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Britain's Black Debt

Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide


Hilary Beckles


Kingston (Jamaica): University of West Indies Press, 2013

Paperback. xiv + 292 p. ISBN 978-9766403492. £25.95


Reviewed by Paul E. Lovejoy

York University, Toronto (Ontario)



In this persuasive discussion of the legacy of slavery, Sir Hilary Beckles, now Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, presents a convincing argument, supported by extensive documentation, why reparations is a political issue that has to resolved through truth and reconciliation. Collectively, we as a global community have to confront the fact that slavery is a crime against humanity, and always has been. Specific cases, variations in experience, chronological implications, and a myriad of qualifications do not in any way lessen the crime or the need to come to terms with the consequences. If Beckles’ analysis can be faulted in any way, it would only be on the emotional level. His approach is rational, scientific and dispassionate. He wants to prove a point, both as an historian and for legal and political reasons. Anyone who has had the opportunity to listen to Sir Hilary will know that his commitment to history and his dedication to righting the wrongs of the past and the present are intense. Britain's Black Debt is focused on one aspect of a much larger problem and nasty history that cannot be dismissed. The overriding question of this book is one of classic proportions. Are we like Sisyphus doomed to revisit this issue of slavery and its legacy again and again, each generation suppressing, ignoring or falsifying the truth only for the next generation to once again discover the gruesome history of slavery?

Is there financial compensation involved in coming to terms with history? Probably never enough. How does one calculate what is owed? Haiti is certainly owed, with interest, what it was forced to pay to France over one hundred years. How that is implemented and filtered so that the money that France owes is not stolen, misappropriated or wasted is a separate issue. The fact that it is owed is clear. British slave owners were compensated massively for the loss of their "property," when the enslaved population in British colonies, not in the whole of the empire, were emancipated, not even taking into consideration the added tax of the apprenticeship system that kept people unpaid for six years after the law said people were actually free, and not including the colonial imposition that prevented planned economic development for more than one hundred years after. By contrast, the funds that were awarded to the criminals – the slave owners (we must remember that slavery is a crime against humanity) – were so enormous that they financed British economic growth through the middle of the nineteenth century, despite the funds that were siphoned off to build country estates, to waste in public display of wealth, and to enjoy in private perversions. The British class system prospered in a way that places Karl Marx writing in the British Library in revolting if not revolutionary contrast.

Beckles does not deal with many issues that require reparations. He stays focused on Britain's Black debt, and hence we would like to see a sequel that examines the implications for assessing African elite complicity, the notorious Mediterranean confrontation between Islam and Christian Europe, the Muslim heritage of injustice, and contemporary issues of conjugal slavery in wartime. In my assessment, this is not a weakness of Britain's Black Debt; it is call for further study and analysis – and reparations.

Reparations is not just money, of course. It is "repairing" and coming to terms with the past, in a manner that requires trust and reconciliation, and requiring ongoing discussion and education. Beckles sets out to discuss the principles and politics of reparations so that it is clear to readers that the issues have legal precedent and moral validity. He then examines the long sordid history of enslavement from the genocide of indigenous populations in the Windward Islands of the Caribbean to the early involvement of the English monarchy under King James in activating the slave trade in people from Africa. Of course the extensive reliance on enslaved labor in the development of British possessions in the Caribbean is well known and well studied and only needs a summary presentation to document the relevance to the issue of reparations. Less well known is the shocking case of the Zong, a slave ship that was moving the enslaved from the Bight of Biafra to Jamaica in 1780, in which the captain of the ship deliberately murdered 132 people in order to collect insurance on the "cargo", or the conscious submission of enslaved women to prostitution in an early example of sex slavery. This book provides discussion for the "criminal enrichment" that slavery provided in the building of Britain and the consolidation of a wealthy British elite. As Beckles demonstrates, even the Church of England prospered from slavery through its investments in Barbados, while the tentacles of profitable exploitation extended directly into Buckingham Palace, as revealed in the activities of the Earls of Harewood. Slavery directly benefited a significant portion of the British elite who served in Parliament and who developed the private sector in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It is easy to establish a preliminary cash figure for reparations based on the level of compensation that was provided to slave owners at the time of emancipation in 1834. An amount totaling £20 million was awarded, which in modern terms constituted an enormous bail out and was a major impetus for economic growth in Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century and arguably accounts for continued British imperial supremacy that lasted through the end of the nineteenth century and beyond. In a series of fascinating tables, Beckles provides statistical support for his arguments, including examples of life and death on the Lowther Plantation in 1825-1832, the estimates for the scale of the British slave trade, a list of clergy who received compensation for enslaved individuals, the locations of ten plantations that Harewood managed for the British monarchy, the names of the Dukes, Marquesses and Earls who owned plantations, the value that was calculated for the enslaved population in the British Caribbean, and the estimated size of the enslaved population at the time of emancipation in 1834. These statistics are supplemented with the contemporary calculations on the value of working adults and the value assigned for the ownership of children in 1834 as well as financial compensation that was awarded to the owners of enslaved "property" and the amounts that British financiers received in lieu of their investments in slavery.

In the final section of the book, Beckles explores how the case for reparations has evolved, including a discussion of the debate at Durban and the political negotiations that finally resulted in the declaration of slavery as a crime against humanity but the avoidance of a decision to establish reparations as a legitimate issue, not only financially, but culturally and requiring a commitment to educational reform globally. In the end, the issues remain. Britain pursues a policy that opposes reparations in any form and indeed refuses to recognize even that an apology for past crimes is warranted. As Beckles shows, however, the issue of reparations is far from settled in the Caribbean at least, and the campaign to press for social justice continues. Indeed, Beckles' book is part of that campaign.



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