Emancipation day was celebrated on August 1 by many former European colonies in the Caribbean. Other countries commemorate the emancipation of slaves of African descent on various dates. Most notably, in the United States both Congress and Senate this year passed an emancipation proclamation, declaring a Juneteenth holiday (June 19th) henceforth, commemorating that date in 1865 when Gordon Granger, a Union general, arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved African-Americans of their freedom and that the Civil War had ended. In recent years, and particularly following nationwide protests over police brutality and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans, there is renewed interest in the day that celebrates freedom. Noteworthy also is that on August 1, 1985 Trinidad and Tobagobecame the first independent country in the world to declare a national holiday to commemorate the abolition of slavery. In addition across the Caribbean many who led slave rebellions are enshrined as national heroes of their respective countries. Among them are Prince Klass, Antigua and Barbuda; Bussa in Barbados; Cuffy in Guyana; François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines in Haiti; Sam Sharpe and Queen Nanny in Jamaica; Joseph Chatoyer in St Vincent and the Grenadines; and Kodjo in Suriname.
What continues to preoccupy the attention of GOFAD is the link between emancipation and reparations. In the 20th century, several countries most prominently post war Germany is credited with substantial payment for atrocities associated with the Holocaust. The US government too has paid reparations including U$1.6 billion to Japanese Americans interned during WWII and US$1.3 billion to Native American tribes for lands seized between 1946 and 1968. While the advocacy for reparations never died down especially among African-Americans, a cogent case has been put forward by Ta-Nehisi Coates. His landmark essay, “The Case for Reparations” shaped the current debate on redress not just for enslavement but for a century of systematic racial discrimination sanctioned by the state.
CLR James and Eric Williams Contribution to understanding the real History of Slavery
In an excellent lecture by James Heartfield, titled the Abolition of Slavery Debate Why C.L.R James and Eric Williams were right, he elaborated on the contributions of James and Williams to understanding the real history of slavery. They refuted the received wisdom that abolitionists like Wilberforce were liberationists. Instead James’ epic book Black Jacobins illustrates that the core story is that the Haitian people freed themselves - "they made their own freedom". And Eric Williams in his landmark book, Capitalism and Slavery projected the corollary to James. He revealed that the shocking origins of capitalists’ wealth of England was to be found in the slave trade. The thesis of both Williams and James parallels Karl Marx’s notion of 'primitive accumulation' in which the investment fund for England’s industrialization was built on theft and piracy of gold and people which no doubt inspired the work of the Walter Rodney, Guyanese historian, scholar and activist, How Europe Under developed Africa. However, it was Williams who first advanced the importance of the triangular trade which was initiated by British pirates like Hawkins and Rodney stealing people from Africa, selling them in the West Indies to work on the sugar plantation and selling sugar to the West for huge profits. He used empirical evidence to support the view that while abolition of slavery may have been accompanied by some moral and sympathetic feelings, it was mainly due to bankruptcy of the plantation system, resulting from the fact that the British planters had sucked it dry. It was no longer profitable. Therefore the great business plan justified abandoning the plantation taking the profits and investing them in the construction of England’s industrial development. See video of lecture by Heartfield on the GOFAD website https://youtu.be/wH_Yhz1jwtc under the Resource Page under photo and video gallery.
Taking Reparations beyond the Boundary: Sir Hilary Beckles' Advocacy
The CARICOM Reparations Commission has building blocks rooted in the historical moorings of CLR James, Eric Williams and Walter Rodney. It was mandated by CARICOM Heads of Governments to prepare the template for reparatory justice of the region’s Indigenous and African descendant communities. This mandate parallels the broad based demands of Coates with the emphasis on compensation for “victims of crimes against humanity in the forms of genocide , slave trading and apartheid". CARICOM’s ten- point plan for reparations is therefore the region’s Blueprint for action. https://caricom.org/caricom-ten-point-plan-for-reparatory-justice/
In a statement on Emancipation Day 2021 President Irfaan Ali, a new voice in the CARICOM movement pledged that Guyana will work towards international reparations for crime of African enslavement.
However it is Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice Chancellor of the University, chair of the CARICOM Reparations Commission who provides a most comprehensive rationale. His interview on the Hard Talk issued by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) on August 2, 2021 is reproduced in the link below as much to highlight his takeaways as to invite comments and actions https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/w3ct1n61
There is need to confront the real justification for reparatory justice which requires taking heed of the unprecedented global project of European colonial expansion through the pillage, rape, and genocide of Native Peoples that shaped the nations and humanity that we have become today. While some Afro Descendants can be smug about their relative success against great historical odds, the contemporary challenges of structural racism, continue to cast a long shadow across class lines and individual achievement for most people of African descent. The struggle for reparatory justice requires more public messengers and what better time than now. The editorial in Guyana Stabroek News (August 3, 2021) fittingly helps us to connect the dots between emancipation and reparations, especially in multiracial societies that seek fusion into one nation: “when it comes to the past it should always be borne in mind that the history of one ethnic group is the history of us all”.
Edward and Auriol Greene Directors, GOFAD.