CARIBBEAN UNITY: Part 1: Slavery had a silver lining

As a child I was taught that it was human to make mistake; it is wise to learn from a mistake; and it demonstrates good judgment to go through life avoiding ever making the same mistake twice. But best of all I learnt that whilst even the wisest man will learn by mistakes, he aims to avoid making mistakes himself by learning from the mistakes of others. Now as a Lawyer, to my mentees, I preach the mantra: Be a quick thinker, and a slow talker – It works better that way round!

The expression every cloud has a silver lining is meant to convey a moral that even an unpleasant experience will have a positive side to it. As far as slavery was concerned this expression is true.

Did any good come out of the practice of slavery? Well, if we are honest with ourselves the answer is – Yes. However, because we are currently in the 200th anniversary since the abolition of the British slave trade, as by the Abolition of Slave Trade Act 1807, the debate on reparations, ie, paying compensation for slavery, has been rekindled to rage at this moment in time . I suspect that it will rage at least until it is no longer 2007 before losing its topical status. Nevertheless, for those of us who will still be around, akin to the cycle of Halley’s comet, watch for the debate to be revived again in 2034 on the bicentenary of the Abolition of Slavery Act 1834.

I did not intend to be addressing the reparations argument in this article, but have been drawn to the debate as it is based on a contention that an ‘actionable wrong’ was done to Africans brought to the New World during the period of slavery. This would include not only the Caribbean, but also North, Central and South America. In fact anywhere you find there was a history of African slaves, the same reparation argument could apply. Thus the question which it interests me to discuss is whether it is now desirable or practicable for people of Afro-Caribbean descent to rise argument on history, which is now two centuries old, to base a contention that ‘we can not move from the debate until some existing State pays compensation’.

The basic truth is that back then engendering disharmony and distrust amongst the slaves was a legitimate means of divide and rule employed as a tool to effect control, whereby the ruling ethnic minority in the region could manipulate the ethnic majority, which the Caribbean slaves had become. The pity is that this conditioned mentality affects our people today.

I think there was once a powerful argument for reparation, this argument was at its strongest when on the abolition of slavery, the slave owners were compensated for their loss of property (slaves) but the freed slaves themselves received no assistance at all. There was no rehabilitation program or social-care scheme to assist or repatriate the freed slaves, whose ancestors had been forcefully displaced from Africa. There was no State sponsored re-education campaign to correct the racism that Black people were subhuman. It would be another 100 years before the civil rights flame was lit, and even longer before the first African state earned independence from European rule.

However, given that we are now 200 years and several generations and mixed races from the abolition of slavery – in my respectful submission, we have missed the reparations boat. To speak of reparations now is like having a clever afterthought of something you should have said during the heat of an argument but the argument has by this time ended.

At this time in world history, how could reparations ever be realistically quantified in a way which would draw a line under the slavery issue? And, if the purpose of reparation is not for closure, then its main purpose would be tokenism…which I would suggest is tokenism of the wrong sought.

There is a principled understanding in law that not every kind of harm may be fully compensatible – for instance, in a theoretical negotiation, how much compensation would you agree for yourself if you were left in a completely paralysed condition or in a 20 year coma which you then succumbed to? How much in money terms would be full and final satisfaction for ‘your loss’?

There is a concept in the world of Art that a work of art may be ‘priceless’ – no amount of money can quantify its intrinsic value. For instance – how much money would one need to buy the crown jewels of England?

I think in the case of slavery we are somewhere near the mix of an incompensatible harm with unquantifiable damage. To accept this premise but then say ‘give us something anyway’ diminishes the gravity of the wrong perpetrated. Forgiveness here is the only magnanimous and enduring gesture.

Was nothing learnt as the world watched the dignity with which Nelson Mandela emerged from prison? The world listened to his first speech for an airing of his justifiable grievances, claims for retribution and compensation, but none of that came and in this tone South Africa was peacefully transformed without bloodshed. For the dignity of his stance Mandela went on to become one of the most respected politician of his time, and indeed continues to be universally admired for the sense of his character.

The Europeans did not invent the concept of slavery or enslaving Africans. Let us understand the relevant questions: Was Africa and Africans not complicit in the slave trade? If so, would they not share some of the liability for reparations? Who is the real victim/s of slavery, the Caribbean or Africa? Are today’s people of the Caribbean really worst off for being born in the Caribbean instead of Africa?

Rather than chase a lost cause for reparations on acts which are now some 200 years old, Afro-Caribbean people should engage their efforts to positively celebrate the fact that we are a reborn people proudly in our new image as Caribbeans.

‘International CARIBBEAN DAY’ – we continue to make the case!

Hamilton Daley – People for the Establishment of Caribbean Day

Hamilton Daley is a practising Attorney-at-Law in Jamaica [tel. (876) 967 0224], Solicitor Advocate in England and Managing Director of T.R.A.D.E. Ltd. Entrepreneurial Diasporians Jamaica calls you to duty. TRADE exists to facilitate trading bridges between Jamaica and the rest of the world.