Britain ended its slave trade in 1807, and freed the slaves in its Caribbean colonies by 1838. The British government borrowed £20m, then around 40% of the budget, to meet 47,000 claims for loss of human property. The former slaves got nothing.Close to two centuries on, Caribbean politicians want redress. The Caribbean Community (Caricom) which links former British colonies with Suriname and Haiti, established an official reparations commission in July 2013 and has approached a British legal firm, Leigh Day, for advice…Among the precedents for financial reparations, West Germany and Israel signed a financial agreement in 1952, seven years on from Auschwitz. In June this year, after legal action by Leigh Day, Britain conceded payments averaging £2,600 ($4,000) each for 5,228 now elderly Kenyans who were brutally mistreated during the suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s. Britain’s courts will not now consider claims for atrocities occurring before 1954. Unpicking wrongs from 60 years ago is hard enough.
Who should pay? With the slave owners all dead, Caricom wants taxpayers’ money from Britain, France and the Netherlands… Figures quoted for the current equivalent of the £20m paid to slave owners vary from £16.5 billion to £76 billion. A widely reported demand in 1999 was for $777 trillion to be paid to Africa over five years. More than ten years on, that would still be around ten times global GDP.
Who should be paid? Caricom is talking about compensation at a national level. Based on the numbers with slave ancestors, that would funnel the lion’s share of the money to America and Brazil—with a good slice to Brixton and Birmingham. There is potential for divisive squabbles. In Trinidad and Guyana, descendants of Indian indentured labourers outnumber the black population. Sat Maharaj, Trinidad’s most prominent Hindu leader, argues that the Indo-Caribbean population also deserves compensation. He asks whether it should also come from Islamic countries that imported slaves, and from African countries where local merchants sold slaves to Europeans.
Slavery reparations: Blood money, Economist, Oct. 5, 2013, at 42