known, founded the Committee on Reparations in Jamaica in 1991 and had attended the First Pan-African Conference on Reparations held in Abuja, Nigeria, April 27-29, 1993, out of which came the Abuja Proclamation, part of which i quote below.

…Fully persuaded that the damage sustained by the African peoples is not a “thing of the past’ but is Painfully manifest in the damaged lives of contemporary Africans from Harlem to Harare, in the damaged economies of the Black World from Guinea to Guyana, from Somalia to Surinam.
Respectfully aware of historic precedents in reparations, ranging from German Payment of restitution to the Jews for the enormous tragedy of the Nazi Holocaust to the question of compensating Japanese-Americans for injustice of internment by Roosevelt Administration in the United States during the World War II.
Cognizant of the fact that compensation for injustice need not necessarily be paid only in capital but could include service to the victims or other forms of restitution and readjustment of the relationship agreeable to both parties.
Emphatically convinced that what matters is not the guilt but the responsibility of those states and nations whose economic evolution once depended on slave labor and colonialism, and whose forebears participated either in selling and buying Africans, or in owning them, or in colonizing  them…
Well, I missed what Professor Beckles had to say on the occasion of the launch but at least i can buy the book and read it. It was only the other day that a conversation on Facebook about Reparations inevitably led to the argument by a ‘Jamaica white’ that s/he was a mixture of both black and white. So which part was going to pay which part? This kind of trivialization of reparative justice is quite common but the fact is that reparations need not be thought of as individual payouts such as the former slave-owning planters received, but as investments in public goods, like education, health and infrastructure. This would go a long way toward repairing the historical injustice Britain benefited from and inflicted on the Caribbean islands it once controlled.
English historians have recently uncovered the links between prominent British public figures and their slave-owning antecedents. From David Cameron, the Prime Minister, to highly regarded writers such as George Orwell and Graham Greene, the list is a long one. According to Nick Draper from University College London, who along with historian Catherine Hall and others studied the compensation papers “… as many as one-fifth of wealthy Victorian Britons derived all or part of their fortunes from the slave economy.”