Britain’s Black Debt is the intriguing title of a provocative book launched to much fanfare earlier this month by the University of the West Indies Press. The Nyahbinghi House drummers and chanters set the tone of the occasion. ‘Black Liberation Day’, ‘Open de Gate Mek We Repatriate’, ‘Four Hundred Million Black Man’ and ‘Every Time We Chant Nyahbinghi I an I Waan Trod Home a Yaad’ were some of the ‘heartical’ chants that heralded the launch.
The book’s author is Prof Sir Hilary Beckles, distinguished Barbadian historian and principal of the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies. In Britain’s Black Debt, Beckles tackles the contentious issue of reparations for both the genocide of the indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans in the so-called West Indies. Christopher Columbus lost his way to the ‘East Indies’ and our region is now stuck with a name that perpetuates the great discoverer’s error!
The cover of the book brilliantly illustrates its theme. The main image is a 1966 photograph of Queen Elizabeth II with her cousin, George Henry Hubert Lascelles, the 7th Earl of Harewood, on his sugar plantation in Barbados. The property was bought by one of the earl’s relatives in 1780, along with 232 slaves. In the background, at a respectful distance, is a large group of well-dressed, carefully choreographed spectators, mostly white, whose body language suggests decorous delight at finding themselves in the presence of royalty.
Beneath the photograph, there’s a row of shackled Africans: three children; three women, each with a baby wrapped on her back; and seven men. Two black overseers with guns are keeping them all in line. The enslaved humans are the literal subtext of the main story about colonial masters and their loyal subjects. Beckles compellingly argues that forced labour in the Caribbean is the foundation of much of the wealth of Britain, including that of the Royal Family.
Beckles pays tribute to Eric Williams’ revolutionary book, Capitalism and Slavery, first published in 1944. There, Beckles argues, Williams “constructed the framework for the reparations case”. Beckles does concede that Williams “stopped short of making an explicit call for reparations”. But, he asserts, the book “still represents the most persuasive articulation of evidence” that “Britain’s magnificent, enviable industrial civilisation emerged from the foul waters of colonial slavery”.
The Earl of Harewood died on July 10, 2011 at the age of 88. His obituary in the London Telegraph substantiates Beckles’ case: “The Lascelles family had made their fortune in the West Indies. An 18th-century ancestor, Edwin Lascelles, had built the magnificent Harewood House in the family estates in the West Riding of Yorkshire”. Harewood House is not a house. It is a palatial monument to capitalist greed.
And its owners have no shame about the source of their tainted wealth. The Harewood House website states quite matter-of-factly that, “[b]y 1787, the Lascelles family had interests in 47 plantations and owned thousands of slaves in Barbados and across the West Indies. The Lascelles weren’t unique – most merchants of the period were involved in the slave trade”. And Harewood House is now a tourist attraction. It costs £14 for adults to tour the ‘house’, including staterooms, and £10 to visit just the grounds and below stairs. Class privilege comes at a price.
The most startling fact I learnt at the launch of Britain’s Black Debt is that the British government had wanted emancipated slaves to pay reparations to their former masters for the loss of their service. A lunatic proposition! Where was the money supposed to come from? The Haitian people had been forced to borrow money to pay reparations to France for claiming their freedom. In the case of the British, it was they who were claiming freedom from us. True, rebellious slaves across the British colonies had fought for freedom. But, in effect, Emancipation was designed to free the British government of all legal and moral obligations to the formerly enslaved.
The abolitionist, Sir Thomas Buxton, had urged his fellow parliamentarians to pay reparations to emancipated Africans. But, as Beckles notes, “[T]he British Parliament, densely populated with slaveholders and other beneficiaries of slave investments, did not take Buxton’s suggestion seriously”. Eventually, the British government decided to pay reparations to slave owners on behalf of the enslaved. But no reparations were to be paid to the primary victims of this demonic crime against humanity.
It’s bad enough that some British MPs still don’t take reparations seriously. But why do most of us, the descendants of enslaved Africans, act as if the idea of reparations is a big joke? Is it because we believe the lie that slavery was good for us, taking us from ‘savagery’ to ‘civilisation’? Have we not read Walter Rodney’s brilliant book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa?
The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was established on May 25, 1963 in Addis Ababa. A primary mission of the organisation was to end colonial rule on the African continent. On May 26, 2001, the OAU was rebranded as the African Union (AU). May 25 has come to be known as African Liberation Day. It is an occasion to reflect on the protracted struggle of Africans on the continent and in the diaspora to reclaim the right to determine our own destiny.
The theme for the 50th anniversary celebrations is ‘Panfricanism & African Renaissance’. If we are serious about the rebirth of the continent, reparations must be put on the agenda of the AU. And if we are to escape recolonisation by the International Monetary Fund, reparations must be put on the CARICOM agenda.
Reparations is the urgent message Professor Beckles took to Ethiopia last week, where he addressed a conference that was convened ahead of the 21st African Union Summit. Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller is there. I hope she knows she must speak out on behalf of Rastafari and all those heroic Jamaicans like Paul Bogle and Sam Sharpe who have long been fighting for reparative justice.