KINGSTON, Jamaica – Politicians, lawyers and academics gathered recently in St. Vincent & the Grenadines to advance an effort by more than a dozen regional nations to seek slavery reparations from three European countries that benefited from the Atlantic slave trade.
St. Vincent Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, who is leading the effort to force the region’s former colonial powers to pay reparations, said the matter is a “fundamental, defining matter of our age.”
“The European nations which engaged in conquest, settlement, genocide and slavery in our Caribbean must provide the reparatory resources required to repair the contemporary legacy of their historic wrongs,” said Gonsalves, who will take over the rotating leadership of CARICOM at the start of 2014.
Gonsalves and other Caribbean officials say arriving at a financial estimate for reparations is critical to coming to terms for what they believe is the lingering legacy of slavery in the region. Historians and economists will assist in the process.
No figure has been mentioned yet but Gonsalves said reparations must “bear a close relationship to what was illegally or wrongly extracted and exploited … from the Caribbean by the European colonialists, including the compensation paid to the slave owners at the time of the abolition of slavery.”
At the time of emancipation of slaves in 1834, Britain paid 20 million pounds sterling to British planters in the Caribbean, the equivalent of some $315 billion today.
The Caribbean governments have hired the British law firm Leigh Day, which waged a successful fight for compensation for a group of Kenyans who were tortured by the British colonial government as they fought for the liberation of their country during the so-called Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s and 1960s.
Martyn Day, a lawyer with Leigh Day, said the Caribbean nations are seeking to negotiate a settlement “based on the impact of slavery on Caribbean societies today.”
“All the CARICOM countries are keen to seek resolution amicably with the former slave nation states like Britain, France and the Netherlands,” Day said at the conference.
If that does not succeed, they will go to the International Court of Justice, the United Nations’ highest judicial organ, he added.
Gonsalves said he expected all CARICOM member-states will have their representatives include a strong message about reparations in their speeches at the U.N. General Assembly this week.
“The awful legacy of these crimes against humanity – a legacy [that] exists today in our Caribbean – ought to be repaired for the developmental benefit of our Caribbean societies and all our peoples,” Gonsalves said.