Reparations May Not Mean What You Think It Means

Fifteen countries in the Caribbean are seeking reparations from their former colonial masters for the lasting harm slavery has had on their countries. Host Michel Martin talks about the effort with Jermaine McCalpin from the University of West Indies in Jamaica.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We are going to stay in the Caribbean for our next story, where a group of nations is looking to repair an historical wrong. More than a century after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, 15 countries - including Jamaica, Haiti, and the Bahamas - are seeking reparations for the lasting harm slavery has had on the development of their economies. The Caribbean Community and Common Market, also known as CARICOM, has hired a law firm in London to put together a case against their former colonial leaders - England, France and the Netherlands. Joining us to tell us more about this is Jermaine McCalpin. He's lecturer at the University of West Indies in Jamaica. He specializes on issues pertaining to human rights abuses and crimes. And he's with us from our bureau in New York. Mr. McCalpin, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JERMAINE MCCALPIN: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Do you know how the idea for this lawsuit came about?

MCCALPIN: First, let us frame it within the context of history. The issue of reparation is not something new. It's gained some recent currency. And the Caribbean community - or CARICOM - they've decided to bring a lawsuit against our former colonizers. The spirit of the lawsuit is not to deal with questions of guilt, but it's to deal with the issue of long-term injustice that has not - or has never been properly rectified morally, materially or any other way. The context of the lawsuit is to say, well, this is an act of injustice to have had this long-standing issue not properly addressed.

MARTIN: How are the nations of the CARICOM nations - quantifying the economic damage of slavery? Have you placed a dollar figure on the amount that they are seeking?

MCCALPIN: This interview is within my capacity only as an elector in the field of transitional justice. I don't know the dollar value. None has been bandied about in terms of the dollar value. But what I want to make clear is that reparation is not only about monetary compensation. So the question of the dollar value is only part of the issue, and it's not something that needs to forestall reparation.

MARTIN: But what is being sought?

MCCALPIN: Let us first define reparation. Reparation are measured or a series of acts to make amends for historical wrongs. Now when we talk about approaches to reparations, again, it depends on who you ask. The last research I've seen indicates that Africans, that is continental Africans, they think that forgiveness would be the best form of reparation. African-Americans, the report argues, sees reparation primarily in the form of educational and social reform. Beyond those, I say we start with an apology, there are also memorials and commemorations. We also talk about repatriation, that is things that were stolen or taken from these countries to be returned. We talk about monetary disbursements and according to Pan-Africanist, Dudley Thompson, no strings attached development programs.

MARTIN: The London firm, though, that has been retained by CARICOM is the firm that has recently achieved a settlement for Kenyans who had been deemed to have been abused by the British during the area of the insurgency...

MCCALPIN: Mau Mau uprising.

MARTIN: The Mau Mau insurgency. And there was a dollar value attached. What do you believe - or is it not clear what the direction is that CARICOM will take in pursuing this claim?

MCCALPIN: I have learned from the experience of the American issues dealing with reparations and Randall Robinson's work on the debt. What America owes blacks, the dollar figure, often frightens both supporters as well as opponents. Figures of ten trillion dollars have been bandied about in the case of reparations for slavery in the Americas. I can't say authoritatively what the figure they are looking for, but if we extend and expand beyond that then we can maybe make that dollar figure or some other dollar figure more attainable.

MARTIN: Why now?

MCCALPIN: Again, I don't know specifically why CARICOM has started this, but I can tell you about the momentum behind the scenes. Each of those nations in CARICOM, including Jamaica, several of them have national reparations commissions that have been working on these issues. And part of what has helped to spur this on was this celebration of the abolition of the slave trade, so the Bicentennial celebration a couple years ago. A report was done in Jamaica dealing with some of these issues of reparations. We also have a national reparations commission. And so these issues have been worked on. We now have a CARICOM base reparations commission. So these are some of the things that have been fermenting behind the scenes. And in the Jamaican context, several groups, such as the Rastafarians, have continually called or advocated for reparations.

MARTIN: There are two main counterarguments that you hear that I wanted to ask you to address.

MCCALPIN: Yes.

MARTIN: Recognizing, again, that you don't represent CARICOM. The first is that Caribbean nations have been independent for decades now. Some would argue that CARICOM would have to establish that current economic difficulties are the fault of slavery and not of mismanagement or misgovernance or something else. How do you respond to that?

MCCALPIN: Well, I respond with another counterargument, which is Walter Rodney's argument - how Africa developed Europe. It's the same analog. If someone, anyone, can prove to me that the technological and economic advancement of Western Europe has been without the institution of slavery, then I would stop advocating for reparations.

MARTIN: The other argument that one hears is that the actual people who are responsible for slavery are long dead. And in some cases, the citizens of these former colonial nations include descendants of colonized people and even the descendants of slaves. And that because of migration patterns, that that clear line of, kind of, responsibility and effect - of cause and effect - is now broken, that they're citizens of Great Britain, the UK - throughout the UK who are the descendants of former slaves. So they would be in a position of sort of paying their own descendants. How do you respond to that?

MCCALPIN: The interests and injustices of descendants - I mean, of our antecedents, they outlive them. And so you didn't have to have colonized or enslaved anyone. If we focus on intergenerational transfer of wealth, I'm not sure why it would be so problematic to talk about responsibility. We are not here asking individuals to pay for the fact that their antecedents were slavers. We are asking governments to pay for it.

MARTIN: Scholars have spoken of reparations for generations now. But it has never really gained kind of wide currency, particularly in the U.S., among regular citizens, let's say, even as a kind of a focus of civil rights advocacy. Do you have a sense of - within the Caribbean - particularly within CARICOM, how people feel about it?

MCCALPIN: Actually, in Jamaica, we are now going to complete a survey as to the public awareness of reparation. I can only go off what I know anecdotally and what I have had occasions to interact with at conferences. Persons have indicated that it's too far gone so let bygones be bygones. The others argue, such as Rastafarians, that if an injustice has never been properly rectified, the crime continues to flourish.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask your personal opinion?

MCCALPIN: I think if blacks and their descendants are not properly compensated, I think the world does those descendants and their antecedents an injustice. So I advocate for reparation. I advocate for it in a more comprehensive notion rather than just monetary payment. And it's not a question of instituting white guilt, it is a question of institutional responsibility. So it's not black versus white, it's a question of responsibility.

MARTIN: Jermaine McCalpin is lecturer in transitional justice at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica and associate director at the Centre for Caribbean Thought. We caught up with him, though, in our bureau in New York. Mr. McCalpin, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MCCALPIN: Thank you very much.

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