The following statement was drafted by faculty of the College of The Bahamas, and shared with Governor-General Sir Arthur Foulkes during a courtesy call at Government House on Monday, 11th November, 2013.
The School of Social Sciences at the College of The Bahamas proposes to host a series of community-based town meetings and special events geared towards increasing community and national awareness of some of the issues germane to enslavement, emancipation, colonialism and in recent times the nation-building project on the African continent.
The timing of these events is not a coincidence. Rather it reflects a growing consciousness amongst scholars, activists and grass-roots leaders throughout the Caribbean and African Diaspora who are now voicing their concerns about the irrevocable damage that slavery has done to the region. As recently as July 2013 CARICOM Heads met in Trinidad and agreed to the establishment of a National Reparations Committee in each member state. Though a new and unprecedented strategic position for CARICOM, reparation as a concept has a much longer history. As Verene Shepherd has noted “the calls for reparation for genocide have intensified since the World Conference on Racism held in Durban, South Africa in 2001. Such calls were also re-echoed during March 2007–March 2008, the bicentennial of the passing in Britain of the Slave Trade Abolition Act.”
Yet, long before scholars and academicians championed the cause of reparations, it has been the clarion call of the members of the Rastafarian community, who have also insisted that repatriation is an essential aspect of reparation. Noteworthy, in 1961, the Rastafari Brethren of Jamaica petitioned Queen Elizabeth. According to the Rastafarian petitioning Queen Elizabeth was only fitting given the historic legacy of the British monarchy and their direct involvement in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade as shareholders in the Royal African Company.
Public debate about the efficacy of reparation is important given the far ranging impact that colonialism and enslavement has had on the region’s development. As Eric Williams so forcefully argued in his seminal study Capitalism and Slavery, profits from Britain’s participation in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade not only fuelled the growth of British industrialisation and economic development, but this occurred at the expense of the neglected and under-developed Caribbean territories where enslaved persons laboured.
The enslavement of Africans had a debilitating affect on Caribbean societies – both plantation and non-plantation – that lasted long after the formal institution was abolished. As Howard Johnson and others have noted, systems of coercion, debt peonage, labour tenancy and sharecropping featured prominently in The Bahamas and other Caribbean territories long after abolition in 1834 in the British Caribbean, 1848 in the French Caribbean, and 1886 in Cuba. The total neglect of the social, economic and human capital needs of the region is a deep wound inflected by the dual legacies of colonialism and slavery that has not been healed.
Those in favour of reparations have assertively argued that slavery represents a crime against humanity and thus requires adequate and immediate reparation. The national chair of Jamaica’s reparation committee, Verene Shepherd, has noted that the cause of reparations does not exist without legal precedence. She cites three specific cases: the payment to Jews as a result of the Holocaust; the 1825 agreement whereby Haiti was asked (forced) to pay France 150 million gold francs in exchange for France’s recognition of Haiti as a sovereign nation; and finally in 1834 when the British government paid enslavers over £20 million as compensation for the loss of their labour, equivalent to £2 billion today.
Though the case for reparations is strong, it is not without its complexities and complications. For one, unlike most legal cases where there are identifiable plaintiffs and defendants, the case for reparations extends beyond the living individual, engulfing possibly communities and former colonies and imperial centres. The difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that within particular island territories there may be individuals or even families who both profited from, or were victims of enslavement. On a more philosophical point, it may be argued that current governments cannot be held responsible for the activities of governments of the slavery era. As Shepherd has noted, opponents of reparations argue that the sense that slavery was a crime against humanity is a modern concept, foreign to those who participated in it, and who accepted it as a prevailing and normative custom at the time.
Yet, a closer examination of the Age of Revolutions demonstrates that many Enlightenment thinkers and anti-slavery advocates understood that enslavement violated the natural laws of man. “Enlightened” men such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Voltaire and Jean-Jacque Rousseau understood that slavery was not only inimical to a civilised society, but also violated basic natural and inalienable rights. While white Europeans and their contemporaries in North America may have equivocated on the issue of whether “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Hapiness” ought to be fully extended to those considered chattel, black abolitionists throughout the Atlantic world undoubtedly demanded freedom at any cost. In Richmond, Virginia, Gabriel Prosser famously inverted Patrick Henry’s revolutionary slogan demanding “Death or Liberty.” Further North, Richard Allen founded an autonomous black church in order that his people might be free from the controlling influences of leading white churchmen of the Baptist or Methodist persuasion. In Boston, Prince Hall founded the Black Masonic Lodge, providing an important social and proto-religious institution that supported a growing free black community. In Connecticut, Lemuel Haynes, a free black preacher and former patriot soldier wrote an unpublished manuscript advancing the view that the liberties that Thomas Jefferson so eloquently penned, should be extended to all men of property.
But it was in the Caribbean, on plantations in the sugar islands and the scattered rocky isles of the Bahama Islands that black abolitionism struck its mightiest blow against the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery. Pompey defiantly resisted before leading his followers to Nassau to have his case heard before an allegedly sympathetic governor. Toussaint Louverture chose a more violent course, famously taking up arms to fight for freedom and justice in a revolution that was unthinkable for its time. These daring exploits on the part of black abolitionists, and their sometimes reluctant white sympathisers, demonstrate that they recognised slavery was a crime against humanity.
In the end, we at the College of The Bahamas seek to raise awareness of the complex issues associated with reparations while also examining more deeply and closely some of the traditional assumptions about slavery in The Bahamas that have not been questioned. As such, through various fora, we intend to engage the Bahamian public about our past, challenging, complicating and questioning pre-existing narratives that may have unwittingly glossed over the multifaceted struggles that enslaved persons experienced in a non-plantation, slave-holding society. We also intend to explore the veracity of elements of bondage – the subtle and explicit intersecting constructions of race, class and gender that remain spectres in Bahamian society. The initial launch of events planned for 2014 is a video entitled Traces of the Trade, which highlights the cruel and degrading nature of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. This event is scheduled for January 9th (the eve of our first national holiday commemorating Majority Rule) at St. Mark’s Native Baptist Church in Fox Hill. Subsequent events include a Spring 2014 roundtable discussion at the College of The Bahamas’ Oakes Field Campus and possibly a distinguished lecture series.