Reparations for slavery? Wishing and hoping…

Mark Wignall

Sunday, July 28, 2013

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THE news that 14 countries making up CARICOM are about to launch a formal, concerted effort to lay out claims of reparations for slavery from Britain, France and the Netherlands immediately suggested to me that many of the leaders in our neck of the woods are either too taken up with pining for a lost love, or they simply want to invoke the thought processes of the academic theorists among them who are not solid pragmatists.

According to Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, CARICOM wants to pursue 'honest, sober and robust conversation' with the three European countries about the legacy of slavery and the genocide of native people.

In other words, where previous local discussions about reparations have tended to focus on the fact of that first African kidnapped from the West Coast of Africa hundreds of years ago and what later followed, this new dispensation will bring into the conversation the plight of the Tainos, another bit of foolish romanticism.

In principle it is difficult to...

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Taken that way and in recognition of the huge differential in development that exists today between us and the European nations, it is hard not to say to the European nations, 'Hey, some of that good life you are now enjoying belongs to me. I would like to collect now.'

Jamaicans like JLP MP for Central Clarendon, Mike Henry, have been ardent supporters of reparations and Henry has made himself into the chief spokesperson for the subject in Jamaica.

The argument against reparations is, to me, not a moral one, but one which places 'might' as the final arbiter of all that gets washed in the moral pot.

After the end of World War 2, the relatives of Jews who had been brutalised and systematically slaughtered under Hitler's 'Final Solution' along with the new state of Israel, made claims for reparations, and for years Germany was 'forced' more by moral suasion brought on by the reality of the new global power relations.

Reparations respect economic

and military might At the end of the last global conflict, the new world power was the United States of America and, along with Britain, one of its main allies was Israel, situated on Palestinian lands in the Middle East.

More important was the fact that the Jewish people were always well placed in American society. It is important to understand the extent to which the Jewish child is brought up on a respect for the gathering of knowledge and its practical application in the global space. If we do that, we will fully understand why the Jews literally run the US, controlling Wall Street, the media, global transport, arms sales and most important of all, Hollywood.

What fails to get full traction in its practical application is fully supported by Hollywood movies which have done more to shape global opinions than any other media.

So Germany, vanquished but slowly rebuilding with the assistance of the US after WW2, began to hand over funds to Israel and as the rest of the world saw it, it was fully supported because the media and Hollywood would be the first in line to portray the genocide visited on the Jews by Hitler's psychopathic second-tier leadership.

During the war a paranoid but somewhat justified America locked up for the entire duration of the war many Japanese Americans after the Japanese navy and air force launched an attack on Pearl Harbour in Hawaii and made the Japanese the enemy of America.

After the war, the Japanese who were involved made the claim for reparations and were successful. While the American state had awesome power over its citizens during the war, it could be legally argued that taking away some of the fundamental constitutional rights of a citizen were actionable in the courts.

The successful Japanese American reparations claims were an internal matter, but it had international support.

The most common feature of the Jewish and Japanese-American reparations was currency. The deeds were seen, known, and no hundreds of years separated the deeds from the claims.

In addition, the Jews had 'clout,' Israel had British and American support even if the British had their initial problems with the early settlers. The Japanese-Americans were American citizens and America was not prepared to leave any of its citizens in the dust.

Why the CARICOM claim will fail

Apart from the fact that the British High Commissioner to Jamaica has said that his government opposes reparations, is CARICOM not aware that after hundreds of years of slavery and about 175 years since its ending, no one has a name, a face or a family to place on a claim form for reparations?

Granted, it may not need that because we are all aware of the huge human displacement, suffering, brutality and death that the kidnapped Africans had to face while they were forced to labour for free for the Europeans in the Caribbean.

Will some of the West African nations join us in this claim?

The most common argument against reparations for slavery is the one easily made by, say, a British politician: ‘It was a terrible error of the past. We must move on.’

Or a British citizen: 'My great, great, great-grandparents may have done something right horrible, but I wasn't there and if I was, I would have stopped him.'

There are even some Jamaicans to whom I've spoken who reject the 'son of a slave' attachment.

The fact is, in the global space a country is 'respected' for first, its military power, then its economic might and linkage in the international community. That is what provides a country with 'clout'.

The claim can be made, especially in Jamaica, that we have done relatively poorly with the little we began with in August 1962, the time of our independence. I honestly cannot imagine some politician in Britain, France or the Netherlands saying to himself, 'Those countries in CARICOM, they have done extremely well. They deserve our respect, especially Jamaica.'

We know that the art of international diplomacy requires one to utter kind and civil words to one's 'international partners.' What we cannot know and control is one of our international partners going home to his wife and saying to her, 'They are a sorry lot, I say. If we should give them a billion pounds, they would have a good eat-up, drink-up, and be broke next week.'

Where we have no military or economic right, we need 'respect' and 'clout' to attract the attention of Britain, France and the Netherlands, and I will take a safe bet that we rank pretty low on those two ratings.

Would reparations be blood money?

If there is a single thread that binds every country that has made a success of itself, it is that one which involves the spilling of blood in war.

For a country to appreciate itself, its people must know that the social and economic good being enjoyed came at a high cost. Even the small city state Singapore was involved in WW2.

Japan, the US, Germany, Britain and Australia all were at some stage involved directly in a great global conflict where their people gave their lives for their present 'way of life', they would say.

Many of us in Jamaica have not identified with slavery and its ending as something that our forefathers endured and a few fought against. Ask the Jamaican at street level what he identifies with in relation to the nation's past struggles and he will probably make a passing reference to Marcus Garvey.

Some local academics who have done well for themselves may see reparations as nothing more than the acceptance of blood money. One suggested: 'Britain and the other European nations who were directly involved in our part of the transatlantic slave trade should instead cancel all debts we have with them. That will give us the needed breathing space for our people to get our act together.'

The blood money argument doesn't go very far because we cannot go back in time and take the lives of those who brutalised and systematically murdered our forefathers. If we are to accept anything now, even a cancellation of our debts, that could still be classified as blood money.

It is not that I do not support the reparations for slavery claims; only that I cannot see the European nations involved even giving us the time of day. I frankly believe they will be laughing at us behind our backs while going through the motions in public.

Ethically and morally, we may be entitled to reparations for slavery, but this is not an ethical world. It is instead one where power is respected and that power is best conveyed by economic clout and a million guns pointing right back at you as we supplicate and bow before the European powers and hope that they give us a passing nod.

The irony is, if we had that economic and military clout, we would not need to be wasting time chasing down chimeras. In other words, the countries who are in the best ethical positions to make the claim for reparations are the ones least likely to get it because we are minnows in a world where only the sharks get to make the rules.

Should we therefore give up the claims? No. Our academics need the exercise, our lawyers need the research practice, and our politicians need to believe that they are creating a legacy of 'intervention on the global stage'.

In reality, what we need is investments. We need to educate our people. We need to bring about an attitudinal change in how we relate to each other, and we need to believe that our success must begin inside us.

Trying to convince a few, or many, in the Caribbean that Britain, France and the Netherlands have a big pot of money just waiting for us to dip our hands into is not the way to go. It will not happen, especially in a world where entire economies can be derailed by minor errors of economic judgement.

The head of a Singaporean delegation who attended a recently held meeting of the International Seabed Authority told us, in no uncertain terms, 'When the British left, you (Jamaica) were in a better state than many of the countries in South-east Asia. You've squandered your legacy.'

We have to begin the long trip of reclaiming and rebuilding, not chasing down dreams of reparations.





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