Reparations for Caribbean Slavery: The case for Settlement


by Courtenay Francis Raymond Barnett

The Kenyan case
In June 2013 Her Majesty’s Government was required to pay 19.9 million pounds in compensation to some 5,000 elderly Kenyans who  were tortured and abused during the Mau Mau ( an English bastardised name for “ muingi” or “ muigwithania”  as  the movement) uprising in the 1950s. This case bears lessons for the Caribbean and it also has much to teach about the true nature of the British Empire.

The British imposed themselves in Kenya and confiscated land. In 1948 quarter million Kenyans were confined to 2,000 square miles, while 30,000  English settlers lived on 12,000 square miles of the most fertile lands in Kenya.  Africans under  an apartheid and   colonial policy were forbidden to enter certain areas and  confined away from the most arable  land. Not surprisingly, the Kenyans rebelled and started a violent campaign against the white settlers in 1952. The colonialists responded and the Kenya Human Rights Commission estimated that 90,000 Kenyans were executed, tortured or maimed. There was the use of literal concentration camps ( see the observations below  of the then British Attorney General)  as a nationwide network of detention for  some 160,000 who were detained in the most appalling conditions. President Obama’s grandfather,  Hussein Onyango Obama,   happened to be one of those detained persons. He had  pins placed into his fingernails and in his  buttocks and his testicles were squeezed  between metal rods.  Other Kenyans were forcibly relocated to new villages.

Within the camps the British inflicted beatings,  castrated,  raped  and  performed other forms of sexual abuse and torture applying  brutal interrogation techniques against the Kenyans. It was against this background that elderly Kenyans who had suffered abuse when detained filed a claim in the English High Court. Two of the original five claimants had been castrated  and an African lady who had been raped was included in the claim.

One might be astounded that despite the repeated public and international proclamations for many years by Her Majesty’s Government about defence of all types of human rights, it  fought the Kenyan claims. In 2011 the High Court finally ruled that the four test cases were “arguable cases in law”. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office went as far, on the second round of the British government’s objections,  of  arguing  that the claims were outside time limits. But, one knows in point of law that there is no statute bar on a crime against humanity, as one is aware that for murder and serious criminal offences no statute of limitation applies. In October 2012 the cases were permitted to proceed to trial, despite  the best legal resistance that HMG could muster. The British government went as far as hiding an enormous secret archive consisting of more than  8,000 files from 37 former colonies, which researchers discovered  and HMG  was compelled to disclose. At  Hanslope Park in Buckinghamshire, this  secret archive was held separate from the National Archive at Kew, London. This  discovery of  the several documents corroborated the Kenyans’ claims.   During this time one of the four elderly claimants died before judgment, then the  case was finally settled out of court. 

A part of British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s statement  in response to the case reads:-
“ The British Government recognises that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration.”

The FCO expressed “regret” but then  immediately drew semantic distinctions stating that the expressed  “regret” was not  an “apology”. The reason for this, one surmises is that the Caribbean has a very strong case to be brought for reparations for the Atlantic African Slave Trade once an apology is made and  there is  full acknowledgement of the crime against humanity.

The Caribbean case
Queen Elizabeth 1 by way of Royal Charter and ably assisted by Captain John Hawkins in the 1500s established a criminal enterprise, of funding for trips to Africa to kidnap Africans, place them on ships and via the Middle Passage sail them across the Atlantic to be enslaved on plantations and for centuries without pay,  have the enslaved and each generation thereafter build wealth for Britain, being the principal slaving nation in the modern world. But while Berlin has a Holocaust museum, by contrast where are Britain’s many slave museums and public monuments of contrition? Not so, because of the persistent and prolonged collective denial about the catastrophic consequences of coercion, torture, and the damage wreaked on sizeable numbers of humanity by colonialism.

The Irish, truth be told, faced slavery, and the Irish famine, for which HMG apologised. One then knows  that there is precedent for a similar apology to be tendered to the African descendants in the Caribbean, as Queen Elizabeth 11 did to the Maoris in 1995 for colonizing their lands and breaching the treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand.

As with the Kenyan claim one expects all forms of continuing denials  before the claim is filed and the case is finally  compensated. Following the victory for the Kenyans, the British government hastened to state that it "…doesn't accept liability for the actions of previous colonial governments". This declaration is consistent with the central intellectual  plank of resistance used by European historians to “racialise” and rationalise   the kidnapping of Africans to  state that Africans captured Africans to be sold, therefore no claim can be made for slavery reparations. So,  might one honestly ask - when France warred with England or Germany with the rest of Europe, is that how European historians reasoned – that there was  no wrong for want of European racial solidarity when lining up to fight their own kith and kin? I think not. If so reasoned then war reparations would never have been imposed by Europeans. One Hermann J. Abhs, a German Jew (Director of the Deutsche Bank Abhs) financed Auschwitz, the concentration camp in which thousands of Jews were slaughtered. As Director of the Deutsche Bank Abhs he definitely played a direct role in financially assisting the Nazi regime along with corporations that participated in war crimes.  Clearly, tribes and nations exist in Africa and as with European warfare, so too did Africans fight Africans, but African leaders resisted the slave trade from its inception:

“ And we cannot reckon how great the damage is, since the mentioned merchants are taking every day our natives, sons of the land and the sons of our noblemen and vassals and our relatives, because the thieves and men of bad conscience grab them wishing to have the things and wares of this Kingdom which they are ambitious of; they grab them and get them to be sold; and so great, Sir, is the corruption and licentiousness that our country is being completely depopulated, and Your Highness should not agree with this nor accept it as in your service. And to avoid it we need from those (your) Kingdoms no more than some priests and a few people to reach in schools, and no other goods except wine and flour for the holy sacrament. That is why we beg of Your Highness to help and assist us in this matter, commanding your factors that they should not send here either merchants or wares, because it is our will that in these Kingdoms there should not be any trade of slaves nor outlet for them. Concerning what is referred [to] above, again we beg of Your Highness to agree with it, since otherwise we cannot remedy such an obvious damage.”

“And as soon as they are taken by the white men they are immediately ironed and branded with fire, and when they are carried to be embarked, if they are caught by our guards' men the whites allege that they have bought them but they cannot say from whom, so that it is our duty to do justice and to restore to the freemen their freedom, but it cannot be done if your subjects feel offended, as they claim to be.” 
(Letter from African King  of the Congo Nzinga Mbemba – a.k.a. Afonso 1: to the King of Portugal –  letter dated  October 18, 1526)

The  Caribbean claim  for reparations initially  is academically established by Dr. Eric Williams book “Capitalism and Slavery” and  more recently advanced by Professor Hilary Beckles book “Britain’s Black Debt.” Every facet of British society has been astoundingly enriched from the period of African enslavement in the Caribbean. Slavery for Britain was central to the British economy, not peripheral, and at the time was  proclaimed to be central and  in the “national interest” for the enrichment of Britain. Royalty; the Church of  England; the British Parliament with  a dense population of slave owners; families whose wealth inure to this day – Queen Elizabeth 11 second cousin, the 7th Earl of Harewood (George Henry Hubert Lascelles died July 10th, 2011) and his  family in Barbados owns the  plantation that produced the wealth for the family with 232 slaves, and they all owned slaves in the Caribbean. Barclays Bank was started from the profits of two plantation owners who traded in slaves.  The insurers, Lloyds of London started as insurers of ships that were transporting slaves from Africa to the Caribbean.

The “Zong” case of 1781  involved  the jettisoning of some 131 Africans thrown into the Atlantic ocean, for reason of a shortage of water on board ship. The case  brought in the English courts was not for murder, but to reclaim the insurance money on the131 persons   lost as  “property”. The times and context of the case may be weighed, yet at the time the anti slavery campaigner, Granville Sharpe tried unsuccessfully to have the crew tried for murder.

The real point is the inuring British judicial denial of “human rights” ( as in contemporary times  illustrated and confirmed  by  the British government’s response to the Kenyan case) which exposes a stark contradiction between the basic professed tenets of English law, respect for the rule of law, human rights and justice  and the  conflicting set of views which to this day instinctively and compulsively deny the rights of others. Historical conditioning evidently makes it hard  for some  to yield to the  just demands of others. As an exercise in advocacy – might the lawyer ask – what would your response be if it were your  English persons, enslaved in England and treated as the Africans were in the Caribbean?  But, whoever the advocate and whatever  the question, the  British government will resist the claim for reparations once the claim is made. First by way of  continuing  the official British policy of no apology for enslavement   complemented by  efforts  to refuse payment of  compensation due from the British government  which built its economy on African slavery and  will without  shame maintain that position  ( as illustrated by  the Kenyan case).

Malachy Postlethwayt, a political economist, frankly and honestly wrote in 1745: “British trade is a magnificent superstructure of American commerce and naval power on an African foundation.”

It is no more or less than moral and intellectual dishonesty to attempt, as many European scholars and some African sympathisers have less than ably tried to do, to blame the Atlantic African Slave Trade on Africans, when the financing, the maritime and shipping arrangements, the insurance, the manning of the  ships, the organisation and ownership of the plantations and slaves related directly to a coordinated European led criminal enterprise, with profits directed back to Europe, without pay to the Africans.

Were one to ask – how many persons killed in Auschwitz received reparations from the German government for the crimes committed against humanity  - the answer  – not one – it was the descendants of the Jews and the group that was paid reparations. In the debates leading up to the 1838 Emancipation British parliamentarians  actually  debated having the slaves pay to their English masters a sum for the loss of the services to the master as a precondition for their freedom. In  the Kenyan case an equivalent  modern day debasement of justice occurred when  the British state’s lawyer actually  advanced the legal  concept of states succession to claim that the modern Kenyan state and government should be the  defendant and potential payer of reparations.

There is further illustrative consistent  European  historical parallel, in Haiti, after the slave revolution, when  France demanded that the Haitian self-freed slaves  pay reparations for the loss of the property the French had owned, and so  by borrowing, the debt was paid in the sum of  21 million French Francs to France. There was operative French and Euro-American blackmail, because Haiti could not trade internationally unless the debt was paid.  In 1914  the United States of America bought the debt from France  and continued collecting payments  until the 1950s.

In the British Caribbean colonies, after ensuring  delay of emancipation until   satisfactory payment of reparations were arranged, it was the slave owners who received £ 21 million   (approximately£ 200 billion  in today’s currency) from the British Treasury  for the loss of their “property”, when African slaves were freed. The enslaved throughout  received not a penny from the British for the centuries of free labour. No land, no compensation, not a jot paid for  the original captured nor to  their generations. And to this day  - no apology from Britain.

Let it not come from the writings or words of a mere “colonial” born under British rule in the waning days of Empire, but from the words of no less a person than a British  colonial Attorney General, Eric Griffith- Jones and his description of the abuses of Kenyans which at the  time read: "…distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia."

The foregoing is the true modern  legacy of Britannia, coming undeniably from high authority who knew from the British side.  But, one need not so much be astounded, nor even  be annoyed by the depths of  contemporary denials and contrivances, based as British views  are,  moulded and conditioned over centuries and assisted by handmaiden intellectual support, for purposes of  historical distortion,  by sections of European academia. The   misconceptions and cleverly constructed colonial myths inure  against  the crimes of British  colonialism  and imperialism  that actually were  committed  against humanity, then become understandable, but not condoned. 

Admission of  the crimes committed  would  actually  cause  psychological shock  inversion  from the initial acceptance  of “truths” to the shock of  the rejection of an  embrace of   the  romanticisation of  the illegality,  exploitation,  slavery and theft by  the ‘benign Empire’ once   anyone is compelled to view the  truly barbarous nature of the operations of the British  Empire.  Kenya was a good and wonderful place to be born or live and be white  in colonial times, as Elspeth Huxley tells us in her book “The flame trees of Thika” -  but not so for the displaced Africans – and so  through whose eyes do we see  truth?  If the Kenyan case was one of the darkest episodes of Britain’s imperial past, what then, in comparison would the Caribbean claim for reparations constitute? The Caribbean has a  challenge, now  bolstered by the Kenyan case, to take collective steps to  commence a claim for reparations.

It is not that, on the demonstrated record Britain wants to learn from the past, rather there is a decisive willfulness to distort, avoid, hide  and minimise the true  levels of  compensatory payments and/or restorative sums  lawfully due. This observation is factually supported  by reference to  certain colonial files being placed out of reach  despite the stipulations of the UK  Freedom of Information Act. Additionally, there is a case to be brought in England that the provisions  of  the Public Records Act 1958 have been breached. 

The  claim for reparations can be made in one or more of the following ways:-

1. Placing the matter before the UN General Assembly. This was the declared intent of Chief Abiola, the elected leader of Nigeria. Sadly, it appears that he was killed by the military when he had been imprisoned and the intent to claim reparations through the Nigerian government’s efforts at the UN died a death with him.

2. Use of a specially constituted  international tribunal to decide upon the terms of payment through a negotiated settlement.

3. A contested case argued before an international court. There being at present no international court with specific jurisdiction for the  award of African  reparations,  the claim becomes one of political will to make the claim and establish a specially constituted court.

4. Reliance can be placed on the International Court of Justice through which an advisory opinion can be sought. This fourth point relates back to the first in that the General Assembly of the United Nations could  make this request. 

For  some,  the matter  may seem something related to the distant past that has no contemporary bearing. History however is not disjointed.  The negative self images of the African, in psychological, literary, economic and social terms are not conditions biologically determined, but rather are  historical constructs.  To the extent that an individual owes certain moral duties to self, to family, to community, to nation, to humanity, that mental state of moral resoluteness can be aggregated through Caribbean nation states and into the Caribbean community. Power never conceded anything without a demand, it never has and it never will. The conditions of African-Americans or Africans in Southern Africa under Apartheid seemed at a point in time immutable and was so proclaimed by Ian Smith for a thousand years to come. But, a vision accompanied by avowed collective purpose did within fleeting political time change the  existing segregated and disconsolate order. Of course, there first had to be the will.

The value that may be assessed due from Britain relates to a starting point of  the sum of  £200 billion, ably and vigorously debated in no less an august  place than the British Parliament.   Much of British aid money serves purposes that are  disguised   to  promote sales of British  produce and services abroad (arms included). Reconfiguring the existing aid funding and redesigning British foreign policy can do much good in shifting from hand outs of beguiling aid and supportive pursuit of wars of aggression  to constructive payments of reparations for sustainable Caribbean development and indeed stepping along a path of global justice. 

It is  not that the source of funding for reparations  would  have  increased nor changed, but the acknowledgment of  the criminal wrong inflicted and the purpose of the same funds would  have. Reparations so paid would then involve mutual respect and the acceptance and acknowledgement of the crime against humanity that had been committed, as distinct from projecting to the world that some benign British  aid money  has yet again been handed out  to the needy living in the post-independence exploited and dependent  British colonies.  If one were to take the first quarter estimate for expenditures on the Iraq  war up to  March 2013 of  £8.3billion  ( and when the maimed and psychologically wounded are returned from the lies ( not lines)  of this WMD  war there will be medical costs to the  British state  that will increase that  figure for the remainder of the  lives of the soldiers for their  medical care ) then, even on the basis of a  hugely discounted settlement sum, if  HMG can find the money to pay   for destructive war there surely can be sums found for constructive  reparations  payment s to the Caribbean for reparations and sustainable development.

The result as with other reparations claims realistically will involve consultation and negotiation. The judgment  thereafter might be  quite  simple, such as total British debt relief for all English speaking Caribbean nations accompanied by a 50 year educational trust for any Caribbean citizen who matriculates to be educated free of cost at any British university, and a reasonable sum in monetary reparations paid to each Caribbean government in the  English speaking Caribbean.

Of the total  sum payable, there can be a  tripartite weighted division of the total value between the proportions allocated for debt relief, education, and direct reparations payments.  Her Majesty’s Government cannot now afford the greater embarrassment  of fighting a  case of far larger historical significance than the Kenyan cases, so might  avoid  the cost of further debasing the professed value system of the British government and state and its global reputation, such as it stands.  Little compensation indeed, to claim  for the centuries of exploitation and co-related economic benefits bestowed on Britain; so  reparations  do remain justly due and a case inviting settlement might now  be advanced.

Since the idea of collective punishment  came easily as policy for the British in Kenya, there then should not be a problem, in terms of the best traditions of British jurisprudence in addressing collective restorative justice for the people of the Caribbean. The people of the Caribbean should now decisively  bend the arc of history from assumptions of benevolent associations with Empire towards  direct efforts  in pursuit  of this  claim for justice.

Courtenay Francis Raymond Barnett is a graduate of London University. His areas of study were economics, political science and international law. He has been a practising lawyer for over thirty  years, has been arrested for defending his views, has survived an attempt on his life and death threats, and has argued public interest and human rights cases.  

Editor's note: This blog  post was first published  on June 16, 2013. In light of the case for reparations against the British, The Dutch, and the French, it was republished again October 25, 2013. We present it again in light of the interest in Ta-Nehisi Coates' The Case for Reparations in the Atlantic. From time to time we will re-post articles of great importance.