The Fatal Conceit of the Caribbean Reparations Movement
An intellectual review of Hilary Beckles
“The only lies for which we are truly punished are those we tell ourselves.”
― V. S. Naipaul, In a Free State
How Britain Underdeveloped the Caribbean: A Reparation Response to Europe’s Legacy of Plunder and Poverty by Hilary McD. Beckles, UWI Press, 2021, 256 pp.
Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide by Hilary McD. Beckles, UWI Press, 2013, 292 pp.
Suddenly, calls for reparations are everywhere. What was once a marginal political sentiment in Britain and the Caribbean a decade ago has metastasized into one of the defining characteristics of politics. This year has been a watershed for the movement. In February, the University of the West Indies co-hosted a symposium to discuss a report they commissioned to calculate reparation payments, concluding that Britain owed the Caribbean around $2 Trillion in reparations.
In April, a group of descendants of former plantation owners in Britain formed Heirs of Slavery, a lobby organization to champion reparatory justice for the Caribbean. In August, the President of Guyana, amidst a domestic oil-fueled economic boom, called for descendants of former plantation owners to pay reparations. Soon after, the Prime Minister of Grenada echoed the same. In September, a report published by the United Nations emphasized the need to “acknowledge that truth, justice, and reparations concerning enslavement, the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans and colonialism and their legacies contribute to non-recurrence and reconciliation and benefit all of society.”
One of the wealthiest men in Ireland, Billionaire Denis O’Brien, announced he would be funding lobbyists to work with Labour MPs on British reparations plans for the Caribbean. In October, in Britain, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Afrikan Reparations (made up almost entirely of Labour MPs) held a conference to discuss the necessity of Britain paying reparations and providing more comprehensive reparatory justice. This month, the African Union and Caricom (the Caribbean Community) agreed to form a “united front” to persuade European nations to pay reparations for “historical mass crimes.”
In every instance above, the intellectual thrust emanates from the Caribbean reparations movement - the core figure being the famed Caribbean Historian Prof. Hilary McD. Beckles, Ph.D. (styled, Sir. Hilary). All persons lobbying for Britain to pay reparations to the Caribbean cite and reference his work for justifications.
But from a close reading of Britain’s Black Debt and How Britain Underdeveloped the Caribbean, it isn't possible to agree with Beckles that British reparations for the Caribbean are justified on historical, economic, theoretical, or even philosophical grounds.
I first encountered Dr. Beckles (History Ph.D. from the University of Hull in the UK) while studying CSEC Caribbean History (equivalent of British GCSEs). I devoured his two-part textbook Liberties Lost: The Indigenous Caribbean and Slave Systems and Freedoms Won: Caribbean Emancipations, Ethnicities and Nationhood. They were co-authored with Dr. Verene Shepherd (History Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the UK) and, to my mind at the time, the gold standard of clarity on Caribbean History.
Beckles is not an obscure academic who simply captured a cottage industry of revisionist history textbooks for Caribbean children. He is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies (UWI) - the practical head of the main tertiary education facility for the region. Beckles is also the Chairman of the Caricom Reparations Commission and founded the Center for Reparations Research at the university he leads. Notably, the Director of the Center is his co-author mentioned above - Verene Shepherd.
Beckles’ two economic history books on British reparations for the Caribbean are well-regarded as the intellectual bedrock of the contemporary reparations movement, for which he is a leading figure. With his calm, dignified, aristocratic manner of speaking, he has given lectures on reparations globally from Harvard to Oxford.
Beckles’ overarching argument for reparations rests on three sub-theses across two books:
The profit made by the British during the Atlantic trade of enslaved people from Africa to the Caribbean was a necessary criterion for Britain's growth during the Industrial Revolution.
The profit from slave-produced sugar on Caribbean plantations was a necessary criterion for the growth of Britain during the Industrial Revolution.
The primary cause for the current underdevelopment and persistent poverty in the Caribbean was the extractive nature of British imperialism.
The first and second are interrelated, and the third is separable. I will discuss why doubt should be cast on each of the sub-theses of his argument. In so doing, it should cause the reader to question the premise and justification for British reparations to the Caribbean.
Beckles sets the foundation for his extended arguments favoring reparations in Britain's Black Debt. He asserts that a “considerable body of historical literature speaks to the contributions of the Caribbean in the eighteenth century to the financial and economic transformation of the British economy.” Soon after, he stresses further that “the Caribbean was the ancestral home of British imperial success as an economic superpower.”
The Williams Thesis Misdirection
Beckles deploys the ‘Williams Thesis’ to bolster his arguments to justify the Caribbean’s centrality in British industrialization. The basis of this argument stems from the work of Dr. Eric Williams (History Ph.D. from the University of Oxford) in his notorious book Capitalism and Slavery, first published in 1944. Williams is one of the few to be both a perennial academic and a pivotal politician. He was the first Prime Minister of his native Trinidad and Tobago and led the country from 1956 until his abrupt death in 1981.
Beckles refers to Capitalism and Slavery as “magisterial” and claims that it “represents the most persuasive articulation of the evidence” in favor of reparations for the Caribbean. Williams declared that Britain accumulated “great wealth from the triangular trade.” He was explicit in saying that the profits earned from the trade in enslaved people from Africa to the Caribbean “fertilized the entire productive system” of Britain.
Accordingly, Beckles takes forward this thesis to assert that Britain has a debt to the Caribbean because slavery in the Caribbean “fuelled the commercial engines that propelled the country into sustained development in the eighteenth century, creating the first industrial nation.” Notably, Williams himself never called for reparations; Beckles makes that extension. Given that the bedrock of Beckles's argument rests on the Williams Thesis, we need to ask if the Williams Thesis was correct. After decades of work, economic historians, and cliometricians, the Williams Thesis is unlikely to be right - it does not pass muster when examined with rigorous economic techniques.
Nowhere in Britain’s Black Debt does Beckles seriously engage with the economic debate of whether the data and reasoning used by Williams are justified. He merely reproduces Williams's ideas and adds additional comments from subsequent fellow traveler historians who agree with Williams. Beckles instead refers to the modern counter-arguments to Williams as “a literature of scholarly denial” and essentially dismisses them as “eurocentric and sometimes with racial undertones.” But if we assess the counterarguments to Williams, we will see that Beckles does not have sufficient justification for his own thesis.
British trade with the Caribbean in the early 1770s was material. In his book Empire, Niall Ferguson explains that “trade with the Caribbean dwarfed trade with America: in 1773, the value of British imports from Jamaica was five times greater than those from all the American colonies. Nevis produced three times more British imports than New York between 1714 and 1773; Antigua three times more than New England. Sugar, not tobacco, was the biggest business of the eighteenth-century colonial empire.” But we need to assess the impact of the Caribbean economy directly on Britain relative to other industries as time went on.
In a paper in the Journal of Economic History published in 2000, David Eltis and Stanley Engerman strongly critique the Williams Thesis and its progeny. Suppose Williams is correct that the “slave trade” was a significant contributor to (or even a necessary condition for) British industrialization. In that case, we should be able to see this in these data. But from analyzing the shipping scale of the slave trade, Eltis and Engerman show that “the largest number of slave ships to leave Britain in any five years was between 1798 and 1802 - long after the beginning of the structural changes in the British economy that have been termed the Industrial Revolution.”
They demonstrate that in 1792 when the most slave ships sailed from Britain, there were just 204 ships. But that same year, according to the data, “14,334 vessels were registered in Britain, totaling 1.44 million tons.” This means that the “slave trade thus accounted for less than 1.5% of British ships and less than 3% of British shipping tonnage.” It may not seem intuitive, but the slave trade, even at its zenith, was a modest component of the British economy, according to these data.
According to estimates cited by Eltis, the income added by the Caribbean sugar sector was less than 2.5% of the British national income. Unambiguously, Caribbean sugar plantations did not contribute significantly more than other industries in Britain.
Moreover, Britain was not a mono-crop economy. Other industries were present - providing more to the overall national output than sugar. In the table above from Eltis and Engerman, the value-added by West Indian sugar was not substantially high to the British economy. In fact, the flax and linen industries in Ireland and Scotland grew from insignificance to generate revenues greater than those of the sugar industry in the Caribbean. According to Eltis, flax and linen “profits in this era of expansion was no doubt healthy, and a portion of them were certainly spent on infrastructure and industrial activity in England.” However, Historians have not argued that British industrialization could not have occurred without Scotland or Ireland being within the Kingdom’s economic realm.
Beckles does not engage with these data-driven counterarguments. Instead, he believes that evidence is an obstacle to his narrative, lamenting that “economic historians often tend not to see the role of human suffering in the enrichment of others, preferring to focus on quantitative relationships.” This is not the engagement of a scholar, but a polemicist.
Why Britain and Not Portugal? What About India?
It is unlikely that the direct trade of enslaved people from Africa to the Caribbean significantly contributed to the industrialization of Britain, as Williams proposed. However, subsequent scholars have suggested that it was the “system” of Caribbean-Atlantic slavery that provided a significant contribution. That is, not the trade but the plantation economy of slave-produced sugar in the Caribbean.
There is a rigorous debate in the economic history literature about that specific question. One path to take is to do as Niall Ferguson would and ask a counterfactual question: What if Portugal had industrialized first? Or, to think about it differently, why didn’t Portugal industrialize first? As Eltis and Engerman explain, the “Brazilian slave system comprised a far larger share of a notional Portuguese-Brazilian transatlantic economy than did the plantations produce for the British-Caribbean equivalent.”
If the Caribbean plantation system caused British industrialization, then so, too, should have been the Portuguese offshore plantation system. But, of course, this did not occur. Or you could ask the same about the more productive French Empire plantation system. Again, in Eltis and Engerman, by 1770, the “French Caribbean was producing 17 percent more sugar, nine times more coffee, and 30 times more indigo than its British counterpart”. Beckles does not engage on why Britain experienced the Industrial Revolution before France. Moreover, in 1846, when Britain enacted the Sugar Duties Act to remove taxes on sugar imports from non-British colonies like Brazil or Cuba, the Caribbean planters bitterly complained because they could not compete with those countries on price.
An important implication should now be apparent: Britain's Industrial Revolution could have occurred unencumbered without the Caribbean plantation system.
To go further, the economic historians Leigh Gardner and Tirthankar Roy argue that any assessment of the rise of Britain cannot isolate away the importance of the Indian Ocean trade. He is right. British trade in India and more comprehensive Asia (slave-based and not) concurrently with the Atlantic world throws a wrench into the workings of the Williams thesis. As Roy puts it, the “world was considerably larger and more diverse than the sugar plantations of the Caribbean.” Beckles does not attempt to parse out relative contributions to British income. He merely says that we should be enlightened by the knowledge we received from Williams - no matter how flawed.
Beckles has no interest in debate. To him, the baseline for authentic scholarship is ideological affirmations, explicitly saying that scholars with a “deep intellectual commitment to social justice tended to treat the issues raised by Williams more fairly.” This might cause unease when you realize that Beckles heads the most important university in the Caribbean.
Technology, Not Capital
Beckles’ commitment to “social justice” is just a sleight of hand for his commitment to Marxist and Socialist paradigms. In Britain’s Black Debt, Beckles reminds us that “Marx saw it clearly,” that regarding the Industrial Revolution, slavery “facilitated its rise and maturity. It nurtured it, enabling it to grow faster, become stronger.”
Like most Caribbean intellectuals, Beckles frames his mental models of the world through a Marxist lens. He (like Williams before) focuses on the potential capital contribution of slave-produced sugar and the Atlantic slave trade to explain the British Industrial Revolution. But this Capital-foundations approach needs to be amended since the Industrial Revolution was fundamentally about technology, not capital.
Joel Mokyr argues in The Holy Land of Industrialism that “it remains a difficult task to demonstrate Eric Williams’s (1944) argument that the slave economy and Atlantic trade were critical factors in the Industrial Revolution” because such a slave economy “would have done little to drive the technological breakthroughs of the Industrial Revolution had there been no prior high level of engineering competence.” He observes that “some of the more striking innovations in the Cornish copper industry occurred before the rapid expansion of sugar production in the Caribbean.” It was the presence and advancement of “Upper Tail Human Capital” (to use Mokyr’s term) coupled with other complex notions and mixes of “institutional development” and “ideological shifts.” Economic historians such as Anton Howes and Deirdre McCloskey are worth reading here.
By asserting without argument that Williams is right, that capital from the Caribbean was a necessary condition for the Industrial Revolution of Britain, Beckles has incurably damaged his conclusions. If this is all his reparations argument rests on, it fails on its merits. But there is another part to Beckles’s argument. He also says Britain is the source of the Caribbean underdevelopment even after independence. I will turn to this now.
In How Britain Underdeveloped the Caribbean, Beckles doubles down on his earlier work to claim that Britain “thwarted the region’s ability to bring about sustainable development.” He complains of Caribbean leaders not yet “demanding” reparatory justice, resulting in them being “ushered down the dead-end track of crippling debt.” These strong assertions would require careful economic reasoning and significant data. Early on in this book on economic growth (broadly), Beckles does gesture that this may be his intent, saying that to produce the contents of the book, he has “straddled the disciplines of economic history, economics, and political science…”.
However, finding coherent economics within the book takes a lot of work. Beckles did not give any explicit definition for what he means by “underdevelopment.” I can only assume that he means it as a synonym for “impoverishment” or “poverty.” Yet, anyone who has lived in or visited the Caribbean would quickly wonder if “poverty” is the best term to describe most of the Caribbean.
Pre-Independence Progress was Good
In any case, I will take the broadest definition of “underdevelopment” to mean sub-optimal economic outcomes. Even here, this is still a relative assessment; outcomes can only be sub-optimal relative to some optimization criteria. So then, compared to what is the Caribbean underdeveloped? Beckles never provides a clear answer. This makes it very difficult to test his hypothesis. Perhaps this is why he preferred a vague premise.
His line of argument is frustrated by the fact that, according to DeLisle Worrell in his book Development and Stabilization, that in Barbados, “although gains have continued to be made in the years since Independence in 1966, the essential transformation was achieved in the 1950s and 1960s.” That is, the bulk of the growth achieved by Barbados occurred during the colonial period. Indeed, the country's sole hospital was opened in 1964 (before independence). The sole deep-water port was opened in 1961 (before independence).
Or a simple example of monetary credibility. In the colonial period, the Cayman Islands was a part of Jamaica and used the same currency. When Jamaica moved towards independence, the Cayman Islands chose to remain a dependency of Britain. When the Caymans created its currency in 1972, it was fixed at par with the then value of the Jamaica Dollar and has remained unchanged from that original exchange rate since then.
So then, these days both countries should have the same fixed exchange rate if they maintained the credibility of their monetary institutions since the 1970s. Currently, the exchange rate of $1 Cayman Dollars to USD is $1.20. But $1 USD can now be exchanged for 154 Jamaican dollars. Over the years, the money of an independent Jamaica has precipitously deteriorated in value, but in the Cayman Islands (still a British territory), the money has remained strong.
Beckles is on a sticky wicket. The Caribbean is perhaps the worst region to attempt his argument because we can create credible counterfactuals asking: “What if Caribbean-Country-X did not become independent from Britain”? Given that some Caribbean countries are still not independent of Britain (and other empires), we have strong reason to think the currently independent countries would have been better off maintaining their links to the UK.
Dr. Worrell, the former Governor of the Central Bank of Barbados, compares the current performance of independent and dependent Caribbean countries.
Again, in Development and Stabilization, he writes:
…in a comparison of the Caribbean islands of Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Martinique, Guadeloupe, the Cayman Islands, and the Turks and Caicos islands, which are all dependencies of or integrated into the US, the UK and France, with independent Caribbean nations of similar size. The population of Jamaica, almost three million, is about the same as that of Puerto Rico, and the islands are about the same size. Puerto Rico’s GDP (US$103 billion in 2020), however, is seven times that of Jamaica (US$14 billion). Martinique, a neighbor of Barbados, about the same size and population, records a GDP of US$9 billion, twice as large as Barbados’ US$4.4 billion. The Cayman Islands, with a quarter of Barbados’ population, has a GDP which is almost 20 percent larger.”
The Caribbean countries that are still dependencies (colonies by a different name) generally outperform the independent Caribbean countries. A primary reason for this is that they have higher state capacity because their institutions can be populated with talent from the wider UK.
Even in steep institutional decay within a Caribbean dependency, the UK government can correct underlying problems. Indeed, in 2021, the British Governor General (the effective Head of State representing the King) of the British Virgin Islands ordered an audit of the BVI public sector. This followed the elected Premier of BVI being arrested in the U.S. on strong allegations of money laundering and cocaine smuggling. The extensive and rigorous audit report is almost 1000 pages, assessing the corruption in the BVI and giving recommendations for paths forward. This kind of course correction imposed on weak institutions is absent in the other equally small but independent Caribbean countries.
Global Counterfactuals Unexplored
Elsewhere, Niall Ferguson, in his book Empire, provides a different attempt at the underdevelopment comparison:
Today, for example, per capita GDP in Britain is roughly twenty-eight times what it is in Zambia... But to blame this on the legacy of colonialism is not very persuasive when the differential between British and Zambian incomes was so much less at the end of the colonial period. In 1955, British per capita GDP was just seven times greater than Zambian. It has been since independence that the gap between the colonizer and the ex-colony has become a gulf.
Or yet another example, from Nigel Biggar, in his book Colonialism, comparing Ethiopia and Southern Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe) in 1960:
Whereas the latter had been subject to European rule for seventy years, the former had retained its independence except for a brief period of Italian occupation in 1935-41. Yet, with only one-sixth the size of the other’s population, Rhodesia outperformed Ethiopia dramatically in terms of modern development.
These examples may not provide definitive proof, but they suggest that it is more complex than Beckles gives credit to assert that British colonialism impoverished Caribbean countries leading up to the period of independence.
Sovereignty Is Not Obviously Better
In Development and Stabilization, Worrell questions whether gaining political sovereignty was economically responsible for Caribbean countries. He makes the unintuitive point that “sovereignty does not equip the small open economy with any additional economic tools and may mislead leaders into adopting policies that impair the well-being of the society, or large sections of it.” Given the lack of public sector capacity and lack of sophisticated leadership of independent Caribbean governments, Worrell argues that “all too often the internal redistribution of wealth on independence results in a decline in overall national productivity, resulting in a contraction in earnings from exports, tourism, and other traded services. In these cases, the exercise of national sovereignty has worsened the material well-being of the population of the new nation.”
This sentiment is echoed by the Trinidadian poet Andre Bagoo in his collection of essays, The Undiscovered Country. He maintains that “the concept of independence is of as little use today as it was in the 1960s”. “The idea of the sovereignty of small nation states,” Bagoo writes, “is pure fiction in a world where the economic prosperity of one country mostly depends on the prosperity of others.” To go deeper, Bagoo is skeptical of the philosophical grounds for Caribbean independence. He continues, “Independence in the 1960s had the outward semblance of inevitability. In truth, it was the least appropriate option on the table.”
At the core of the independence movement, Bagoo is correct to say, was race: “It was racism that shaped the world during the 1950s and 1960s, ensuring that the empire on which the sun never set did not become a beacon of light.” During that period, it was unthinkable that black women and Indian men would sit in Westminster to form His Majesty’s government. Bagoo argued that independence was simply a form of isolation - not freedom. The correct path forward would have been to integrate the Caribbean colonies fully into the United Kingdom, not separate away to drift aimlessly into economic stagnation.
In the House of Commons earlier this year, Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy asked Prime Minister Sunak for his administration to apologize for British slavery formally. One can get a sense of the irony from that one image alone.
But to Beckles, it is “obvious” that independence was the correct path. Yet he fails to acknowledge British assistance in pre-independence Caribbean growth and neglects to discuss concrete post-independence economics.
In one instance, Beckles asserts that the Caribbean “today has one of the highest debt-to-gross-domestic product ratios in the world, standing in excess of 100 percent threshold which nullifies the potential for growth.” At best, it is tenuous to remark on current macroeconomic variables, invalid for an argument about centuries-old “exploitation.” But it becomes farcical when the particular statistic only worsened in recent years, decades into the independence of the Caribbean. World Bank data shows Barbados' debt-GDP ratio in 2016 was 146.9%. But just ten years early, in 2006, it was 62.4%. It is not responsible to assert that British exploitation in the pre-independence period caused Barbados to increase its debt-GDP ratio from 2006 to 2016.
Yet, Beckles tells us that “despite decades of heroic efforts by state and civil society,” the independent Caribbean cannot advance its economic development. Recent Caribbean governments' lack of fiscal management has caused the current lack of economic progress, not exploitation, centuries ago.
Current Fiscal Mismanagement Is the Problem
Beckles dedicates How Britain Underdeveloped the Caribbean to Mia Mottley, the current Prime Minister of Barbados. So, let’s consider Barbados.
In the most recent report of the Auditor General of Barbados, it was found that, to date, almost all state-owned enterprises do not have accurate accounting records. The Auditor General cannot locate large swaths of money in government accounts and has flagged most of the procurement processes of the public sector. It is difficult to see how Beckles can blame this on centuries-old British “exploitation.” The problems of independent Caribbean countries are fiscal mismanagement carried on by low-capacity public sectors led by unserious politicians.
The Mottley administration even unilaterally defaulted on its international commercial debt in 2018 (my podcast on this), even though many economic and financial analysts thought the move was unjustified. This has caused Barbados to lose market access to international loans, putting it in a precarious credit situation that continues today.
If Barbados' political and fiscal institutions are not mature enough to keep credible financial records of its everyday workings, I would also expect money from reparations payments to go unaccounted for and lack a viable distribution or allocation strategy. These conditions of low-capacity institutions are equally present across all independent Caribbean countries.
How Britain Underdeveloped the Caribbean does not concretely explain why and how the Caribbean’s recent sub-optimal fiscal performance developed. Instead, Beckles makes these zero-evidence assertions that “the scholarly literature and recent archival documents … also show that the institutional system of poverty bred by colonialism can be identified in socio-economic measurements.” Where are these measurements? What exactly is being measured? We are left wanting.
What we got instead of an economic argument was an ideological affirmation. Beckles says that the book aims to “recenter the history and heritage of the wealth-extraction model Britain used in [the Caribbean] for three hundred years” and to call on “Western nations that grew fat on the crimes committed against humanity in the region to settle” the debt owed to the Caribbean.
When Can Reparations Be Justified
Reparations can be justified under some conditions. A glaring omission from Beckles is an explicit schema on under what conditions reparations can be justified. We could have used this set of premises to construct a useful mental model of what can be done with arguments. However, in his book Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, Nigel Biggar presents a schema for when reparations can be justified. From his perspective, reparations can be justified “ where it is clear that a just law or treaty was broken, what right was violated, who held the right, who are the descendants of the right-holders and who should make good the loss.” That is, the path from violation to compensation must not be nebulous. All actors and agents must be uniquely identifiable, and the legal torts must be valid and mutually agreed upon.
For concreteness, the case of Mutua & Others v Foreign and Commonwealth Office provides an example. In 2009, the British law firm Leigh Day commenced legal action against the British Government in the High Court in London, initially representing five elderly Kenyans who had been detained and tortured by the British colonial administration during the 1952-1963 “Kenyan Emergency” (often called the Mau Mau Uprising). As the courts validated the case, the class action expanded to include over 5000 victims who were also tortured and detained during that period. In June 2013, the British government and the claimants announced an out-of-court settlement. To many, this case is hailed as an “unprecedented” example of justice for victims of colonial oppression - particularly noted by Caroline Elkins in her book Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire.
But there were clear tort liability issues at hand (torture, negligence, abuse). There were uniquely identifiable direct victims. Of the 50,000 potential claimants in Kenya, 15,000 people were selected for one-to-one interviews, and of those, Leigh Day (the law firm) put forward 5,228 cases, which were credible cases of torture and abuse.
Now, you can be suspicious of calling this a case of reparations. And I would agree with you. This compensation path is no different from any typical tort law case usually heard by the courts. It would only be a sleight of hand to use this as a model of reparatory justice for damages to descendants of people 300 years ago.
Yet, this presents yet another risk. After this settlement was reached, the issue in Kenya became increasingly politicized. You have a larger number of supposed victims calling on the Kenyan government to extract more money from Britain. Others claim that some of the persons compensated in the original settlement should not have been because they were part of the guards committing the torture. A new case is being brought to relitigate the original from other Kenyan groups. In effect, the issue is now more chaotic, with more political backlash domestically in Kenya. I suspect any potential move towards a compensation scheme from Britain to the Caribbean would result in more, not less, political troubles.
A Straussian Plan
From a close reading of Britain’s Black Debt and How Britain Underdeveloped the Caribbean, it isn't possible to agree with Beckles that British reparations for the Caribbean are justified on historical, economic, theoretical, or even philosophical grounds. Yet, his work forms the core of the most nihilistic document ever endorsed by Caribbean leaders: the 10-Point Plan.
The 10-Point Plan of Reparatory Justice is a manifesto adopted by the Caribbean Community’s (Caricom) Reparations Commission (CRC). Caricom is the intergovernmental organization of Caribbean governments. You can think of it as a mini-United Nations of Caribbean-only countries with even less utility. According to the Reparations Commission, and by extension, Caricom, they see “European colonial rule as a persistent part of Caribbean life.” Further, the CRC asserts that European governments “defined and enforced African enslavement and native genocide as in their ‘national interests’” and “imposed for another one hundred years policies designed to perpetuate suffering upon the emancipated and survivors of genocide.”
As stated earlier, Hilary Beckles is the Chairman of the Caricom Reparations Commission. His intellectual fingerprints should already be evident in some of the quoted terms. This 10-point plan is referenced by almost every institution that lobbies for reparations in Britain. It is referenced by the Heirs of Slavery group. The 10-point plan is even supported by the Irish billionaire funding Labour MP lobbyists in Britain. It tries to take an all-encompassing view of what reparatory justice should involve beyond money transfers.
The 10 points of the plan are the following (summarised):
Full Formal Apology: “The healing process for victims and the descendants of the enslaved and enslavers requires as a precondition the offer of a sincere, formal apology by the governments of Europe.”
Repatriation: “The transatlantic slave trade is the largest forced migration in human history and has no parallel in terms of man’s inhumanity to man... The descendants of these stolen people have a legal right to return to their homeland.”
Indigenous People Development Program: “Genocide and land appropriation went hand in hand. A community of over 3,000,000 in 1700 has been reduced to less than 30,000 in 2000. Survivors remain traumatized, landless, and are the most marginalized social group within the region.”
Cultural Institutions: “European nations have invested in the development of community institutions such as museums and research centers in order to prepare their citizens for an understanding of these Crimes Against Humanity (CAH). There are no such institutions in the Caribbean where the CAH were committed.”
Public Health Crisis: “The African descended population in the Caribbean has the highest incidence in the world of chronic diseases in the forms of hypertension and type two diabetes. This pandemic is the direct result of the nutritional experience, physical and emotional brutality, and overall stress profiles associated with slavery, genocide, and apartheid.”
Illiteracy Eradication: “Caribbean governments allocate more than 70 percent of public expenditure to health and education in an effort to uproot the legacies of slavery and colonization. European governments have a responsibility to participate in this effort within the context of the CRJP.”
African Knowledge Program: “A program of action is required to build ‘bridges of belonging’. Such projects as school exchanges and culture tours, community artistic and performance programs, entrepreneurial and religious engagements, as well as political interaction, are required in order to neutralize the void created by slave voyages.”
Psychological Rehabilitation: “For over 400 years Africans and their descendants were classified in law as non-human, chattel, property, and real estate. They were denied recognition as members of the human family by laws derived from the parliaments and palaces of Europe. This history has inflicted massive psychological trauma upon African descendant populations.”
Technology Transfer: “The Caribbean was denied participation in Europe’s industrialization process, and was confined to the role of producer and exporter of raw materials. Generations of Caribbean youth, as a consequence, have been denied membership and access to the science and technology culture that is the world’s youth patrimony. Technology transfer and science sharing for development must be a part of the CRJP.”
Debt Cancellation: “The pressure of development has driven governments to carry the burden of public employment and social policies designed to confront colonial legacies. This process has resulted in states accumulating unsustainable levels of public debt that now constitute their fiscal entrapment.”
Even though these points may seem too extreme, remember that each Caribbean country has embraced and supported this CARICOM Reparatory Justice Programme (CRJP) plan.
Let’s not mince words. The barbarism of slavery is beyond restitution. But what is striking to me is how blatantly nihilistic these points are. When I read them, I see a group of governments saying, “we give up; we cannot fix our problems.” After decades of self-rule and more decades of independence, the movement says they need Britain to release them from their trauma.
You should read this plan like an enlightened Straussian. Underlying the explicit content, the implication is that Caribbean governments are saying they should have chosen something other than independence. To me, Caribbean governments are saying that real reparatory justice is rejoining Britain.
If the Caribbean countries were still territories of Britain, they would have more direct access to most of the things they requested as “reparations.” I am a Barbadian citizen. If citizenship of Britain were extended to the former colonies, I would have access to all the cultural institutions, educational facilities, health facilities, migration facilities, etc., just like anyone else born in Britain. Britain would also be involved in fiscal transfers and external debt management like for British Caribbean overseas territories.
This is the reality for the French Caribbean countries. If you are born in Martinique, you are a French (and therefore European) citizen. You can move through the world more efficiently and with more significant optionality.
This, to me, is the fatal conceit. Caribbean governments seek absolution by abrogating their responsibilities. These governments, led by the Beckles Commission, demand reparations from Britain because they do not want to do the necessary work to reform their public sectors, design and implement credible fiscal policies, and fix the long but meaningful list of sound governance strategies.
The perverse logic of the Caribbean reparations movement is to maintain a preference for discourse centered on faded historical harms instead of present-time difficult truths: that the biggest impediment to progress in the Caribbean is the current independent governments, led by black people.
If you understand this, you may need to admit that we are the ones who need to do the work at home.
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