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Repair-ations Guyana: A Case Study

02/18/2015 10:51 am ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015

History, my friends, is being made everyday: a phenomenal thing to truly grasp. Historic "shifts," impacting how we think, what we think and (hopefully) ever nudging the human race to forge new, more resilient paths to justice. Sometimes, however, those shifts are so rapid and so unassuming that their significance can oft times evade us.

Parliament of the sovereign nation of Jamaica passed a resolution recognizing the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade as a crime against humanity, one for which Reparations are owed. The news was relayed to members of the Caricom Reparations Commission over the weekend.[1]

FYI, Reparations: refers to the process and result of remedying the damage or harm caused by an unlawful act. [It is] generally understood to re-establish the situation that existed before the harm occurred. It can repair or rehabilitate physical and psychological integrity and dignity. In international law, a breach of an international obligation gives rise to a duty to repair the harm caused. [2]

FYI, The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: was the enslavement and transportation, primarily of African people, to the colonies of the New World that occurred in and around the Atlantic Ocean. It lasted from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Most enslaved people were shipped to the Americas to labour on coffee, cocoa and cotton plantations, in gold and silver mines, in rice fields, the construction industry, timber, and shipping or in houses to work as servants.

The shippers were, in order of scale, the Portuguese, the British, the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, and North Americans. Contemporary historians estimate that between 9.4 and 12 million Africans arrived in the New World, although the actual number of people taken from their homes is considerably higher. [3]

Why is this significant? Well, because, "[Jamaica's governmental decision] forces other nations to [consider] taking like action. It also politically and diplomatically legitimises the Caribbean process of seeking out Reparations," explains Eric M. Phillips, Chairman of the Guyana Reparations Committee, an auxiliary of the Caricom Reparations Commission (one of 12 such national committees in the West Indies). [4]

FYI, Caricom: is the acronym for the "Caribbean Community and the Common Market." Established in 1973, it engenders and nurtures the region's integration. Providing a service similar to that of the European Union. Members include Barbados, Jamaica and Antigua. Their headquarters are in Guyana.)[5]

I recently sat down with Eric Phillips, who was appointed by the President of Guyana to chair the Guyana Committee for Reparations. Phillips, a graduate of the NYU's Stern School of Business MBA programme and former White House Fellow (1990-91), eagerly accepted. "The time for reparations for African people and their descendants is long overdue." He explains to me.

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Eric M. Phillips Jr. & Alyson Renaldo, East Bank Demerara, Georgetown, Guyana

Poolside, at a prominent hotel in Guyana's capital of Georgetown, I asked Eric some very pointed questions about the Reparations movement spear-headed by Caribbean nations and ably figure headed by Sir Hilary Beckles, PhD, the recently appointed Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies.

This movement is living history, and as we enter into the month designated to honor black history, I wished to hear of its progression in Guyana.

FYI, Guyana:

-Geographically South American, formerly British Guiana, initially colonised by the Dutch. The First Nations of Tainos and primarily the Caribs (now commonly termed Amerindians in honor of Columbus' blunder) were stewards of this and surrounding regions for thousands of years prior.

-It is the only English-speaking nation in South America.

- It is a land of six races: Amerindians, Chinese, Portuguese, European, with Black African and East Indian comprising the majority of the population.[6]

-While geographically South American, Guyana is considered West Indian (more nomenclature honouring Columbus' navigational ineptitude), part of the Caribbean because it shares its colonial history with the neighbouring islands i.e. Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Jamaica etc.

International infamy: In the late 1970s the heavily misguided American, Jim Jones relocated his, "The People's Temple" to Guyana's interior rainforests, eventually forcing the mass suicide of over 800 people.[7]

- Guyana is also this author's cultural heritage and familial origin.)

I jumped right in:

Me: Why now Eric? Critics will undoubtedly stress that the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade ended in 1807, plus slavery abolished in the English-speaking Caribbean over 178 years ago, abolished 146 years ago in Spanish-speaking colonies, the French enslaved taking their freedom some 208 years ago[8] etc. Why is Caricom prioritising this now?"

Eric: The results of the Durban Conference of 2001 confirmed that the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was a crime against humanity. While this was a global victory, it did not get to the public stage due to global focus on terrorism, which took centre stage (after 9/11). Now, global focus has shifted, permitting us to regain some of the momentum lost after the findings at the Durban conference. The Caribbean were drivers at the Durban conference. While Jamaica and Antigua had already established Reparations committees, further discussions had begun into the issue, Caricom later made it a Caricom issue in 2013 by asserting:

That European Governments:

1. Were owners and traders of enslaved Africans.
2. Instructed genocidal actions upon indigenous communities.
3. Created the legal, financial and fiscal policies necessary for the enslavement of Africans.
4. Defined and enforced African enslavement and native genocide as being in their 'national interests'.
5. Refused compensation to the enslaved with the ending of their enslavement.
6. Compensated slave owners at emancipation for the loss of 'legal property' rights in enslaved Africans.
7. Imposed a further one hundred years of racial apartheid upon the emancipated.
8. Imposed for another one hundred years policies designed to perpetuate suffering upon the emancipated and survivors of Genocide. And have refused to acknowledge such crimes or to compensate victims and their Descendants.[9]

Me: What does this initiative then mean for the West Indies?

Eric: The global economy has shrunk. Also, Caribbean nations are amongst the most vulnerable to climate change: [that concern] is a big driver. Threatened Caribbean ecologies means tourism could die. There is an urgent need to reinvest in Caribbean economy, youth of the region and in our regional civilisation. Caribbean nations struggle with high debt to GDP ratio, raw material export economies and a deficiency of technology, which are legacies of slavery. These nations were designed for European interests. It is time to turn these former slave economies into modern ones, which would require significant technology and capital, [remedies that were elusive] because there were no reparations. It is time for the global beneficiaries of the slavery economy to address the legacy of slavery. Further, across the globe, in many countries, there has been a thrust from those who have been harmed to seek justice. Now is the right time to reinvigorate the discussion of reparations.

Me: And specifically for Guyana, why is there a need to pursue claims?

Eric: Reparations is a sovereign issue and therefore claims must be country specific. For example, the RastafAri nation sought to launch a claim, but it was not to be recognised as they are not a sovereign nation. In the case of Guyana our claim is with England (1813-1966) and Holland (1616-1813). Understand that the economics of Guyana are still driven by extractive industries. Further, the loss of lives...over 400,000 lives prematurely ended due to slavery. It has been calculated that the death rate was over 85%. Millions were transported by the British during the enslavement period in the Caribbean, but there were only 655,000 at Emancipation. In Guyana just over 80,000 African persons were alive at the time of emancipation.

FYI, Africans in Guyana have never been paid for the wealth they created for European Nations. History has recorded that (Guyanese) Africans "had driven back the sea and had cleared, drained and reclaimed 15,000 square miles of forest and swamps, equivalent to 9,000,000 acres of land. Meaning, all the plantations now turned villages and cities were built by unpaid African labour. [10]The Venn Commission reported that, "to build the coastal plantations alone, a value of 100,000,000 tons of earth had to be moved by the hands of African slaves without machinery)."[11]

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A Reparations Committee Meeting, Georgetown, Guyana

Me: They will say it's the past Eric. Why should Europeans pay?

Eric: Because [Europeans] benefited from the extraction [of the country's raw materials] and free labour, which resulted in genocide and was deemed "the greatest crime against humanity". They, specifically the British (estate/plantation owners) were even awarded reparations after abolition, 20 million pounds in 1838 for the 'loss of their property'; that money was then used to bolster the British economy. Similarly in Haiti, the French demanded 150 million francs (22 billion dollars by modern standards) or they threatened to destroy island. You see, development and reparations are clearly linked.

FYI, Haiti did not finish paying those reparations until 1947. Close to a century and a half of payments, after emancipation. It remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
Also, 'destruction' by the French was not simply a tantrum. In 1958 when Sékou Touré of Guinea opted for independence for his nation over French colonial rule "the French administration in Guinea destroyed everything from administration buildings to nursery schools. Cows in the farms were killed and food in warehouses were burned or poisoned." [3] Yes, this really happened, not a hundred years ago, but likely in yours or your parents lifetime.)[12]

Me: What is the structure of the Guyanese Reparations claim?

Eric:

1.Loss of life.
2.The wealth extracted made England and Holland wealthier.
3.The genocide of, and lands taken from the Indigenous peoples.
4. Britain's destruction of the village movement [the communities built by freed people]. The destruction included, flooding the land, denial of credit, recently freed people being forced to sell to the Portuguese for cheap rates, who would then re-sell to the planter class who refused to purchase produce goods from their former property. [1

Me: Kindly offer an overview of the path to attaining reparations.

Eric: The path is to provide well-documented, historical evidence. Next, to issue a formal letter of complaint. Then, seek diplomatic discussions towards redress. Failing that the next step would be the International Court of Justice [in the Hague].

Me: What would be considered a successful reparations yield for Guyana?

Eric: Land, capital, technology funds set aside for restoring culture, re-education and repatriation for those who wish it.

Me: Who will steward those funds, should they be obtained?

Eric: That is to be determined...that is all part of the process. There will certainly not be individual cheques.

Me: Specifically for Guyana, what role would an apology from former colonizers play in the nation's healing?

Eric: Truthfully, an apology will be difficult to obtain as it will make the European nations more legally liable. It is good but not sufficient. It says, "we're culpable" but does not give redress. Initially, we saw it as a necessity, but we realised we were setting ourselves up for failure. We don't want to be caught in that trap. An apology is not a prerequisite for me although it may be for others. An apology without reparations is irrelevant. It's like going to court and the defendant says I'm sorry but then there is nothing else.

Me: Eric, what do you wish people to know about your nation and region?

Eric: Guyana is a nation endowed with a great abundance of natural resources. It is underdeveloped because of the legacies of slavery including a pernicious "winner-take-all" political system it inherited from the British. These resources can only be converted into a vibrant economy with an injection of capital, technology and a more suitable governance arrangement. It is still heavily impacted by the divide-and-rule paradigms of slavery and indentureship. With respect to the Caribbean, it is a transported civilisation made up of many different ethnic and religious peoples who were brought here to serve and enrich European interests. It is now incumbent upon those who transported them to provide reparations; otherwise the effects of the greatest crime against humanity will not be overcome. In a world aware of the need for justice, crimes against humanity should be addressed no matter where and when they occur. Particularly in the West, whose legal systems are supposedly based upon the pursuit of justice, particularly when these legal systems are based on Christianity, which is essence, is about justice, is it not?

Me: Eric, I must tell you that an impassioned American friend of mine remarked that harvesting (albeit owed) monies is, to his mind, a limited victory if Europeans still own much of the land and businesses in the Caribbean and Africa.

Eric: An important remark and it brings us back to reparations, which must also include a healing or repairing of one's self...and once we stop hating ourselves, then we will invest in ourselves. We are a large consumer base. Once we go through the process of healing, we will do, as all other people do, which is to invest in ourselves, our children, our businesses, our self-esteem...and in Africa. [The educational elements] of reparations will help us get around the old divide and conquer tactics used against us, which were purposeful, trivial, but meaningful. We could then stop wearing other people's hair and return to being proud of our own. We could stop bleaching our skin and take pride in our natural ability to repel the harmful rays of the sun. We could stop being pawns is the global commercial game...playing in a game we cannot control and have no ownership of. I mean, is not beauty globally defined by culture? Yet recent history has had all of that defined by one small region's standards. In all of this, Africa has suffered the most...but that's another story.

Me: What is your personal stake in this Eric?

Eric: I am African, beyond anything. When I am seen on a plane they don't think of me as Guyanese or educated, they see an African...with all of the global baggage that racism, (another legacy of slavery) gives. I am interested in restoring the historical pride and achievements of my ancestors and to build the generational wealth of Africans; and the great irony is that because of my education in the west, I understand the cause of global inequality. I wish to be part of the process that brings justice to African and Indigenous People in the Caribbean. Perhaps I am being called upon to assist in the process of ancestral justice...

I left this interview with my head spinning, not because of shock at any of the reveals (for I was privy to the majority of them), but more in consideration of Eric's closing comments about, "hating ourselves". I ruminated extensively (almost to the point of a headache), imagining, the measure of violence required to cause a group of people to potentially dislike...its...own...self...

For those readers who find the mere notion of festering self-hatred implausible, this author would encourage you to think of someone in your personal world, whom you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, has been victim to an unspeakable attack, an attack that you would enthusiastically assert was in no way the fault of that victim. Think back...were you ever exposed to that victim's personal bouts of doubt? Questioning if in fact, they somehow played a role in their own injury?

This author then submits this query: what degree of additional damage, do you believe, would befall that victim if their predator were somehow able to continuously convey a seemingly ubiquitous message, ever repeating to them, 'I've decided that you did in fact deserve what I inflicted on you, and, further I don't wish to hear any more about the incident(s). It's in the past. Geez, Move on already. Quit complaining."

What, do you believe, would be the impact to their healing? And how would those fissures manifest? And for how long?

This author invites readers to add 'scale' to this example and then one could begin to perceive, through empathetic eyes, the conundrum faced by descendants of The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade...that is, if one wishes to.

ARR

1. http://www.iriefm.net/news/headline/jamaica%E2%80%99s-parliament-seek-reparations-britain
2. http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199796953/obo-9780199796953-0003.xml
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantic_slave_trade
4. Caricom doc
5. http://www.caricom.org/jsp/community/history.jsp?menu=community
6. http://www.who.int/countryfocus/cooperation_strategy/ccsbrief_guy_en.pdf
7. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/jonestown-nov-18-1978/
8. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abolition_of_slavery_timeline
9. Caricom doc
10. Guyana. Guyana Reparations Committee. Ministry of Culture, Youth & Sport. A Correct Narrative History of African Slavery in Guyana Historical Discrimination Leading to Modern Day Inequality. By Jonathan Adams and Eric M. Phillips. Georgetown: Government of Guyana, 2014. Print.
11. http://www.guyana.org/features/guyanastory/chapter120.html
12. http://www.siliconafrica.com/france-colonial-tax/
13. Guyana. Guyana Reparations Committee. Ministry of Culture, Youth & Sport. A Correct Narrative History of African Slavery in Guyana Historical Discrimination Leading to Modern Day Inequality. By Jonathan Adams and Eric M. Phillips. Georgetown: Government of Guyana, 2014. Print.