Casting off the Chains of the Past – The Bahamas Should Ignore Reparations
The wind of reparations has been blowing throughout the Caribbean for several years and will soon begin to flutter feathers here in The Bahamas. On March 24, Minister of Foreign Affairs Fred Mitchell announced Cabinet appointment of our own National Committee on Reparations, headed by senior attorney Alfred Sears with no less than 22 members—pastors, historians, educators, lawyers, journalists, even a poet/film-maker and a businessman. Mr. Sears proclaimed that an action plan and public-awareness program would be forthcoming.
The background and the objectives of reparations make a fascinating story—reparations for slavery of African blacks and, a related issue, the genocide of Caribbean indigenous peoples.
The issue took tangible form in Durban, South Africa, in 2001 at the UN-sponsored World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. Eleven Caribbean nations, not including The Bahamas, sent delegations (with the vigorous leadership of Cuba’s Fidel Castro himself), as well as African, European and Asian governments; the United States boycotted the Conference.
Reparations were a major controversial issue and according to one participant “bred enough vexation and anger to fill the city beyond the plenary walls. There was palpable rage in some places,” directed at European nations who stonewalled against admitting slavery as a crime against humanity. The Caribbean delegations left the Conference feeling they had been betrayed by African states like Nigeria and Senegal who gave only luke-warm support to reparations.
The hard-line position taken at Durban by the British Government, as directed by Prime Minister Tony Blair, continued until 2007, with the celebration of 200th Anniversary of abolition of slavery within Great Britain. In the course of many windy speeches in Parliament, Blair was expected to issue a formal “apology” for the black slavery that had been openly approved for centuries.
But he refused to use this word, apparently on the advice of lawyers who feared that it would open a flood-gate of legal claims. Instead, he merely issued “statements of regret” and “great sorrow” over the history of slavery; clearly, reparations were out of the question.
The integrity of Tony Blair’s position was undermined by other restorative actions. He apologized to the Irish for Britain’s role in the potato famine in 19th Century Ireland, and Queen Elizabeth II apologized to the New Zealand Maoris for their 1860 massacre and to Indians for the killing of 1,200 in the Punjab in 1919.
It seemed to the Caribbean countries that apologies were limited to peoples who were not black Africans. And they noted that the British city of Liverpool, once a center of the slave trade, had in the 1990s taken a very different view from Blair by formally apologizing for its role and raising funds to build a Slavery Museum.
Mr. Blair was further weakened by the revelations that after Caribbean emancipation in the 1830s, the British government paid over £16 million compensation (equivalent to £11.6 billion in 2010) to slave owners for loss of their slave “property”—while the freed slaves got nothing. Owners from 16 colonies were compensated, with Jamaica at the head of the list at £6.1 million; slavers from The Bahamas had too few to be counted.
Agitation for reparations continued to seethe, particularly in Jamaica, Barbados, and British Guiana, the colonies with the largest slave populations in at the time of 1834 emancipation.
After years of planning, efforts coalesced in July 2013 when the heads of state of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) appointed a formal Reparations Commission, headed, not surprisingly, by Sir Hilary Beckles, the activist Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, author of the influential book Britain’s Black Debt – Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide.
The CARICOM Commission soon became active, encouraging each of the 15 CARICOM member nations to establish its own Reparations Committee, all of whom were invited to meet in Barbados in January 2014 to develop a reparations action plan. The Bahamas committee Chairman Alfred Sears attended with his Co-Chairman Philip Smith. together with a partner of Leigh Day, the London lawyers who have been retained to press any legal measures— doubtless to be paid out of public funds of the CARICOM states.
Mr. Sears spoke clearly in favor of a vigorous reparations claim, even going out of his way to criticize Leigh Day as “too conservative…for the requisite creativity that such a case requires.”
The proposals of the Reparations Commission were endorsed at the heads of state meeting held in March and thus became official CARICOM policy. The governments of the United, Kingdom, Netherland and France (maybe also Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden) will be presented with a specific program for reparations. Sometime in mid-summer they will be invited to sit down with CARICOM for full discussion and amicable agreement. If that invitation is declined or the meeting goes nowhere, then presumably Leigh Day would unlimber its legal artillery in the International Court of Justice, the European Court of Human Rights and similar bodies.
Any claim for Caribbean reparations must meet two requirements: First, that offences amounting to crimes against humanity were committed by a designated government against designated peoples: African blacks.
Second, that these crimes directly resulted in personal suffering and material loss that continue to affect Caribbean blacks to the present day.
On the first point, there can be no doubt. The distant ancestors of virtually every living black person in the Bahamas was seized in chains, lost his home and identity, and suffered the horrors of the infamous Middle Passage, all as approved or enforced by the British Government. Unlike Jamaica, relatively few of them were shipped directly from Africa; the majority first were sent to the United States and then were brought here by the Loyalists after the American Revolution. But in either case, their lives were initially transformed from freedom to slavery.
Occasionally, slavery has been defended as “being legal at the time” under the laws of England. If that defense ever had any validity, it was destroyed at the Nuremberg Trials, when Nazi leaders were not allowed to plead that they were just following orders under the statute laws of the Third Reich. Violations of basic human rights could be just as atrocious under the slavery laws as under the Holocaust.
Beckles’ book relates the nauseating story of the slave-ship Zong. In a voyage from Africa to Jamaica in 1781, fresh water began to run short, imperiling the lives of both crew and 470 chained slaves. The captain eventually ordered that 131 slaves, ill but definitely alive, be thrown overboard, to certain death.
Yes, a trial was held back in England. But it was not on a charge of murder; it was simply an insurance claim— what was the monetary value of the slaves sacrificed to save the ship? English law was clear: slaves were not humans, but property, to be treated the same as cattle.
So we can lay the ghost that slavery was not a crime against humanity. Tony Blair could have issued a straightforward apology, instead of escaping with legalistic nit-picking.
But that does not resolve the issue of whether reparations are now due, legally or morally. The program announced by the CARICOM Reparations Commission and endorsed by our own Committee does not make a convincing case.
It announces ten claims, as demands from the UK, under the following headings:
- Apology. A welcome gesture, but meaningless in practical terms.
- Repatriation. Surely only a tiny fraction of Bahamian blacks wishes to return to the West African nations of their distant forefathers. Who but they should pay for it? Or possibly the African governments whose ancestors aided the export of blacks into the slave trade.
- Indigenous Peoples Development. We have had only one indigenous people: the peaceful Lucayans, who were utterly destroyed over 400 years ago. That was certainly a crime against humanity, but not a single descendant, nor a trace of their civilization, survives for present development.
- Cultural Institutions, together with
- African Knowledge Programs. Courses in African studies and local history are already being given at COB by dynamic lecturers like Dr. Chris Curry. When completed, the Pompey Museum will show artifacts of slavery, and the Clifton Heritage Park with the Whylly Plantation is already informative. Beyond these, our forward-looking young people may well prefer that greater resources be devoted to science, engineering, modern languages, business management, and contemporary arts than to historical dissection of a centuries-old crime.
- Public Health. Claims are made that more than 60% of the Caribbean population suffers from hypertension and type 2 diabetes, caused by the stress and nutritional deficiencies of slavery. No statistical evidence is presented, and surely the causal connection is medically suspect since slavery was abolished over 100 years ago.
- Illiteracy Programs. The alleged historical illiteracy rate of 70% is now close to zero in The Bahamas. Although reading skills remain ripe for improvement, our Ministry of Education is well aware of remedial steps.
- Technology Transfer. Yes, we could certainly benefit from more technology resources. But these can only be transferred through specific, profit-oriented investments from the private sector, not through any kind of government-to-government grant.
- Psychological Rehabilitation. Scholars such as Beckles and even Yale Professor Jonathan Holloway lament that the injustices of slavery “still haunt citizens and weaken their capacity to experience citizenship” and that “psychological and cultural traumas of the slave trade… continue to haunt the Caribbean presence.” We wonder how many modern Bahamians actually suffer from psychological traumas induced by slavery. And if some do, how is a foreign government expected to cure an individual’s psychic state?
- Debt Cancellation. It’s not clear that the UK has any outstanding loans to The Bahamas.
The above points fail to demonstrate grounds for reparations, and the Committee’s program ignores one fundamental reality: assuming all our assorted social and economic ills still exist, they result far more from actions of our own citizens than from the United Kingdom.
Our distinguished historian Gail Saunders tells of many occasions when London tried to change the laws and policies that kept blacks oppressed, only to meet bitter and often successful opposition from the white-dominated local legislature.
Governor Sir James Carmichael Smyth, serving 1829-1833, encouraged the emancipation that became final in 1838, and fought unsuccessfully with the House of Assembly to legislate against corporal punishment of female slaves. Saunders writes that “The more blatant attempts by the Bahamian oligarchy were scotched by the Colonial Office… laws denying the franchise and jury service to former slaves were vetoed.”
The Duke of Windsor had his faults, but during his term as Governor during World War II, he battled interminably with Kenneth Solomon, the leader of the House, to set up a Labour Department and to enact sweeping electoral reforms demanded by the Secretary of State in London.
As described in The Duke of Windsor’s War by Michael Bloch, Solomon remained “a reactionary die-hard and blindly averse to all changes in principle” who with his white colleagues fought to the bitter end until threatened with suspension of the House. Much later, after the “taxi strike” of 1958 that paralyzed the economy for several weeks, the Colonial Secretary himself, Lennox Boyd, visited Nassau and compelled the House to amend the electoral laws to widen the franchise.
Thus, if any reparations are to be sought for the black population, it would be more logical to claim against the descendants of the Solomons and other white families who ran the country until majority rule in 1967. Logical perhaps, but certainly divisive and destructive.
Such a policy would shatter the relative racial harmony that we have long enjoyed, in which white and black-owned wealth is now inextricably linked and blacks are steadily climbing the economic ladder. Equally, it would be perverse to demand reparations from Great Britain, which has been supportive of black Bahamians even before final emancipation in 1838. Not only perverse, but futile, since H.M. Government can be expected to reject any substantive demands.
Of course, reparations do sometimes serve humanity and justice. Recent history shows us several powerful examples since World War II. Germany has paid hundreds of millions to the State of Israel or to individual Jewish survivors or descendants of the Nazi extermination campaign. The United States eventually compensated harmless Japanese who were ejected from the West Coast into harsh internment camps during the hysteria following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
Just last year, the UK itself announced that it would pay over $21 million to 5,200 Kenyans who had been tortured and mistreated by British forces during the anti Mau Mau campaigns in the 1950s. This settled long-running litigation in the English courts led by the lawyers Leigh Day—who reportedly got a fee of $9.5 million from the Kenyans.
But these examples have no bearing on the present-day Bahamas. Blacks, living or dead, in our country have never suffered anything approaching the atrocities or repression that befell the Jews, the Japanese or the Mau Mau, and certainly not at the hands of Great Britain. Yes, we continue to experience dire pockets of crime, poverty, juvenile delinquency, unemployment, inadequate education and health care, but these exist after 150 years of Bahamian white dominance from emancipation until 1973, and 40 further years of Bahamian black domination. after independence.
As Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Mr. Sears and the well-meaning citizens who have been appointed to our Reparations could better spend their time and energy working on local improvements, rather than chasing the will-of-the-wisp of compensation from foreign sources — and spending public funds for travel, conferences and legal fees. We now see a growing number of informal grass-roots groups plunging in to campaign for freedom of information, re-painting walls, creating playgrounds , and rehabilitating former gang leaders to rebuild society from the bottom up.
The Bahamas are often said to be different from the rest of the Caribbean. Hilary Beckles himself recognizes this. His book about Caribbean slavery Britain’s Black Debt makes not a single reference to The Bahamas nor cites a single one of Gail Saunders’ extensive historical writings. While we are legally part of CARICOM, we have always been distinct from the early sugar-and-slave-driven economies of Jamaica and Barbados.
We should be proud to stand alone. All Bahamians, even the destitute, share an unquenchable national pride. Unlike some of our less fortunate neighbors, we should announce that we do not need to grovel for hand-outs from our former colonial masters but will use our vigorous energies to solve our own problems. Reparations should be given a quiet burial.
Note: while preparing this column, the author asked Chairman Sears to provide information about the Reparations Committee’s activities and plans for public hearings, but had no response.
By: Richard Coulson
Mr. Coulson has had a long career in law, investment banking and private banking in New York, London, and Nassau, and now serves as director of several financial concerns and as a corporate financial consultant.