Published on 10 Mar 2014 Sections , , ,

European nations in dock over Caribbean slave trade

The heads of state of 15 Caribbean nations are gathering in St Vincent to unveil a 10-point plan that demands reparations from European nations which benefited from the slave trade.

The plan has been drawn up by British law firm Leigh Day, which has a track record of bringing high-profile class action lawsuits in the high court on behalf of the victims of negligence or human rights abuse.

It follows the law firm’s success in securing compensation for survivors of Kenyan’s Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s last year, which led the British government to pay £19.9m to 5,228 survivors of torture and formally acknowledged that “Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill treatment”.

That caught the attention of Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadine, who has led the campaign for Caribbean slave trade reparations for the past four years. Leigh Day subsequently started working for Caricom, the Caribbean Community Secretariat, last summer.

Areas of dialogue

Few expect the case drafted by the law firm – which seeks reparations from the UK, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark – to succeed.

But in an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Sir Hilary Beckles, the pro-vice-chancellor at the University of the West Indies (UWI) who chairs the reparations task force, said he hoped it would set out areas of dialogue with former slave-trading nations.

He also dismissed claims that Caribbean nations were attempting to extract vast sums from European taxpayers, insisting that money was not the main objective.

Among the demands made on former European slave trade nations are that they:

  • provide diplomatic help to persuade countries such as Ghana and Ethiopia to offer citizenship to the children of people from the Caribbean who “return” to Africa

  • create a development strategy to help improve the lives of poor communities in the Caribbean

  • support cultural exchanges between the Caribbean and west Africa to help Caribbean people of African descent regain their sense of history and identity
  • support literacy drives designed to improve education levels in many Caribbean communities
  • provide medical assistance to the region that is struggling from high levels of chronic diseases such as hypertension and type 2 diabetes that the Caricom reparations commission links to the fallout from slavery

The UK currentlly contributes around £15m in aid through the Department for International Development.

Reparations for slavery have been sought on several occasions in the US and have repeatedly failed on the basis that no living victims can be identified and that taxpayers could not be held responsible for the wrongs committed in centuries past.

Sins of the past

In 2004, the descendants of slaves represented by US lawyer Ed Fagan sued Lloyds of London for profiteering from the slave trade in the 1700s and 1800s. The case ultimately failed despite the claimants producing DNA evidence which they said linked them with ancestors on recorded slave ships, which sailed between Africa and the US.

In 2006 Tony Blair expressed “deep sorrow” for Britain’s part in the slave trade to mark the 200th anniversary of its abolition within the British empire, describing it as a crime against humanity.

But he was criticised for failing to make a formal apology before later stating in March 2007: “I have said we are sorry and I say it again,” after talks with Ghanaian president John Agyekum Kufuor.

Some see reparations as delayed justice, while others see it as an empty claim and a distraction from modern social problems in Caribbean societies.

“Undoubtedly, Britain faces more claims than anyone else because it was the primary slave power and colonial power in the Caribbean,” Martyn Day, the British lawyer advising the Caribbean nations, said in an interview. “Britain will be very much at the forefront.”

Twelve of the 15 Caribbean nations are former British colonies.

“The western powers will at least give a sympathetic ear,” he added. “The knee-jerk reaction will be to say no (but) western powers will want to be seen as dealing sensitively with this.”

‘No legal basis’

“There is no legal basis for a claim for reparations,” Robert A. Sedler, a professor at Wayne State University Law School, told Reuters.

“Slavery was legal at the time, and international law was not a part of the law of the European states. Moreover, a long period of time has passed, and all the victims of slavery are long dead.”

Meanwhile, despite issuing a statement which described slavery as “abhorrent” the Foreign Office said reparations were not the answer.

“Instead, we should concentrate on identifying ways forward with a focus on the shared global challenges that face our countries in the 21st century,” it added.

Day hopes to present formal complaints to the European states at the end of June. If a European state were to refuse a Caribbean nation’s request for talks on its particular claims, then a formal legal complaint would be made.

Estimates vary as to how many Africans were enslaved. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database estimates the British Caribbean had 2.3 million slaves, the French Caribbean had 1.1 million, the Spanish Americas had 1.3 million and the Dutch Americas had about 445,000.