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Can cash fix past slavery?

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Last month Rodney Leon, a Haitian-American architect, won a competition for a memorial to victims of the slave trade. His white marble Ark of Return, shaped somewhat like a paper boat, will stand outside the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Inside that building some Caribbean leaders have used their annual General Assembly speaking slots to call for financial compensation for this great wrong.

"We have recently seen a number of leaders apologizing," Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer of Antigua and Barbuda said. "(They should) match their words with concrete and material benefits."

Britain ended its slave trade in 1807, and had freed all the slaves in its Caribbean colonies by 1838. The British government borrowed 20 million pounds, then around 40 per cent of its budget, to meet 47,000 claims for loss of human property. The former slaves got nothing.

Close to two centuries later, Caribbean politicians want redress. The Caribbean Community (Caricom) -- which links former British colonies with Haiti and Suriname, respectively former French and Dutch colonies -- established an official reparations commission in July and has approached a British legal firm, Leigh Day, for advice.

Few of history's great wrongs have been smoothed over with cash. Attempts to make Germany pay for the First World War simply hastened the Second World War. Ukraine has not sought compensation from Russia for those who died in Stalin's famines and purges.

Among the precedents for financial reparations, West Germany and Israel signed a financial agreement in 1952, seven years after Auschwitz. In June this year, after legal action by Leigh Day, Britain conceded payments averaging $4,000 each to 5,228 elderly Kenyans who were brutally mistreated during the suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s. Britain's courts will not consider claims for atrocities occurring before 1954 -- sorting out wrongs from 60 years ago is hard enough.

Who should pay? With the slave owners all dead, Caricom wants taxpayers' money from Britain, France and the Netherlands. At emancipation around 3,000 slave owners lived in Britain. Their wealth and their descendants are now scattered around the globe, however. Liverpool was once a wealthy slave port, but the city's current inhabitants, many of them Afro-Caribbean in origin, hold little of that cash.

How much should be paid? It is impossible to value the pain of those who are long dead, or even the economic damage they suffered. Figures quoted for the current equivalent of the 20 million pounds paid to slave owners vary from 16.5 billion pounds to 76 billion pounds. A widely reported demand in 1999 was for $777 trillion to be paid to Africa in the course of five years. More than 10 years later, that amount still would be around 10 times the global GDP.

Who should be paid? Caricom is talking about compensation at a national level. Based on the numbers with slave ancestors, that would funnel the lion's share of the money to America and Brazil, with a good slice to Brixton and Birmingham.

There is potential for divisive squabbling. In Guyana and Trinidad descendants of Indian indentured labourers outnumber the black population. Sat Maharaj, Trinidad's most prominent Hindu leader, argues that the Indo-Caribbean population also deserves compensation.

He asks whether it also should come from Islamic countries that imported slaves and from African countries where local merchants sold slaves to Europeans.

Most former slave colonies in the Caribbean are now fairly successful, middle-income countries or better. On a purchasing-power-parity basis, the Bahamas has a GDP per head close to that of Italy or Spain. Barbados scores higher on the UN Development Program's human-development index than any of its much larger South American neighbors. Guyana and Jamaica are less prosperous, but only Haiti ranks among the world's poorest countries.

Any assistance to the region should be carefully targeted, and should surely stem from today's needs, not from the wrongs of the past.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2013 A17

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