Will King Charles's reign open the door for slavery reparations in the Caribbean?

·7 min read
King Charles sits in Westminster Hall in London on Monday, as both Houses of Parliament met to express their condolences following the Sept. 8 death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth, after 70 years on the throne. (Henry Nicholls/Pool Photo/The Associated Press - image credit)
King Charles sits in Westminster Hall in London on Monday, as both Houses of Parliament met to express their condolences following the Sept. 8 death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth, after 70 years on the throne. (Henry Nicholls/Pool Photo/The Associated Press - image credit)

King Charles's reign ushers in a new era for the British monarchy, but the descendants of slaves in Britain's former colonies are waiting to see what he may do to atone for the Royal Family's links to the transatlantic slave trade.

Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness called the King's mother, Queen Elizabeth, a "global matriarch" and "a close friend of Jamaica" upon her death on Sept. 8.

While Holness's statement of mourning may be sentimental, he and many Jamaicans are looking forward to a time when the Caribbean island nation is free of the constitutional monarchy and toward a day when Britain formally apologizes and makes reparations for slavery.

Jamaica is but one of several former British colonies in the Caribbean seeking atonement for the enslavement of millions of people and the enduring legacy of that horrific era.

Months before Charles became king, he spoke of his "personal sorrow" while attending a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kigali, Rwanda's capital, in June; Prince William, his son and now first in line to the throne, made a similar remark during his visit to Jamaica in March.

But expressions of sorrow are not apologies, say people fighting for reparations.

"We're tired of these outdated platitudes that people just momentarily say to make people feel good," said Lisa Hanna, a Jamaican opposition MP and foreign affairs critic.

"It's time that they bend the arc of history toward some degree of justice and reparative justice."

She told CBC News that the monarchy and the British government must acknowledge that Britain committed "crimes against humanity" and earned "a significant portion of its wealth" in doing so.

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A royal legacy

The Royal Family's ties to slavery date back to 1562, during the first Elizabethan age, but it was under Charles II, in the 1660s, when the monarchy began financing the slave trade. It was a protected and regulated enterprise in the British Empire.

Between that time and 1807, when Britain ended slave trading, more than three million African men, women and children were abducted from their continent, shipped across the Atlantic and forced to work on plantations in British territories in the Caribbean and the Americas. As many as 400,000 are estimated to have died crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

Ricardo Makyn/AFP/Getty Images
Ricardo Makyn/AFP/Getty Images

Britain officially abolished slavery in its empire in 1833, though the Slavery Abolition Act didn't take effect until Aug. 1 the following year. That date is now marked as Emancipation Day in former British colonies, including Canada.

The British government of the day paid £20 million — more than £1.7 billion ($2.75 billion Cdn) in today's currency, according to the Bank of England's inflation calculator — to free some 800,000 slaves throughout the Caribbean, as well as in South Africa and Canada. A document on the U.K. Treasury website says that was "approximately 40 per cent of the government's total annual expenditure."

That money wasn't to compensate or support slaves in their freedom, but to pay the slave owners for what were seen as their losses.

If you were to put a price tag on how much Britain should pay in reparations, the amount paid to slave owners — adjusted for inflation — would be a starting point, said Niambi Hall-Campbell Dean, chair of the Bahamas National Reparations Commission.

But she explained how reparations aren't necessarily about financial compensation.

"We do not really focus on a specific monetary amount," Hall-Campbell Dean said in an interview with CBC Radio's As It Happens last week. "We recognize that there are areas of underdevelopment that were left through colonization, in regards to education, health care, Indigenous knowledge programs."

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Repairing the past

The CARICOM (Caribbean Community) Reparations Commission (CRC) was established in 2013 to pursue reparations from Britain and other countries responsible for transatlantic slavery, including Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and France.

The CRC is made up of 12 member nations, of which six still recognize the British monarch as head of state. Barbados, which became a republic last year, is also among the members.

The commission created a 10-point plan for reparatory justice that includes a "full formal" apology, psychological rehabilitation for intergenerational trauma, debt cancellation, the establishment of museums and cultural heritage institutions, and a repatriation program to resettle the descendants of slaves who wish to return to their ancestral homelands.

 Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The CRC also wants to see Britain contribute to the eradication of illiteracy in its former colonies and to support an African knowledge program.

For years, education in Barbados and other former colonies was influenced by colonialism, said Tara Inniss, a history and philosophy lecturer at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, in Barbados.

Inniss said her father, who was born in the 1940s, learned more about Britain and Europe in school than he did about Barbadian or Caribbean history and the history of slavery and reconciliation with the past.

She explained how the people calling for reparations need to be in a "position of strength" and to be knowledgeable about all that transpired if they want to make a solid claim for reparation, but "more work needs to be done."

That starts with "meaningful" education about slavery and colonization in primary and secondary schools, as well as a "kind of probing inquiry into our own history," Inniss said.

"This is a process that we need to begin in our lives on a daily basis. We need to kind of pick up a history book, find out what our history is and figure out who it is that needs to be accountable for this history."

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Steps toward reparations

Inniss said she's hopeful there will come a time when reparations are made, but she knows it will take time. The fight to end slavery began 50 years before the Slavery Abolition Act was in place, she explained.

But the pursuit for reparations also needs to take place in Britain, she said.

"The need to make a formal apology will really lie in, I think, the voice of the British people saying that this is something that needs to happen. I don't know if the state itself is going to do it by itself."

Submitted by Tara Inniss
Submitted by Tara Inniss

Inniss is seeing it on a smaller scale, with British institutions and universities acknowledging the role slavery played in their pasts.

Edinburgh, Scotland's capital, recently agreed to apologize for the city's role in the slave trade and to implement other recommendations from its Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review. Among the 10 recommendations accepted is a plan to add historical context to plaques on statues and monuments to people "involved in sustaining the slavery-based economy."

Inniss also points out that in 2013, the U.K. paid financial reparations in Kenya, one of its former colonies. But the payments weren't related to slavery but were for victims of torture and abuse during the Mau Mau uprising. The anti-colonial revolt began in 1952, the same year Queen Elizabeth assumed the throne, and continued until Kenya gained independence from Britain in 1963.

Phil Noble/Reuters
Phil Noble/Reuters

Britain's new era

Britain's approach to reconciling its dreadful past in the Caribbean is "misaligned with the current expectations of former colonies," said Hanna, the Jamaican opposition MP.

With Jamaica and other countries looking to follow the same path as Barbados in relinquishing their remaining colonial ties, she said, and with a new British monarch and prime minister — Liz Truss, who took office two days before Queen Elizabeth died — Britain "has an opportunity to redefine its role" and play an active part in the slavery reparations process.

"If they don't, we will watch those leaders walk backwards into the future, with their eyes closed, and they will walk alone," Hanna said.

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