Tricky Reparations Quest Should Begin in Antigua

Reparations Quest Charity begins at home. The seeds are being sown for reparations for slavery to be paid to Caribbean nations. Where should we begin?

At the Thirty-fourth Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government in July 2013 in Trinidad and Tobago, it was agreed to set up National Committees on Reparations. The goal of these committees is to establish the moral, ethical and legal case for the payment of reparations by the former colonial European countries.

The future for the Caribbean looks bleak. The Governor of the ECCB, Sir Dwight, in his 2013 ECCU Economic Review Presentation, signaled large government, and unsustainable debt, as perilous clouds hanging over the region.  Some point to the world economic downturn. Others refer to global warming and its effects like flooding, drought, and rising seal levels as threats to the region.

If the case for reparations can be won, it will not only provide a momentous cushion from the impending gloomy forecasts, but will prove to be the most important recognition of any people in the history of man – even eclipsing Nuremburg in significance and precedent.

The magnitude, scale, plunder and heinousness of institutionalized slavery were so great that the damage still resides, not only in the psyche of blacks, but also in the performance of Caribbean people and economies. When all the horrors are stacked by themselves they present an overwhelming dossier of evidence that a most dehumanizing and inhumane injustice was committed. Nonetheless, the case has many sides which tend to make it less clear-cut than the volume of evidence seems to portray at first glance.
Consultation with attorneys from the internationally acclaimed British law firm, Leigh Day, have given the heads of government a glimmer of energising hope. Reparation is not a difficult concept. Simply put, it is compensation in money, land or other goods for hardships and loss. But the case is an extremely complex one, with an elaborate maze of black and white tunnels, compounded with many, many shades of grey in between.
The illusive quest for reparations for slavery is not new. Since 1865 after the United States Civil War, General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, which bestowed to the freed families forty acres of land and a mule. Subsequent activists and civil rights advocates have always referred to this Order as a debt owed to the descendents of slaves. This debt has never been settled either in the United States or its kind in the West Indies.

The first hurdle to overcome is: who should pay reparations - Nations, families, companies, institutions or all of the above? The Conference has already confined the debt to colonial slave-owning European countries only. This position, I believe, punctures a huge hole in an already leaky case. Firms, companies, families, churches, Jews, Arabs and Africans were also an integral part of slavery and the slave trade. Why should a selection of nations pay while others who benefited more are let off?

If it is agreed and accepted, somehow, that nations should pay, including African nations, there are some anomalies that will present themselves. The Yoruba people of Nigeria were slave owners while the Hausa were slaves to the Sokoto Caliphate until 1936 when the British took over Northern Nigeria and outlawed slavery, freeing some 2.5 million slaves. Should the whole of Nigeria pay or just the slave owning Yoruba descendants?  Similarly, should the taxes of the large West Indian community in the United Kingdom pay reparations to CARICOM countries?

Jews also were major players in the slave trade and slave ownership. A 1680 tax list from Barbados shows that Jews contributed 11.7 percent of the taxes raised even though they were not citizens or allowed to pursue debts in court. But where they excelled, is as merchants and ship owners. In his book, Jews and Judaism in the United States, Rabbi Marc Lee Raphael states that, “In fact, in all the American colonies, whether French (Martinique), British, or Dutch, Jewish merchants frequently dominated [the slave trade]” (p 14). Intriguingly, one of the merchant ships owned by Nathan Marston and Abram Lyell was called ‘The Antigua’.

Jews was not a nation then, but Israel is a nation today. Is it fair or proper to ask Israel to pay reparations? Or should this charge be levied against the family, relatives or descendents of these persons? This too would undoubtedly prove difficult to establish. Evident from the United States civil war, very closely related persons fought and expended resources on different sides of the debate. In that case, which family members should pay? Some family members consider that they have actually done enough to regard their debt as paid.

Churches too, owned slaves and plantations in the colonies. Not only that, the church played a pivotal role in the psychological development of slavery as an institution – being a major definer of the parameters, justification, do’s and don’ts, relating to slavery. Today churches operate with many incentives and tax breaks. But some of them can truthfully claim that they played an equally important role in, not only the dismantling of slavery, but also in the reconstruction process.

Easily available documentation shows that multinationals and their successors were heavily involved in slavery and the slave trade.  Barclays has admitted that companies it purchased over the years benefitted from slavery. Therefore, the Caribbean Community’s decision to limit the payment for reparations to the European countries involved in the slave trade and slavery is, to say the least, short-changing itself and immediately opening a case for discrimination.

Opponents of reparations would have a very valid case if it is contended that blacks owned slaves also. Slavery is usually perceived as free whites owning black slaves. But slavery was much more complex.  Many blacks owned black slaves and some actually owned white slaves also. Even among the Jamaican Maroons, the 1831 census records of Moore Town, lists a Maroon, Samuel Phillips, with 18 slaves.

In Antigua, however, there was an extremely high proportion of free blacks that were very wealthy and many of them owned slaves. In 1821 the population of Antigua consisted of 1980 whites, 4066 free blacks and 31064 black slaves. Dr. Susan Lowes in her paper ‘The Decline of the White and Non-White Elites in Antigua 1834 -1900’ depicts a class of blacks with, not only wealth, but power as well.

She states: “For reasons that are unclear, the free coloured in Antigua had more political rights than in most other islands. They had the right to vote in Assembly and vestry elections…A number of free coloured owned slaves who either worked directly for them, as clerks in shops, seamstresses, washers, ironers, or were hired out to others, as porters on the docks, for instance, or as skilled tradesmen… The wealthiest were merchants, and by emancipation most of the larger retail establishments - those selling dry goods, housewares, women's clothing, haberdashery, cosmetics, and so on -were owned by free –coloured families…”.

Actually, the first persons to own slaves in the British colonies were blacks. Before Anthony Johnson v Robert Parker, in the Northampton Court in 1654, there were no black slaves in the colonies. Blacks and whites were indentured servants who had to be freed after seven years then given fifty acres of land.

Anthony Johnson was a black freed servant who farmed about 250 acres of land and had a few indentured servants. When the time for one of the servants, John Casor, was up, Johnson told Casor that he was extending the time. Casor ran away to be indentured to a free white man Robert Parker.

Johnson sued Parker for his property.  The court ruled that Anthony Johnson could hold John Casor indefinitely as was their African custom, but a white person could not. John Casor therefore, became the first African slave in the colonies and naturally, Anthony Johnson the first slave owner.

Truth be told, all slaves were not black.  Little is told about the genocide perpetrated in Ireland and the number of Irish sold as slaves.  Actually an Irish indentured servant (5 Sterling) was cheaper than an African (30 Sterling). But many of the Irish were to be had free of cost.

By proclamation, in 1625, James II sent 30,000 Irish political prisoners to the colonies to be sold. In 1656 Oliver Cromwell sent 2000 Irish children to Jamaica to be sold. During the period 1640 to about 1650 the population of Ireland plummeted from 1,500,000 to about 550,000 – many were killed but more than half the displaced were sold as slaves to the New World and Australia. In 1677, of a population of 3200 in Montserrat, about 2000 were Irish slaves, 600 black slaves and the rest English planters.

The picture here, is one of slaves being freed then owning slaves, which may later become free then own slaves, as was permitted by the convention of the time. Some even resold themselves into slavery to pay debts or as was the case of many free Africans when threatened with repatriation to Liberia or Sierra Leone.
This brings us to the second question. Who should receive reparations – Nations or descendents of slaves? No one can choose their ancestors. And from all accounts, the majority of indigenous Caribbean inhabitants are both descendents of slaves and slave owners. If it is determined that families should receive compensation however, will the descendents of black slaves and white slaves be treated equally?

Proponents of this avenue will be disheartened by the results of a case in the United States – Deadria Farmer-Paellmann v. FleetBoston Financial Corporation, et al. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 in the United States allowed Japanese-Americans and their descendents to claim compensation for mistreatment by the United States Government during World War II. Using this precedent some descendents of slaves brought a class action suit against some major corporations involved in finance, insurance, tobacco, railroad etc.  

The court found that the plaintiffs did not have proper standing to bring the lawsuit against the named defendants and that the plaintiffs' claims were precluded by the statute of limitations.  Based on the outcome of that case, despite there being a Civil Liberties Act in the United States, the case for families seems dim.  The next best option is for nations or groups of nations to try. But this too will undoubtedly encounter some obstructing hurdles.

In relation to Jamaica especially, Sir Hilary Beckles is correct that the Caribbean engaged large debts to advance its education. The first World Bank loan that Jamaica got was for constructing the many Junior High Schools throughout the country. But the British is able point to the fact that these schools remained relatively empty on account of the local politics and politicians.

Just prior to independence when aid could be secured from Britain, the government that was advocating for better education encountered great resistance from the opposition with the slogan “salt-fish is better than education”. The government that was advancing education was swept from office, whereas the culture that “salt-fish is better than education” seemed to have permeated into the society to the extent that persons that could have afforded to send their children to school prioritized other needs in preference to education.

The British may also be able to demonstrate the cost overruns associated with the construction of the high schools along with endemic corruption, misappropriation and mismanagement, not only in Jamaica, but throughout the English speaking Caribbean. The British suspended Grenada’s constitution and removed Eric Gairy from office for corruption. Here in Antigua, there was a major standoff in 1962 between Chief Minister, V.C. Bird and Ian Turbott, the Colonial Administrator. Funds that were allocated by the British for roads and schools were misappropriated. Turbott refused to pass the budget for seven months, then eventually cut it by twenty percent in August 1962.

One study, ‘The Effects of Political Corruption on Caribbean Development’ by Michael W. Collier of Florida International University, conveys the extent to which corruption restricts Caribbean development.  According to the paper an “A1 unit improvement in political corruption in Jamaica would bring it up to a corruption level slightly better than The Bahamas. …with this corruption improvement would come an 84.7 percent increase in GNP, a $1.7 billion increase in capital formation, a $286.4 million increase in foreign direct investment, and a $761.6 million increase in domestic savings”.

Tremendous benefits may be had from reducing corruption. Therefore, a strong case may be made that much of the Caribbean’s underdevelopment is of its own making.  Nonetheless, there are other areas such as freedom, land, culture, religion, language that Africans were deprived of that has a cost. The question then has to be addressed, as to whether African descendents in the Caribbean are worst off as a result of these losses.

Of course, it will be proffered that many of the Africans were already slaves before arriving in the Caribbean. John Thornton and Linda Heywood, historians at Boston University estimate that 90 percent of the Africans shipped to the New World were already slaves before they were sold to traders. In fact, the European traders preferred, and paid more for Africans that were already broken.

In response, it may also be argued by the British, that blacks outside of Africa enjoy per capita incomes of 10 to 50 times those in Africa. Walter Rodney and others suggest that this disparity results from the effects of European colonization of Africa. But there is a country in Africa that was never colonized. Slavery in that country was only abolished on 26 August 1942 when Emperor Selassie I issued a proclamation making it illegal.  This country, Ethiopia, is not considered on par in education, health and other HDI pointers in the African Diaspora.
Ethiopia is no ordinary country either. Ethiopia is one of the world’s oldest civilizations with advanced building and architecture predating the twelfth century. The country has a very ancient established administrative tradition. It also has millennia old established systems of trade, record keeping, writing and archiving. The ancient Book of Enoch, once thought irrecoverably lost by scholars, was found in Ethiopia by Scottish, Masonic explorer, James Bruce in 1773.  Ethiopia is also home to the most pure and archaic form of Judaism and Christianity – developed for millennia separate from European influence, dogma and convention.

On the other hand the proponents for reparations may point to Botswana –a country in Africa that was only partially colonized- and its meteoric growth and development since achieving independence: “This is what the rest of Africa could be”. But this may be countered by highlighting that the tolerance for corruption in Botswana is much, much lower than in other African states – thus emphasizing the point, in favour of the opponents, that Africans orchestrate their own undoing.

Additionally, the information and research on this issue is not held or initiated by the Caribbean. The Caribbean is certainly at a disadvantage.  What cards the British have up their sleeves, we are not sure. For instance, Britain would have and idea how much the system of preferential trade prices of goods from the Caribbean to Britain cost them. They would be able to put a value to the islands and the infrastructure (however minimal) they gave to the inhabitants of the Caribbean.

The British will be in a position to chronicle the many Caribbean thinkers, academics and activists that were relegated to the periphery and out-posts of decision-making and intellectual thought in the islands.  Some like Marcus Garvey that eventually sought exile in England; Stokely Carmichael banned from his native Trinidad; the assassination of Walter Rodney; the harassment and outcast of the Black Power movement; marginalization of others like C.L.R. James.

Consequently, having negotiated and accepted what is now considered by the Caribbean, circumstances inadequate for independence, as the conditions of release: it would now seem unprincipled to any reasonable sitting tribunal, for the Caribbean to return to the table complaining that the negotiations should be reopened because they did not get enough; or even worst, that the negotiations were incomplete.  Further– the rejection by these same nations of token reparations like the Privy Council which does not cost them a penny, in favour of a court that would cost them dearly: suggests that they are not only opposed to contributions from the British, but also suggests that there is no lack.

Antigua, on the other hand is a very special and unique case.  It is not an accident or coincidence that by 1814 two black men, William Hill and Henry Loving, owned the most prestigious newspaper in the island; or that by 1832, two-thirds of the militia were black; or that by 1817 a black woman had set up the ‘Distressed Females Friendly Society’; or by 1828 other black friendly societies were set up attaining membership of 12,588 by 1854; or that by 1834 there were two black justices of the peace and six by 1844; that a black man was Superintendent of Police and helped draft the first Contract Act; that blacks held such majestic titles as Puisne Baron of the Exchequer, and Private Secretary to the Governor; or that blacks served on honorary city boards and commissions for health, market, and water.

Lanaghan writing in 1844 in ‘Antigua and the Antiguans’, said of black Antiguans that, “These are men who, if not educated in England, have received the best instruction the West Indies could afford…” (Vol II 170) and that “Among them are some of the most respectable merchants and planters; and the whites themselves, with but few exceptions, follow no higher occupations” (Ibid.: 182).

It was not an accident either that after a massive campaign to demonstrate the benefits of freeing the slaves rather than having an apprenticeship that the Assembly in Antigua voted to free the slaves immediately.  Antigua is the only country not to have an apprenticeship period. Why these peculiarities about one of the smallest islands in the Caribbean? Antigua has long been the experiment lab and workshop of the British.  The conclusions of these experiments would be useful to know, but there were other experiments as well that may be more relevant.

It had long been suspected that biological tests were done on the population in the 1930s and 1940s. Now, scratching the surface, researchers have revealed that testing of anthrax and brucella bacteria were done in Antigua. The conclusions of these experiments, and other unknown ones, may still be lingering, residual, in the veins and bones of Antiguans today. But until academics are engaged to examine these questions thoroughly, we will never know. This is one area where pursuing reparation-claims would be much less complex than slavery.

The other relates to the mass relocations of inhabitants in order to construct the Airport and Bases during World War II. Antiguans, like the U.S. Japanese, have also suffered the dehumanizing experience of being fenced into quasi concentrated camps, forced off their land, issued passes to come and go, and have bulldozers threaten their property to force them to leave. Water, agriculture, fishing and other equitable necessities were lacking in the new location. Real estate values were also much less in comparison. The MacDonalds, the only white family in the area, were curiously allowed to remain at High Point.

All this was within the time frame when the Japanese-Americans suffered subhuman treatment, for which they were eventually compensated. Witnesses are still alive that have experienced and can retell the New Gunthorpes’ trauma.  Witnesses are still alive who suffered loss of livelihood and property. Witnesses are still alive today who see their water-front property worth millions today in the hands of others while they own nothing.

It is impossible to deny the enormous wealth and astonishing development generated by European slave-owning nations as a result of Slavery and the Slave Trade. Surely, the extent and magnitude of the crime and the wealth generated demands acknowledgement, recompense and compensation. But it will not be an easy road. The case promises to be one of fascination and intrigue, but not straightforward.

Therefore, while we await the decision of the third umpire, on whether we dropped the ball or whether it was a catch – Would Antigua not be better off pursuing the easier and more straightforward cases? It is also more than likely, that success in the bio-testing and relocation cases would strengthen, and give momentum, to the Caribbean’s case for reparations from slavery. A bird in the hand is worth more…  

Leonart Matthias

Hits: 1893

9 Comments In This Article   


a late read

#9 tenman » 2014-04-27 15:24

Others have already complimented the writer on this article. Dessalines you also make some great points. Let me also add that during the holocaust you will find that Jews also turned in Jews. This however does not change the fact that a travesty occurred. In some instances where Africa is concerned, persons were forced to corporate in providing slaves. Its either they cooperated or their enemies would be empowered with weapons. As far as the selection of who to go after, I have never heard of situations when suing that you go after the perpetrator with an inability to pay. Is there a question about whether Europe more benefited financially from Slavery than Africa? Is there even a question that Europeans nations are more able to pay the debt than Africa could? If I sue a hospital for malpractice carried out by its agent the doctor can it argue why am i not suing another of its agents the nurse? The UK (and other European countries) empowered these people to own slaves and is responsible for their related actions


Dessalines-2014-04-2 3 10:39

#8 tenman » 2014-04-27 14:53

Dessalines have you not also been guilty of the same fallacy when attacking for eg. our Jamaican brethren? You know the cost of living there is much less than Antigua, yet you argue against them based on their lower than us per capita income. Ignored as usual is our smaller size distorts the figure due to outliers not being factored.


@ Leonart Matthias

#7 Dessalines » 2014-04-27 10:40

I agree that the church provided the justification and was at the forefront of brainwashing Africans into believing that it was god's will that they 'suffer' on earth to be rewarded in heaven. And yes they should be named as co-defendants along with the British.



#6 Jumbee Picknee » 2014-04-26 21:07

I equate the callous, wanton, cruel and inhumane behavior of those Blacks during the African Slave Trade to Our present Political Leaders of today. This is why, it is so vital, crucial and important to prosecute these callous, wanton, cruel and inhumane Political Leaders of today. Leave an indelible mark on Our future Leaders, the Youths of Today...Remember the psychological saying...Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results...

Jah Guide in One Positive Love, Aim, Destiny

Jumbee Picknee


#5 Jumbee Picknee » 2014-04-26 21:00

Mr. Matthias, a wa a guarne papa?
As you speak of the Church, and their of Inquisitions from Centuries ago, and some like myself will add, still continuing today with their tyrannical psychological mind control and physical control( the inner cities called ghettos are their new enslavement camps, called apartment complexes) some are simply controlled, stationary slave ships used as their portals for mischief i.e. from crime to incarceration).
However, as far as the Reparation issue goes regarding Our Alkebulan/African Heritage, the Rastafari Movement have been on the forefront since the days of Prophet Marcus Garvey through his Movement to Shepherd Athlyi Rogers and how he reclaimed the Soul of Our Ancestors Spiritual Energy and transformed it into the Holy Piby; I n I Rastafari have been beating on Buckingham Palace doors with the sound of drums and now everyone is finally listening and can hear the Reparation Rhythm in the airwaves.
However, as we say...We won't give up the fight!!! We gonna stand up for Our Rights...

Jumbee Picknee

re: Dessalines 2

#4 leonart matthias » 2014-04-23 21:01

speaking of the legal frame work:

i think you forgot the most important frame work: that of the psychological framework. the church was pivotal in developing the framework that slavery was the will of God and also an acceptable and necessary means to an end... namely saving the heathen soul.

more than any, i think that the psychological framework was the most critical influence for policing and institutionalising the mindset that africans were curst and subhuman. this justified and propelled the need for the institution more than anything.

if you are going to single out the British then why leave the church out?

leonart matthias

re: Dessalines

#3 leonart matthias » 2014-04-23 20:45

this is a quotation from the statement by CARICOM reparations commission:

"The victims of these crimes and their descendants were left in a state of social, psychological, economic and cultural deprivation and disenfranchisement that has ensured their suffering and debilitation today, and from which only reparatory action can alleviate their suffering."

dont blame me. i am not making the case. the persons making the case are saying that they are impoverished and suffering as a result of the AST. the onus is on them to prove it. my contention is that they are starting on the wrong premise.

Botswana: i did not say that they are successful as a result of low corruption. i said that the british can point to low corruption in Botswana as opposed to other african states - if that argument is raised. they have a plaster on every sore.

Eastern v West Culture: it is not an african court or CCJ that is going to hear and eventually decide this, but a court that is cultured in the western GDP figures. those making the case are making it from a western GDP perspective also.

i cant help it i can only write about it.

leonart matthias

Part II

#2 Dessalines » 2014-04-23 10:39

In response, it may also be argued by the British, that blacks outside of Africa enjoy per capita incomes of 10 to 50 times those in Africa.
This quote embodies the disconnect between western and eastern cultures and our myopic vision as it relates to other cultures. It may come as a surprise that an African living on 1 US dollar a day are far more satisfied and liver happier lives than his/her counterpart in the US or Caribbean with a US 20,000.00 pa salary. Yes not all cultures measure success through the eyes of Western GDP per capita figures.
This argument also erroneously presumes that if Caribbean islands were wealthy they would not be seeking justice. If this is the case why are Barbados and the Bahamas represented. They both have higher standards of living and per capita incomes than most eastern European countries.


@ Leonart Matthias

#1 Dessalines » 2014-04-23 09:02

Insightful and thoroughly researched piece. Here are my observations.
1. The argument that blacks owned slaves, whites were slaves and Jews were involved in the slave trade does not absolve Britain of it's role in the AST. Britain provided the legal framework, policed the operation, licensed the cargo vessels and collected the resultant taxes from the trade. One must never lose sight of why the British came to the New World originally, it was in search for gold. Not sugar cane or tobacco. Simple. When the gold proved to be elusive they then turned to agriculture (the closest commodity to gold then) and used Africans slaves to realize their objective - to enrich themselves.
2. In terms of the two AFrican countries that were never colonized, Ethiopia and Botswana you listed low tolerance of corruption as pivotal to Botswana's economic success. I disagree. Botswana unlike Nigeria and other resource rich African countries discovered their diamond mines AFTER independence in 1966. This gave Botswana control over their resources which in turn were used to develop the country. In contrast Nigeria's and Angola's oil fields are still in the hands of their European colonizers decades after POLITICAL independence.
3. I agree that corruption plays a major part in Caribbean under development as outlined in the Jamaica's example, however how does that absolve Britain for the cruel and dehumanizing treatment meted out to Africans kidnapped and brought here for profit?


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