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Need to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the slave trade

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The year 2007 in the Caribbean will be important not only for the staging of the Cricket World Cup but it will mark 200 years since the abolition of the British Slave Trade.

It is good to see that Caribbean countries are putting plans in place for marking that significant stage in our history. At a recent meeting of the United Nations the issue was raised by a number of Caribbean countries with the intention of getting the United Nations to play a central role in commemorating the event. Our Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves went a step further in raising the issue of reparations.{{more}}This issue is certainly not new and in fact has been gaining even greater currency in recent years.

Reparations

The issue of reparations is not only a complex one but also controversial because the debate itself will be played out in a field that is still filled with racism and power play. But there are some things which stand out. In the case of the British colonies the plantation owners were compensated. In the United States of America a promise was made to the freed slaves of 40 acres of land and a mule apiece. Any discussion or debate about reparations also has to take into account the fact that there are instances of the granting of reparations. These include the Japanese-Americans interned in World War 1; Holocaust survivors who were used as forced labourers and the case of the state of Israel. The call for reparations to descendants of African slaves has been around for some time. In the United States of America Democrat John Conyers (Jr.) has since 1989 been presenting bills calling for a study of proposals for reparations.

I stated that the matter is a complex one. It will among other things, demand certain judgements about plaintiffs and defendants, as some people have argued. Recently Leonard Shorey has taken Dr. Gonsalves to task on the grounds that in his call for reparations he omitted mention of Africans and Arabs who collaborated in the sale of Africans. The truth is that in just about every case of injustice there are persons among the victims who have been collaborators, even in the case of the Jews.

During slavery there were slaves who betrayed their bretheren but these could not be held responsible for slavery. What does reparation really mean and what does it involve because the handing out of checks or of compensation payments is not all or even what it is about. As one individual who warned that we need to take the reparation demands seriously, wrote “This all sounds like a big, messy bureaucratic nightmare. No amount of cash can wash away the sins of slavery. Giving me a check as a ‘compensation’ for the agony of my ancestors trivialises their suffering. I feel uneasy at the thought of making a profit from that suffering.”

Permanent scars

What else will stand? Should it be symbolic, like the Anglican Church apologising for its role in slavery or the British government doing similarly? Should it involve special concessions for affected countries and people? The truth is that even at this stage we cannot wish it all away. Permanent scars have remained and we have to live with the repercussions. Much of what we are, the images painted about us and how we picture ourselves have all been influenced by that terrible episode or phase in our past. It has retarded our development and dominated our history. In fact we have concentrated on the negatives of slavery and not about the positives that came out in our responses and our ability to survive and to move on. One of the things that we have not celebrated as an accomplishment as much as we should have was the fact that a small country like St.Lucia was able to produce two nobel laureates, despite a late start forced on us by slavery.

But even beyond the issue of reparations, the debate will go about the need to mark the occasion and to pull out what is positive from it , bearing in mind that our people played a role in what eventually happened in the British parliament that passed that memorable piece of legislation.

Today Haiti our sister country is still facing terrible times, but it has to be recognised that the revolt in Haiti added a new dimension to the debate about slavery and about the abolition of the slave trade. We have to also take the occasion to expand on what had come out of the World Conference Against Racism that was held in 2001 in Durban, South Africa. At that conference the idea of greater development efforts and debt relief for African states were high on the agenda.

Education about slavery and its repercussions and implications still need to be carried on. The Bahamas I am told is planning activities for the period March 2007 to January 2008 and the intention is to educate the populace about the abomination of slavery and exposing them to the positive aspects of African culture. It was really good to see Caricom trying to get this issue on the agenda of the United Nations.



No level playing field



As we face the rich and powerful in international fora and speak about the vulnerability of small states we have to also remind them that for many of them their position today came out of the profits of the slave trade and from the backs of African peoples. Walter Rodney’s argument in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is a powerful one that goes a long way in explaining the plight of Africa today. It is certainly not the only part of the story but it appears to me that a similar argument needs to be made for the Caribbean for our countries were fully exploited to benefit our colonizers.

Today those who make decisions at the World Trade Organisation seem to think that we are playing on a level playing field.

The story of the slave trade and slavery must remind us that even if there is a playing field it certainly ‘ain’ level.

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