By RUPERT MISSICK Jr
THE Caribbean’s claim for reparations over “the lingering legacy of the Atlantic slave trade” is so fundamental to the current world structure that there may be no real, just way to respond, social anthropologist and College of the Bahamas professor Dr Nicolette Bethel told The Tribune.
CARICOM maintains that Caribbean societies have been built upon transatlantic slave trading and chattel slavery. It encouraged the slave-owning nations of Europe – principally Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark – to engage Caribbean governments in reparatory dialogue to address the “living legacies of these crimes”.
This dialogue took place on a smaller level recently in one of Dr Bethel’s classes at COB. She was joined by Dr Gilbert Morris who discussed with the students, via Skype, among other things, the legal foundations of a reparations claim.
Dr Bethel said she invited Dr Morris to lecture her class because she and Dr Morris have different positions on the question of reparations.
“The students need to know that scholars don’t always agree and need to learn how to think for themselves,” she said.
One of the issues surrounding the debate is the question of whether it is possible or even realistic to believe that reparations could take the form of dollars and cents.
Dr Bethel believes the debate should involve both the tangible and intangible.
“For me, the main point is the intangible, immaterial, and fundamental issue – that fundamental issue that when crimes are done to human beings and the world takes note, reparations are paid.
“The fact that people of African and indigenous descent have not been treated the same way suggests that the same lie that was invented to justify the slave trade still holds: that we are somehow less than human, and don’t rate the same respect.
“But the monetary side is also fundamental. The modern capitalist world was built on the forced labour of the people of the ‘new world’ and that debt has yet to be paid.
“Rather than Europe and North America paying back the Caribbean, Caribbean countries’ debts are being multiplied under the current world economic system, which, despite all mouthings to the contrary, is in no way ‘free’, unless the ‘free-ness’ is still free, forced, unwaged, underpaid labour,” Dr Bethel said.
Dr Bethel said that Bahamians have a difficult time addressing the issue of slavery because they were mistaught their history.
“We have deep shame about that history and we have not faced it or discussed it. I think this is by design. We imagine that it might be dangerous to our social relations to do so. Our social relations, whether we talk about the enslavement and dehumanisation of our past or not, are endangered. Perhaps one way of fixing that is to re-humanise us all, and one way of doing that is sitting down and reasoning together,” she said.
Slavery, Dr Bethel said, has created a society in which brutality is still the most accepted way of functioning.
“If we are not brutalising one another in every way, little and big, physical and psychic, we wish to brutalise those people on whom we place the label of ‘brute’ – our poor, our disempowered, the criminals.
“The institution of slavery dehumanised everyone, no matter what their origin. The process of beating down the enslaved dehumanised the enslavers. We have only to look at how we have designed our city and our public institutions to understand that we don’t really believe in our full humanity, our people-ness yet,” Dr Bethel said.
While there are many who feel something should happen in terms of reparations, it is doubtful that anything will.
One recent reparation claim levied against Lloyds of London in 2004 by a coalition of Rastafarian groups argued that European countries formerly involved in the slave trade, especially Britain, should pay 72.5 billion pounds to resettle 500,000 Jamaican Rastafarians in Africa.
The claim was rejected by the British government, which said it could not be held accountable for wrongs in past centuries.
So, in a perfect world, how should the Caribbean’s claim for reparations be answered?
Dr Bethel says she doesn’t know but feels that the Caribbean’s claim is so fundamental to the current world structure that there is no real, just way to respond.
“...So I cannot imagine a perfect world. However, let us look at what the Caribbean, what the new world lacks: we lack a real, fundamental connection to and agreement that our humanity is worth celebrating.
“What we lack is the luxury of spending money on things we deem ‘unnecessary’ but which are critical for the development of democratic and civil society, and that is what we need now.
“A fund for the creation of that kind of infrastructure? I don’t know. A return of all that we have lost – all our ancestral knowledge, our ancestral civilities? Can they be returned? Can they be rebuilt? Can we fund the healing that is necessary?
“Even if it is not possible, the gesture, the foundation, the funding must be provided somehow, somewhere, now,” she said.