By Bert Wilkinson
The Caribbean Reparations Commission says that what might have been an innocent recent mistake on the part of British authorities has now given it additional evidence and renewed impetus to make Britain and other European nations compensate the Caribbean for making millions of Blacks work on agricultural plantations in the region without a cent in payment.
Successive British administrations had argued that the slave trade was so yesterday’s news that the region should just accept it as a cruel mistake of history and move on, while openly vowing not to pay a dollar to the descendants of slavery going forward. Payments, compensation or reparations, they say, will come through big grants, concession loans and free trade nuggets that Britain and the European Union have given to the Caribbean in the past and in the future.
British officials had confidently said that no court would award payments for something done nearly 400 years ago. Worse yet, slavery was not illegal in the United Kingdom at the time.
Now, Sir Hilary Beckles, the respected regional academic that governments have identified to lead the fight for reparations, last week accused London of rank dishonesty in putting forward reasons why it does not plan to compensate the region for the African slave trade.
He said that a recent British Treasury tweet and other documents now show that a loan from the British government that had been used to compensate former slave owners in the Caribbean was still being funded by British taxpayers as recently as 2015. That makes everything about this case current and justiciable.
This also means, Beckles argues, that many of the estimated 300,000 Caribbean nationals who now live in the UK and are slave descendants, were themselves forced to pay reparations to former slave owners in what is clearly a cruel fate of irony. But London is reluctant to compensate their fore parents for slavery.
“This transfer of public money to the private holders of the slave bond makes it a present day activity. It also implies that the 300,000 West Indian people who have been living in Britain, their taxes were being used to pay back the slavery loan, which suggests that you are speaking of a double payment,” Beckles said.
Countering the argument that slavery is an old issue, he now is contending that the revelation in the tweet makes this “a present day issue. We consider this to be an immorality. It is the greatest act of political immorality,” said the vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies. For more than 180 years, London had been quietly forcing its citizens, including those from the Caribbean, to repay the slavery abolition loan.
The issue could be discussed at this week’s leaders summit in Haiti. Governments have already hired a British legal firm which had won millions for Kenyan tribesmen who were mass murdered by British soldiers in the colonial era to fight its case. The clear advice from the team is that the region has a very strong case.
So letters of demand to discuss the issue and payments have already been sent to Britain, Spain, France, Portugal, Denmark and The Netherlands. Some have signaled a willingness to talk, while some have not replied. The region could take the case to the World Court if Europe fails to act in two years.
Sir Hilary had also hinted that someone at the British Treasury might have mistakenly posted a tweet on Feb. 9, indicating that “millions of you helped end the slave trade through your taxes,” noting that this was the type of lawless and immoral confirmation that the region needed to help boost its case. Calculated today, that Sterling 20 million would be equivalent to 15 billion pounds.