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By Justin Stabley- The death of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II has set off a period of public mourning and celebrations of life. But even as many lauded Elizabeth for her 70-year reign, for some — including those from Britain’s former colonies — it was a fresh reminder of the country’s imperial past.
In the last two years, two former British colonies in the Caribbean have made robust efforts to further separate themselves from Great Britain — moves that have been under consideration for decades before. Last year, Barbados officially removed Elizabeth as head of state, becoming a republic, in a move that was partly motivated to create a formal break with its colonial past. Jamaica has indicated it may do the same. During official visits to these countries, members of the royal family had expressed regret for Britain’s role in the slave trade. On a visit to Barbados in Nov. 2021, King Charles III, then Prince Charles, spoke of “the appalling atrocity of slavery, which forever stains our history.”
“There were slave owners and slave plantation owners in Queen Elizabeth II’s family,” said David Scott, a professor of anthropology at Columbia University. “There is a deep connection between the monarchy and slaving in the British Caribbean.”
Over the course of almost two centuries, the British empire colonized islands in the Caribbean and transformed them into plantations labored by over 2 million enslaved Africans.
While Charles and his son, Prince William, have acknowledged the wrongs of slavery, critics have said not enough has been done by either the royal family or the British government in the form of reparations or restitution.
“The fact that the British state — and the queen was the sovereign of the state — has consistently refused to make any gesture toward apology, restitution, much less compensation or reparation in respect of slavery, has been a deeply wounding matter for Jamaicans,” Scott said.
Here’s what you need to know about calls for reparations from Jamaica, Barbados and other Caribbean nations.
Why are the British being asked to make reparations?
“The reason is history,” said Dorbrene O’Marde, vice chairman of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Reparations Commission.
During the 1600s and 1700s, England’s colonies produced sugar, tobacco and cotton. To do this, the British brought indentured servants and eventually, enslaved Africans, to work the fields and mills, turning the colonies into large production centers.
Scott said England’s government and the monarchy had been deeply involved in the creation of the transatlantic slave trade. In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I was herself involved in the chartering of one of the first major ships for slaving.
Luke Moffett, a researcher at Queen’s University, explained that, on top of supporting the country’s slave trade, the monarchy owned their own companies and plantations that used the labor of enslaved Africans.
In the 1800s, the British Empire began to dismantle the institution of slavery, eventually freeing slaves in the Caribbean in the 1830s. Rule by the British and plantation economies continued into the 20th century.
Since that period of abolition, Caribbean nations have continued to deal with poverty and struggled to diversify their economies, with many depending on tourism for foreign investment.
“Britain continued to rule these islands until 1962, when Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago led the way with national independence,” said Matthew Smith, professor of history at University College London.
“The sequel to that history of repression and disavowal has been poverty and uneven progress. So calls for reparations consider this wide story and its micro-level consequences in their activism,” Smith said.
But Moffett said Britain still sees the colonial era through the belief that it was a civilizing mission that benefited the colonized.
“There’s no real ownership of responsibility. So there is recognition that what happened in the past was bad, but we’re not responsible now,” said Moffet. “It’s a way of sort of separating the monarchy or British government from the past.”
The sequel to that history of repression and disavowal has been poverty and uneven progress.”
Moffett said there is now more dissension in Britain from this view, thanks in particular to Black Lives Matter protests that put in greater focus the legacy of the country’s colonial past. During one protest in Bristol, England, itself once a major part of the slave trade, a 125-year-old statue of a slave owner was toppled in 2020.
Smith notes that in Great Britain, most discussions highlight the British abolition movement’s efforts in ending the slave trade and finally slavery itself.
“But that important achievement has obscured the longer history of racial slavery and how violent it was. It also obscures the way the apparatus of control and racial denial carried on in the centuries after through colonial control,” Smith said.
How long have Caribbean nations been asking for reparations?
O’Marde said one of the earliest proponents of reparations was Nobel prize-winning professor Sir William Arthur Lewis, whose economic theories in the early 1900s addressed the imbalance between wealthy and poor nations.
Throughout the 20th century, groups like the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America have called for financial compensation for the descendants of enslaved Africans in the Western hemisphere.
CARICOM, an intergovernmental economic union in the Caribbean, launched its own Reparations Commission in 2013. The commission created a 10-point plan for European governments to deliver reparatory justice, including debt cancellation, literacy programs and a full and formal apology.
One of the most recent high-profile calls was in 2022, during Prince William and Princess Kate’s visit to Jamaica to mark both the 60th anniversary of the country’s independence and the 70th anniversary of Elizabeth’s coronation. In response to the visit, over 100 Jamaican leaders signed a letter calling for reparatory justice.
“We see no reason to celebrate 70 years of the ascension of your grandmother to the British throne because her leadership, and that of her predecessors, have perpetuated the greatest human rights tragedy in the history of humankind,” the letter read. “Her ascension to the throne, in February 1952, took place 14 years after the 1938 labour uprisings against inhumane working/living conditions and treatment of workers; painful legacies of plantation slavery, which persist today.”
But despite decades of effort from various groups, there has been little movement among European powers to open a discussion.
“Like Black people in the New World everywhere, there is a special relationship to the past of slavery and consequently a moral outrage that white, European former slaving societies have added insult to injury by disrespecting that past,” Scott said.
O’Marde said the goal, in part, is to get the “offending countries in Europe to sit at the table and discuss these issues.”
Since the launch of CARICOM’s Reparations Commission, the group has been working to educate people on the tragic history of colonialism and spread awareness internationally.
“We’re not going to achieve reparations at all unless it is in the mind of the masses, of persons here in the Caribbean,” O’Marde said.
Scott said it’s not enough for there to be a legal framework to hold European countries accountable. He said there needs to be a grassroots effort by the people in Caribbean countries to demand that their leaders include reparations in international relations, but also to include reparations in their social policies as well.
He argued that many Caribbean governments are too dependent on the global capitalist economy to be critical toward European nations and push for the “social transformation of the conditions of the Black poor.”
“None of these states are critical of that fundamental relationship to the former slaving states and one can imagine that it’s not entirely clear to ordinary people in the Caribbean, what a demand for reparations would mean for them materially,” Scott said.
Are there new calls for reparations in the wake of Elizabeth’s death?
O’Marde said CARICOM has not changed or renewed their statements in the face of Elizabeth’s death. However, he said there’s promise in Charles’ approach to the issue.
Along with his apology in Barbados, Charles also denounced the atrocity of slavery during a visit to Ghana in 2018. O’Marde said this is more acknowledgement than normal, and so with Charles’ ascension to the throne, he’s hopeful there may be similar interactions in the future.
“It’s quite in contrast to former heads of government and royalty … that simply urge us to understand that these things happened a long time ago and we should forget it and move on,” he said.
Moffett said it will likely be some time before the British government opens up to making reparations because it takes time to sensitize those responsible to actually confront the history.
“We’re not at the stage yet where the monarchy is going to say, ‘We apologize, we’re going to make reparations,’” he said. “But we’re slowly moving towards maybe a more formal apology.”
He also said now might be a poignant time to confront the issue, during a “seismic moment.”
Is there precedent for reparations?
As slavery ended throughout the British Empire in the 19th century, parliament approved the payment of 20 million pounds–about 300 million pounds in today’s money–not to formerly enslaved Africans, but to slave owners as compensation. The United Kingdom took out a loan to pay reparations to slave owners in 1833 and only paid off the debt in 2015.
Great Britain has offered some atonement for its actions during the colonial period. In 1995, Elizabeth signed an apology to the Maori people of New Zealand for the confiscation of land perpetrated during Queen Victoria’s reign. In 2013, the British government agreed to pay reparations to survivors of Kenya’s Mau Mau uprising who were tortured by the colonial government.
O’Marde pointed to other examples of reparations in the modern world. Native Americans received some payments from the U.S. government in the form of grants starting in the 1920s, and Japanese Americans received a payment for their internment in the 1940s.
The most prominent example of reparations are the payments given to Holocaust survivors by Germany, which are still being paid to this day.
Scott believes part of why countries are not keen to talk about the issue is because the amount owed to the descendants of millions of enslaved Africans, used over centuries of labor, is almost incalculable.
“This is not just about the confiscation of discrete parcels of land or discrete kinds of wealth. New World slavery was not just about the violation of Africans brought to the Caribbean,” he said. “New World slavery was about the extraction of wealth from the labor of enslaved peoples, wealth that was exported to build Europe.” (PBS News Hour)