EDITOR, The Tribune
With the Caribbean reparations movement gathering steam, it has become necessary to articulate, in public, the arguments and issues around reparations. As Biomedical Advisor to the Bahamian Reparations Committee, I would like to outline some of the medical and biomedical arguments for reparation to the descendents of enslaved Africans in the Bahamas.
Many will say that the idea that modern day Bahamians, who “know nothing” of slavery, should “just get over it”, but I hope to convey that the traumatic effects of the Ma’afa (trans-Atlantic slave trade) are likely to have been inherited by the descendants of enslaved Africans living today.
The idea that trauma can “skip” generations is not a new one; indeed, it was noted during the Dutch famine of World War II that mothers who were starved during their pregnancy, subsequently gave birth to children who were affected by a wide array of so-called “metabolic” disorders, such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity. Similarly, the children and even grandchildren of holocaust survivors show a decreased tolerance to stress, demonstrating that trauma can be transmitted to children and grandchildren and even beyond.
Trauma can be transmitted across generations. The mechanism by which this occurs is called “epigenetics”. Epigenetics describes the study of the environmental or dietary factors which can switch genes on and off, thereby controlling their activity. Trauma, stress and poor nutrition are examples of factors which can cause epigenetic changes to occur and be transmitted to babies in the womb.
It has been suggested that this epigenetic effect of trauma inheritance across generations is part of the cause of the high prevalence of diabetes and hypertension in the Caribbean and Americas in the descendants of enslaved Africans. By analogy with the Dutch famine victims, it is proposed that nutrient deprivation during slavery gave rise to descendants who were prone or pre-disposed to metabolic disorders. Indeed, in her classic work, “Islanders in the Stream”, Dr Gail Saunders documents the slave diet in The Bahamas as being deficient in several key nutrients (interestingly and notably including some that are vital for maintaining epigenetic balance). Could this have resulted in the same effects seen during the Dutch famine?
Similarly, by analogy with the descendents of holocaust survivors, it is likely that the emotional and physical trauma of the Ma’afa impacted stress responses across generations. Dr Joy DeGruy has called this the “Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome”, and has suggested that it may be causative of the high levels of violence seen in many communities. Could this be part of why there is so much violent crime in the Caribbean today?
There is also strong evidence that enslaved Africans in The Bahamas were given excessive salt by the British slaveholders, and even up to the colonial period. Dr S V Humphries, who was a colonial District officer of Health in the Bahamas during the 1950s, has described that the Bahamian natives were exposed to brackish water under the colonial regime and had resultant high levels of hypertension. The significance of this shocking revelation of colonial neglect is that it has been shown in animal studies that excess salt in pregnant mothers can lead to offspring with hypertension. Did the British slave and colonial regime, in neglecting to provide its subjects with suitable water and food provisions, compromise the health of the then-unborn?
There is also a strong possibility that slavery had long-term genetic effects as well. In particular, The Bahamas has the highest by far prevalence in the world of breast cancer genetic mutations (in the BRCA-1 and -2 genes) and one of the highest rates of breast cancer disease. A dominant theory is that this prevalence is due to a so-called “founder” effect, which means that a small population was transported to a geographically isolated location (ie, an island), and any “bad” mutations, such as in BRCA-1 and -2, were allowed to flourish as the small population inter-bred (both voluntarily and involuntarily).
Considering that the enslaved Africans were forcibly transported to small genetically-poor islands from a genetically-rich environment on the African continent, this supports the contention that reparations are due to The Bahamas from Britain for the long-lasting genetic effects of the Ma’afa.
In summary, there is a wealth of data from biomedical studies that support the notion that trauma can be “inherited” from one generation to the next. It is likely that modern-day Bahamians, who never experienced slavery, nonetheless continue to suffer the biomedical effects of the British regime of slavery and colonialism. We also have excellent genetic evidence that the forced movement of Africans to small islands cause a “founder” effect and accumulation of the deleterious BRCA gene mutations in the population.
Thus, reparations are clearly due to The Bahamas for the damage done to the collective health of the nation during the Ma’afa and subsequent colonial era.
DR INDIRA MARTIN PhD
Bahamas National Reparations Committee,
November 13, 2015.