Leaders of 14 Caribbean nations are launching a united effort to seek compensation from France, Great Britain and the Netherlands for the longstanding effects of the slave trade that spanned the 17th to the 19th centuries. The leaders of Caricom, the regional organization of the Caribbean and community, say that the legacy left by this system of slavery and colonialism has pushed many countries such as Jamaica and Haiti into poverty while entrenching the dominance of Western powers.
They are right of course — slavery was awful. But this attempt to “set things right” is too little, too late. Caricom would fare better to focus on the present injustices of unfair trade regimes and the present causes of economic disparity, such as Western notions of liberalization, rather than bring up history that no amount of money can rewrite.
By the 19th century, more than 10 million slaves had been moved across the Atlantic Ocean to work on plantations in the Americas. The Slavery Abolition Act of 1830 in the British Empire began a chain reaction that saw other European powers abolish slavery, but not without further cost to their colonies. Slavery continued in the United States until the end of the Civil War in 1865.
Other European empires squeezed money out of colonies that wanted independence. Haiti, for example, was required to pay 150 million gold francs to receive French recognition as an independent state in 1825. While Haiti was the first of many countries to vie for an independent government, Haitian society continues to be deeply affected by patterns established under colonial rule.
Europe established exploitative economies to import resources from their vassal states. After spending decades bleeding away their valuables, previously colonized countries are still suffering from a lack of proper institutional framework, lack of education and poverty induced.
Although slavery existed in the Ottoman Empire and amongst African tribes before the Atlantic Slave Trade, the latter took place on a greater scale and slaves faced a new dimension of horrific abuse once in America. This practice has deeply shaped the institutions that govern international economics, which is where we need to focus our efforts at repatriation. Throwing money at the situation is usually a band-aid solution to a broken system, if the American financial bailouts of 2008 or Canada’s ongoing difficulties with Aboriginal recompensation are any indication.
Caricom has hired the British law firm Leigh Day, hoping to emulate the success this firm had in winning compensation for hundreds of Kenyans who were tortured during the Mau Mau rebellion by the British colonial government in the 1950s and 1960s. Caricom has not established the dollar amount they are seeking, but mentioned that in 1834 the British Empire paid the modern equivalent of 200 billion pounds to predominantly white British planters as recompense for the abolition of slavery.
If Caribbean countries receive recompense, so should Africa, Asia and Central and South America. If thousands of lawsuits for historical reparations are launched, present day injustices will continue to be swept under the rug.
Caribbean states like Jamaica and Trinidad still lack the tools to grow economically because of a dependency model imparted by slavery. These states supply the world with cash crops and primary resources but must also deal with huge debts owed to the International Monetary Fund for borrowed money in the 1970s, during their modernization attempts. A better solution would be to deal with the forces that presently prevent these developing nations from furthering their sovereignty.
Larger companies in America, for example, have been able to monopolize industries in Jamaica such as the milk industry by undercutting the local market with powdered milk sold below cost to produce. While countries like Britain and the U.S. continue to advocate free trade and liberalization, they sneakily subsidize industries such as local cotton production as protectionist measures against international competition. Multinational corporations have expanded into Carribean nations, forcing local inhabitants to work in extremely poor conditions and low wages. And when the U.S. withdrew from the Bretton Wood’s Organization in the 1970’s, interest rates soared and many poor countries were unable to repay their debts.
If Caribbean states today could establish legally sound claims for compensation, in response to historical injustices, this could open the door for other nations to follow suit. After all, the legacy of colonialism is widespread across the African continent, India and the Americas. Many former colonies would embrace the opportunity to seek recompense from their oppressors, which would only inflame the tension of old grudges. Fixation on past wrongs often detracts from systematic injustice in the modern global economy.