REPARATIONS: THE EDUCATION OF A SKEPTIC
Reparation, in the context of the question of slavery in the Americas, and financial payment to the descendants of slaves as compensation for wrongs and abuse, has never been something that I have felt sanguine about. I have over the years done a great deal of soul searching, and not much reading or research over this issue, I must admit, but the questions have always been there.
Is it my insensitivity to the idea? Have I been so far removed from the Lash as to feel no sting, either actual or virtual? Is it my conservative roots through which I feel that I must seek my own destiny? Is it the impact of my business education through which I learned of the difficulty of putting capital together? Is it misplaced, misguided macho? Or, is it my sense of reality?
I have learned a great deal about being a Black man from my Black American brother, and not an insignificant amount on the same subject from my White American brother, and I resolved several years ago, to treat seriously any opinion that my Black American brother expressed about race and its implications in the American society. No matter how far- fetched the idea might seem to me at a given time, I felt that my indigenous American counterpart had an experience, an exposure, an affinity with the topic that no outsider could emulate. And yet, I could never give any level of support to any thought or concept of present day reparation payments for slavery, even though the idea has had some currency from time to time.
Recently I was reading the Sunday Sun of March3rd, 2013, a Caribbean newspaper published in Barbados, and I came across a report on a series of lectures being delivered on the subject of Reparations by the British Government for slavery inflicted on people in the English speaking Caribbean and Guiana. The lectures were being delivered by Dr. Sir Hilary Beckles, Principal of The University of The West Indies, Barbados. Sir Hilary’s thesis is that Caribbean Governments should be pressing Britain for reparation payments. The article points out that fortuitously, and to strengthen Sir Hilary’s arguments, a treasure trove of documents previously unseen was recently released in London, England, indicating how thousands of British residents might owe some of their present day wealth to compensation their relatives received when slavery was abolished in the Caribbean and Guiana in 1833.
One particular researcher, Dr. Nick Draper, a scholar at the University College of London and head of a team of academics who spent three years studying 46,000 records of compensation to British owners of 700,000 slaves in Guiana and the West Indies, claims that the compensation program accounts for the wealth of some of England’s richest families who still directly enjoy the proceeds of slavery.
How much money did the British Government pay out, and who were the major beneficiaries? In all it is estimated that the British Government paid out more than the modern day equivalent of $US 30 billion or 17 billion pounds sterling to about 3,000 families. This was about 40% of the Budget of Great Britain in the 1830’s according to the documents studied.
The largest recipient was James Blair who was paid 83 million pounds sterling in today’s money for 1598 slaves he owned in British Guiana. The second Earl of Fife, the great, great grand uncle of David Cameron, the current Prime Minister of Britain, received $ 12 million in current value for 202 slaves he owned in Jamaica. The Hogg family who gave Britain two Lord Chancellors in the twentieth century received compensation for slaves owned in British Guiana. John Gladstone, father of Britain’s 19th century Prime Minister William Gladstone, who served four terms as Prime Minister, was compensated for slaves owned in Guiana. The son was very much involved in pressing his father’s successful compensation for 2,508 slaves on nine plantations in British Guiana. The scions of one of Britain’s leading banking families, the Barings, and ancestors of authors Graham Greene and George Orwell also received settlements. The second Earl of Harewood, Henry Lascelles, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth represents a family that benefited greatly from cash settlements. Until very recently the Lascelles family owned property in Barbados, and have involved themselves in the development of the University. They were even guests of the Country when Barbados became independent.
As a historical footnote it was instructive to be reminded that some recipients of compensation for lost property, (slaves) invested in railways and other ventures that fuelled the industrial revolution. Others invested in purchasing and maintaining large lavish homes in England and the West Indies, some of which exist to this day.
What is the take away here? What have I learned, and what do I want to leave you with? First the West Indian and British Guianese slave owners had no qualms about pursuing their self-interest in seeking and obtaining reparations for lost property. Why then should we who worked without pay for almost 300 years to make the estates of others profitable, and to increase the capital assets in both freehold and chattel property have qualms about seeking reparations? Knowledge and appreciation of the lessons of history is very important, for it is through this process that we begin to understand the machinations of the highly informed and well connected. Let us not discount the importance of capital, and of political power. Fairness ranks very far down the persuasion list. The closer one comes to controlling the levers of power, the higher the probability of having one’s objectives met. We must pursue and gain persuasive power. We also need to pose and answer the question of forms of reparation.