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Reparations and slavery

These are first thoughts – as ever I am open to comment, criticism and contributions.

I am ambivalent about the issue of reparations for the slave trade. Without the slave trade, I would not be here, and I like being me.

I have no doubts about the slavers who took my ancestor to the West Indies, and thence to the UK. They were immoral criminals. However, they also made it possible for me to be me.

The racism of the slave owners, and of the UK in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, made life harder for my ancestors than necessary. It is quite possible I would have inherited something other than a sense of fair play if my ancestors had been less excluded from society, but counter-factual history is unreliable at best.

I understand the case being made by the Jamaican government. Slavery, and the subsequent colonialism, have not left Jamaica well equipped to face the challenges of the 21st century. But for slavery, Jamaica’s history would have been very different. Morally, it it a history in which the UK has been utterly reprehensible.

The problem, of course, is that reparative justice has a poor track record, on the personal and the national scale. Whether you call it compensation (provided by a  third party) or reparations, provided by the offender, the reality is that pain and damage can rarely be evaluated, and money is a poor substitute for intangibles that have been lost.

Much has been made of the compensation paid to former slave owners paid by the British government.  Compensating former owners for property,even if the property is people, is a far more precise science than compensating individuals or societies for lost opportunities or the consequences of neglect and oppression.Owners only think in terms of cash values; they really are that shallow.

That doesn’t excuse the UK.  Far from it. The whole point about reparative justice is that it’s possible to pay reparations and not regret the original offence. The UK, my home country, morally compromised as it is by its failure to come to terms with its past and its failings, needs to not debate reparations, but a programme of restorative justice, an honest admission of what was wrong, and how, at this distance, we might demonstrate our remorse and understanding of what was wrong, by trying to do something right. Signing a cheque is too easy, too simple, and will not change us. It would be all too possible for racist Britain to pay reparations and foster a sense of grievance at being made to pay. There are sufficient examples in recent history to make that point.

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3 comments on “Reparations and slavery

  1. Alex
    October 4, 2015

    Demands for reparations are not being made by Jamaica, they are being made by CARICOM. Demands are not being placed on the UK, they are being placed on all slave-owning nations who profited from West Indian slavery. Demands are not for pay, see here if you have time: http://caricom.org/jsp/pressreleases/press_releases_2013/pres285_13.jsp

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  2. cartertheblogger
    October 6, 2015

    Thanks Alex. Jamaica is part of CARICOM, is it not? And the Jamaican govenemnt is clearly referenced in this article http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/29/jamaica-calls-britain-pay-billions-pounds-reparations-slavery
    The link to the communique is helpful, if a little clouded by legal and diplomaticjargon, However, it makes my central point for me, which is that reparatory dialogue seems to be an odd construction if reparations aren’t what you want. Reparations has a clear meaning, and the whole thing would be much clearer if that communique had been written by a human being, not a committee, and had avoided the language of reparations altogether.

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    • Alex
      October 6, 2015

      You are correct. Jamaica is part of CARICOM! I just wanted to link what CARICOM’s actual demands are without judging their quality. The more people who know about CARICOM’s (IMO) worthy endeavour the better.

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This entry was posted on October 2, 2015 by in Uncategorized.

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