Columns

Reparations? You and what army?

Mark WIGNALL

Thursday, February 20, 2014    

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I should have known that one can never 'win' an argument with a 'foundation' Rastafarian, especially when the subject is repatriation to Africa or reparations money that many Jamaicans believe is owed to us by the European nations who were active participants in the Atlantic Slave Trade, especially the Dutch, the French and the English.

Plus, his voice was louder than mine.

"A whey yuh really ah seh? Di wicked oppressor dem fi pay! Dem suck out I and I labour and leave di people dem destitute. Dem

fi pay!"

He was vocally supported by four young men in the small bar in Pembroke Hall, and when I said, "The big industrial nations are moved by moral motives only to the extent that those motives line up with their geopolitical interests," no one said anything for a while until I broke it down. Then the elder said, "Mi nuh care weh yuh waan seh. Wi a go get di money!"

We laid bare all the facts.

After the native populations of the Caribbean had been wiped out by disease, the 'genocidal sport' of the colonisers, the Europeans, turned their eyes to the western coast of Africa to replace the labour that had disappeared.

The majority of the European population was made up of impoverished whites, and the indentured workers and prisoners taken to the Caribbean couldn't handle the back-breaking plantation work. At the same time, the Dutch and the Portugese were veterans in the slaving business in Africa, and there was much to be learned from them.

Also, black tribal chiefs in the area of Africa's 'Slave Coast', whose nations were already involved in making slaves of those who were captured in tribal wars, were all too willing to facilitate the wholesale kidnapping of those who looked like them to sell to the white man so that he could forcibly transport them thousands of miles to a strange land. To the black chiefs it was strictly business.

To the slavers and plantation owners, the black-skinned people taken to the Caribbean were property of which they had absolute ownership. Like cattle or horses they could be thrown overboard, traded (and shackled, whipped, buggered, raped, and subjected to other forms of inhuman torture). As long as they were housed and fed to the barest minimum that was required to keep them working, all was well. If the population became depleted, more slaves were brought in or purchased from other plantation owners who could not resist making a healthy return on investment.

To the plantation owners it was strictly business but, being also highly religious, they found convenient support in the ubiquitous Holy Bible. When they went to church on Sundays they had no problems reading from Titus 2: 9-10, where it said: "Slaves are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour."

We don't have the means to enforce any reparations payout.

My Rasta "bredrin" and I were at one in agreeing that it was the blood and sweat wrought out of the black-skinned people brought to the Caribbean that gave the European nations, and especially Britain, the jump-start needed for the Industrial Revolution, even though some scholars have tended to downplay it.

We were also agreed that black-skinned people in the New World were placed at an economic disadvantage because of the hundreds of years of chattel slavery. When I told him that even if the Caribbean nations which have decided to sue specific European nations were successful in winning in court, we have no means to enforce a payout. So if the Europeans say nothing, do nothing, there is no recourse. His face knotted up as a sign of dismissal.

"Where is our army, navy and air force?" I asked him. "Can we send 1,000 drones and threaten to bomb Downing Street if they refuse? Can we place an army of one million paratroopers with the latest in high-tech weaponry on the ground in Paris?" He was becoming visibly distressed.

I pointed out to him, as he cited the Jews and the Holocaust, that a number of factors were prevalent at the time to facilitate Germany paying reparations to the Jewish state of Israel. I pointed out that Germany had lost the war and once the horrors of the Holocaust was absorbed by the peoples of the world, global sympathy was on the side of the Jews.

"What cannot be left out of the picture," I said to him, "is that once you have the victors on your side, even although there was political opposition to the payout (sellout, some called it) in Israel, with Jews well placed globally in science, commerce and academia, the Germans were never in a position to say they were not paying."

"So, weh yuh a seh? Nobody no respect we?" he asked.

"Exactly," I said. "The Europeans like our beaches, our rum, our beautiful women and some even smoke our weed, but deep down many of them see us as a set of mendicants travelling the world with our caps in our hands. No one respects a beggar."

He came back with his usual, "Mi nuh care weh yuh seh, dem haffi pay!"

Again I pointed out to him that even if Europeans are still willing to throw themselves before the ghost of Bob Marley and reggae music, and white women in their capital cities continue to swoon over Usain Bolt, the fastest man on planet Earth, it will be a hard political sell for European political leaders to convince their tax-paying populations that they will have to pony up to pay 'some people over there', thousands of miles from their shores and culture, for the sins of their foreparents. Sins that they themselves did not commit.

The most obvious argument that lawyers taking an anti-reparations stance will use is that Britain, France and the Netherlands owned the lands, the shop and the property and were operating well within the accepted constitutional and institutional framework of their respective countries at the time.

"My friends," I said to them, "when one has power, might in whatever form it takes can be decreed as right. Morality is usually the first victim there. Don't you understand that?"

"Mi nuh care weh yuh seh, dem haffi pay!" said my Rasta bredrin.

observemark@gmail.com

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