“Fi what?” is what my dad asked when I told him France owes Haiti $21 billion.
I was referring to the Independence Debt France demanded of the slaves due to the property they lost after the slave uprising in 1804 (Phillips, 2008). Haiti struggled to pay that debt, and it is the source of the country’s depressing financial state. The World Bank Group describes the island as a magnet for natural disasters, but fails to include the historical factors that make it the poorest country in our Western Hemisphere (World Bank Group, 2020), where Haitians are said to make $1.28 a day on average.
This conversation about reparations in the Caribbean is nothing new. CARICOM, a group working towards a robust and inclusive Caribbean Community, has been pushing for American and European governments to hold themselves accountable its exploitative history by paying for the slavery’s emotional and physical damages. It is no secret slaves worked from sun-up until sundown, while enduring barbaric mistreatment for centuries. Many esteemed political figures, people in entertainment, and institutions the world has come to know accumulated their wealth at the expense of Black exploitation, Black appropriation, and overall, Black lives.
Barbados continues to seek money from the Drax Family, whose elite status stems from inheriting the first plantation on the island, said to have been built in 1642 (Meridith, 2018). My dad goes on to say “Yuh affi, pay us back!” to people such as Mr. Drax. The current owner of the Drax plantation is British MP Richard Drax, who continues to address his disgust for his family’s role in slavery but claims no responsibility as, “it happened 400 years ago” (Lashmar et Smith, 2020).
While I am glad he knows how time works, this statement has little meaning when the Caribbean countries current disparities in education, economics, and politics derive from such historical factors. CARICOM’s reparation commission has created a 10-point action plan, seeking justice for Native genocide and slavery. Some of the requests are very clear such as formal apologies, illiteracy eradication, technology transfers, and knowledge programs. The question then becomes: how do we decipher the good apologies from the bad? How do we intend to distribute the technology we receive? Will these changes affect Caribbean culture? But more importantly, is money enough to provide justice for slavery?
I believe justice is about fairness on all sides. Judge me fairly, punish me fairly, and treat the victims fairly. Easy right? Reparations must be equal to the violation. When I asked myself if justice is easy when slavery is the question at hand, my answer was uncertain – it depends, honestly. I question whether current governments are remotely responsible for atrocities that occurred in the past. My cousin Dwain interjects: “Don’t forget—slavery is the foundation for the sanctioned racial, political, and economic discrimination of non-whites in the Caribbean. They know this.”
I had never realized how necessary this conversation was for me. My mother reminded me that people like Richard Drax acknowledge slavery is not something to be proud of but are never willing to back that up with consequential action. In her perspective, they already have access to everything, so returning property to the Bajan people would not affect their status. Instead, it could be recreated into something that benefits the people that are still being robbed today.
The legacy of slavery thrives on minuscule acknowledgments followed without action. Former French president, Francois Hollande’s thoughts about the Independence Debt in Haiti is a prime example. In 2015, during a visit to the island, the French leader claimed France is prepared to pay their moral debt to Haiti (Tharoor, 2015). I wondered if that included the financial debt they owe. It did not.
Then Britain’s debt to Jamaica and Barbados emerged in my head.
My other cousin Dario says investigating how much money they owe is a difficult process. “You can’t put a price on it,” he insists.
Yet we both agree acknowledgments are not enough either. In these attempts to keep Caribbean people happy, restorative justice principles let us know that apologies lose their meaning when people are aware of the harm they cause, but fail to rectify those wrongs.
These conversations indicate money is not the only form of reparations to worry about. There are land, materials, and people involved. CARICOMS’ first step in their action plan mentions the need for formal apologies.
My mother’s response was, “Are the disadvantaged gonna eat an apology?”
My mom is not wrong, but I also agree they are necessary. Too often, governments face us with what they call apologies, but do not amend anything. In 2007, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that Britain’s participation in the slave trade was “abhorrent” and “ghastly” (Reuters, 2007). We know this.
CARICOM clearly states they are no longer accepting empty words. What will it take to see real sincerity? The University of Glasgow proved themselves sincere when they paid $20 million in reparations in 2017 (Carrell, 2019). Presently, the universities have teamed up by making slavery education programs more accessible (Scott, 2020) by establishing the Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research.
The distribution of material becomes another concern when my parents and cousin Dario remind me that there are the “have’s” and the “have- not’s”. There is almost no middle class. Individuals are being denied work and housing opportunities because their native communities are tied to the ever-growing gaps between the social classes (Spencer et al, 2020).
My dad agrees that the wealthy people who still own plantations in the islands need to give that land to those who need it the most. Investigating direct descendants of slaves and handing them a sum of money is illogical. Not only is it a waste of valuable time, but it is almost impossible to attribute a cost to centuries or free labour and cultural contribution. Dario believes that this route only benefits those who are still unwilling to reciprocate the proper reward. It could also return to the hands of oppressors, including families who have owned slaves in the past. The land should be used to improve the lives of Caribbean people and boost economies. Medical centers, schools, and housing could replace empty acres in deprived areas.
I have also realized arguments against reparations mostly lack sense and emulate apathy. As I discussed with Dario, I learned that many people back home are either ignorant of the reparations movement or simply don’t care. I believe this is a reason why the movement is not moving to its full potential. I understand and appreciate the accomplishments made so far, but I can’t help but think how the lack of national awareness affects the movement and those involved. The common question of “what does this have to do with me?” shows that the people are indifferent to those the history that has led us to this moment. Without a collection of voices, it is harder to hold oppressors accountable for previous and current actions.
Aside from ignorance within the Caribbean, a common statement from other social groups and governments states Black nations are asking for hand-outs and are unwilling to work. This argument is invalid. Caribbean culture and people have made grand global contributions. From jerk chicken recipes to soca beats found in various genres of music, it is crystalline that we are still working. Not only are these arguments meant to gaslight us into halting the movement, but it also gives way to escape accountability.
I hope by the time I reach my parents’ age, I can talk to my children about the importance of restorative justice. I hope I will witness Caribbean countries reaping the benefits of reparations and governments creating better relationships with those they oppressed.
Until then, there are messages I need to relay. To European government leaders who claim no responsibility for what happened centuries ago: you failed to break the cycles that stem from it. You are responsible. To leaders like Hollande who wish to pay their moral debt: reparations and financial debt to the Caribbean go hand-in-hand. Ignoring that countries like Haiti have a right to remedy puts your moral compass into question.
We have to reach a better answer.
Money on its own can never undo the past. Financial compensation without formal apologies or effective distribution becomes hush money. Statements of regret or apologies without impactful action are just lies. Money on its own can’t undo the past or generational trauma. We cannot compensate those whose ancestors worked on the plantations, but we can make sure that the generations reap benefits they were denied long ago.