Britain rules out slavery reparations – but should the Caribbean get more aid?

David Cameron was met by calls for slavery reparations during his visit to Jamaica in September. Gilbert Bellamy/Reuters

Caribbean countries are keeping the case for slavery reparations at the forefront of the international political agenda, and have established a commission on the issue. But after protesters raised the matter during David Cameron’s recent visit to Jamaica, the British prime minister ruled out the payment of reparations for his country’s role in the international slave trade in a speech to the Jamaica’s parliament.

On the one hand Caribbean nations point to the crime of the African slave trade and the plantation systems that were instituted in the colonies. Millions of Africans were forcibly transported to the Americas over the course of about 300 years. Once there they were beaten, tortured, raped and sometimes murdered in the pursuit of profit. European nations were the principal beneficiaries of the system.

On the other hand, Europeans nations claim that they cannot be held liable for what their ancestors did hundreds of years ago, in an age when different morals held sway.

Reparations for previous national crimes are not unprecedented. Germany paid out significant sums following World War II, and more recently Britain paid compensation to Kenyans tortured during the Mau-Mau uprising in the 1950s. Crucially, however, these offences were comparatively recent and the claims made by those who had directly suffered.

Shattered trajectories

The reparations for slavery debate is different. The British abolished slavery in the 1830s, emancipating those who had been enslaved. Other countries did the same during the 19th century, ending with Brazil in 1888. There are no living former slaves in the Americas. Equally, those who owned slaves are long dead.

The reparations claim therefore is not a matter for individuals, and no one is suggesting that cheques be sent to living people. Rather the claim, focuses on the different development trajectories between the colonies and the imperial powers.

Slavery was abolished in the British empire in 1833. Wikimedia Commons

The wealth of the colonies, produced by slaves, flowed into the European nations, helping to drive the industrial revolution. Colonies, by contrast, suffered under-investment in education and infrastructure and had poorly diversified economies. When political independence came in the 1950s and 1960s, the new nations were overly reliant on cash crop agriculture and had barely literate populations.

It’s easy for critics to argue that in the half century since many Caribbean nations gained independence they should have sorted themselves out. Surely 50 years is enough time to develop into a modern nation state? Aren’t the calls of politicians for reparations simply to cover up their own failings to deliver a better standard of living for their own people? Blaming an external enemy has long been the refuge of those needing to shore up domestic support.

Yet the legacy of colonialism can be clearly seen in data for GDP per capita from the International Monetary Fund. The UK has GDP per capita that is three times that of Barbados and ten times that of Jamaica. The Caribbean nations are often indebted, struggling to finance the health and educational infrastructure of a modern state. Much of the work of the Caricom Reparations Commission focuses on these developmental issues, arguing that Britain and the other nations have a moral obligation to support the long-term development of their former colonies that were hampered by the outset by the legacies of slavery.

Caribbean misses out

The UK’s overseas aid budget is more than £11 billion annually, yet very little actually goes to the Caribbean in bilateral aid. In 2013, 54.1% of UK bilateral aid went to Africa, 42.1% to Asia and 3.2% to the Americas. Education and health programmes in South Asia and Africa tend to rank far above the West Indies in attracting the support of politicians.

Part of the problem lies in perception. The Caribbean does not seem like a poor part of the world to tourists who visit its resorts and palm-fringed beaches. To them it seems far more like a luxurious paradise. Yet, one does not have to travel far beyond the hotel gates to find exactly the same sort of poverty so visible in Africa or Asia. Perhaps Cameron’s visit to Jamaica will bring home to him the fact that the development needs of Britain’s former West Indian colonies are also very significant.

Cameron has not embraced the reparations movement with open arms, particularly at a time when he’s under political pressure at home from UKIP, which already wants to slash the foreign aid budget. If he acknowledges the case for reparations from the Caribbean, then surely more claims would come from the Asian sub-continent and Africa which were equally exploited in the colonial era.

But perhaps a subtle shift will develop in the future, whereby the current overseas aid budget is broadened to include more for the Caribbean. In some senses, the argument has already been won – Britain tends to direct most of its bilateral aid to former colonies, focusing on health and education just like the reparations commission wishes – it’s just that the Caribbean has tended to miss out.

The government might also encourage UK businesses and NGOs to do more to support the postgraduate studies of the next generation of West Indian doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers and politicians. The Reparations Commission is unlikely to get the public victory is wants, but it might achieve many of its aims via quieter policy shifts that could have a significant impact.