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The Caribs and reparations

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On the issue of reparations, the persons who have to be singled out for special attention are the Caribs. At the end of the second Carib War, some 4,338 of them had either surrendered or been captured and sent to Balliceaux, but only 2,248 left for Ruatan, many having succumbed to the horrid conditions, to disease and malnutrition. The figures for those remaining in St Vincent are unreliable, but it was suggested that at the time of the eruption in 1902, of the over 2,000 persons who died, the majority were Caribs. {{more}}

Efforts by the Colonial Office to get reliable figures were never fulfilled. Apart from being disposed of their lands and sent into exile, those who remained suffered severe discrimination that continued for an extremely long time. The Caribs, in fact, lived on the margins of society, were belittled and made fun of even by the black population, which, of course, had also suffered its own kind of discrimination and mental enslavement.

There are political and legal battles involved in the reparation quest that need to be fully ventilated, but are not my concern here. CARICOM has put the issue on its agenda, but that body is a toothless hag that cannot even handle its own matters. There is still a lot of talk about the CSME, but issues related to hassle free traffic and disinterest, among others, continue to beleaguer efforts to tighten the integration movement. Having said all of that, the fact is that a strong case for reparation remains, especially for the indigenous population. Because the struggles between the Caribs and the English in St Vincent continued well into the 18th century, the documentation is perhaps stronger than elsewhere in the region. They had actually put figures to the cost of lands they hoped to acquire and acquired. The resistance of the Carib people in St Vincent forced the British to make their intentions absolutely clear. A memorial sent by the planters to the Secretary of State spells out clearly what their mission was all about.

“…That near two-thirds of the cultivable lands of St.Vincent’s remain in the possession of the Black Caribs…That by the culture of such lands as are at present and must for ever be unnecessary to that people, his Majesty’s revenue will be greatly increased…that as they desire not the destruction of others, they may be secured in their own lives and properties, which they humbly conceive can never be effected whilst the Charaibs are permitted to remain …possessors of so considerable a share of the island;

“That your memorialists believe…that if a force sufficient to reduce them, was speedily to be sent to the island, they would acknowledge the sovereignty and domain of his Majesty…”

Sir William Young added, “The soil of St.Vincent’s had been some time known to be the richest and most fertile of the Carribbée islands, and the country which the Charaibs possessed to be the most fertile of St.Vincent’s”

But even before that, the groundwork had been set by the earlier Europeans who denied the humanity of the Caribs and labelled them as cannibals, something which they have had to live with for a long time. The colonial powers used the tactic of divide and rule to a maximum, so that even blacks who were themselves considered property and treated as such saw it fit in the period after emancipation to look down on the Caribs as though they were lesser beings. Even in later years, Carib women, in particular, could tell you the hell they went through when they were put into refugee settlements following the 1979 eruption of the volcano. Behind all of this was also typical British arrogance. Their oppression also involved the deprivation of their culture, through the provision of an education system that portrayed them as inferior. A few years ago, the mother of a Carib girl had told me that some teachers were still referring to the Caribs as cannibals.

Physical oppression was one thing, but equally bad was the use of religion and education to “civilise” the natives, as they put it. Today, a people whose ancestors controlled the entire region and travelled throughout what they considered their own domain now still live largely on the margin of society, having been deprived of the lands which they owned communally. I have always been suspicious of the information given about Chiefs Chatoyer and Duvalle owning estates. The Caribs did not own property individually, so what were the estates going to mean to them and what and how were they going to cultivate them, especially in a prolonged period of warfare? Everything their enemies did and said was meant to build a case for the deprivation of their lands. Chatoyer, it was said, I am not sure by whom, had exchanged Young Island for a horse. Young Island belonged to the Carib people, not to Chatoyer as an individual.

Reparations, to me, does not mean the handing out of money. It is, however, possible to equate in dollars the cost of the exploitation of the Carib people and that should be a starting point in a dialogue meant to bring about reconciliation and address past wrongs. When Independence came, there was nothing put in place to assist the development of the native peoples. The British took refuge in the European night and with other big players used the international financial institutions to do their bidding, so the free market and free trade were put on the agenda. Our banana and sugar farmers were left out on a limb. The Carib people, whose lands were stolen to develop the sugar industry and facilitate British development, were thus left to fend for themselves in a hostile world. This, of course, is only part of the story.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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