West Indies: Economic Historian Hilary Beckles on the Struggle for Justice, Rights and Reparations

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Caribbean nations which ignore the human and civil rights of the citizenry will never be able to access reparations. Visiting Barbados economic historian Hilary Beckles, campus principal of Cave Hill and Pro Vice Chancellor of UWI, made this comment at a public lecture and launch of his book Britain’s Black Debt at Daaga Auditorium, St Augustine Campus, on May 23. Among those present were St Augustine campus principal Prof Clement Sankat, Prof Funso Aiyejina, dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Education, literary icon Earl Lovelace and head of the department of history Dr Heather Cateau. 

Beckles dedicated his book to the late eminent historian and T&T’s first prime minister Dr Eric Williams, author of the seminal work Capitalism and Slavery. Beckles said his book should be seen as a sequel to Williams’ work and dedicated it to him. His narrative revolved around a cover photograph of a young queen Elizabeth of England taking a stroll with her cousin, the 7th Earl of Harewood on his sugar plantation (the Belle) in Barbados in 1966. It was bought by the earl’s ancestor in 1780 and there were 232 slaves. Before delving into the post pan-African conversation, Beckles said he had to “purge himself” by writing this book which he deemed to be a case study of the need for reparations for the descendants of enslaved peoples. He felt Britain had a case to answer, which the Caribbean should litigate. Beckles said he believed there would be no social justice until the matter of reparations was addressed.

Reparations, or the concept of repairing damage, is based on the search for a higher level of humanity and is intended to lay the foundation for healing the human family. I believe if Williams were alive he, too, would have argued the case for reparations,” said Beckles. But he sounded a warning bell. Beckles said, “All across the world what we do know is weak nations and weak peoples and disorganised communities never receive reparations. If you take 100 random cases of reparations in the last 50 years, not one has been paid to a nation that is disorganised and is weak and furthermore that does not recognise the human and civil rights of its citizens. Nations only engage in reparatory discussions when they have reached a stage where they are concerned about the human and civil rights of their citizens. In the Caribbean, we have not yet reached that level.”

Beckles cited the shining examples of Korea and the Maldives of New Zealand. “I was in Korea about five years ago and I listened. The Japanese had made criminal use of Korean women. They were taken out of villages and used as sex slaves in the army camps. That matter has been repaired and they have put millions of yen into the Korean Workers’ Development Fund to repair the damage done to women of Korea. The Maldives of New Zealand have received reparations from the British government because the government said the genocide must be addressed.” But Beckles said there was a lot of work to be done since European governments had consistently refused to give apologies. “Europeans first have to acknowledge a crime has been committed. Most of the countries have not admitted slavery was a crime against humanity. You have to admit responsibility and admit to the damage,” said Beckles.

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