A 200-Year-Old Crime Is Back In The Spotlight — And An Apology Just Won’t Do

There’s no arguing that slavery was (and is) a crime against humanity. But hundreds of years after the Atlantic slave trade, justice is yet to be served. These Caribbean nations want to change that. And they’re not just looking for an apology.

See 3:20 for a completely reasonable response to an all-too-common argument against what these countries are proposing. The gentlemen at 7:20 explain that this isn't just about money. What's their endgame? See 15:47.

We're not just talking about one tiny island state here. Fourteen countries, the populations of which are 80% descendants of enslaved Africans, have banded together in bringing this lawsuit to 11 European governments. It'll be an uphill battle, for sure, but hopefully what we're seeing is a renewed energy around righting this astounding wrong.

In 1952, Germany signed a reparations agreement to provide financial support for Holocaust survivors who fled to Israel. So this initiative isn't without precedent. Hopefully the governments responsible for the historical abuses under the rule of white supremacy will follow in their footsteps.

Show Transcript Hide Transcript

Narrator: We begin with a story that has its origins in the XV century, when colonial powers began ripping millions of Africans from their homes, shipping them to the Caribbean and forcing them to work in sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations.

For a select few, the Transatlantic slave trade meant big business. The 400 year operation generated the equivalent of trillions in today's dollars. For Africans, it meant complete devastation.

Today, 80% of the Caribbean's population can trace its roots to slavery. And some say they deserve to be paid for the systematic crime committed by colonial powers. Steven Gibbs went to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines to explore the issue of reparations. [inaduible 00:51]

Steven: Independence Day in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. 34 years after this tiny country gained its independence from Britain, many of the traditions from colonial times endure.

The man inspecting the troops is Sir Frederick Ballantyne, the Governor General. He represents the British Queen, who is still Head of State here.

The main speech of the day is to be made by Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of this island state for the last 13 years. And he is going to take this opportunity to make an awkward demand of his former colonial rulers. He wants money in compensation for past crimes.

Ralph: So I mean to rate accordingly our just demand, collectively, for reparations on native genocide and African slavery from the European countries which committed these horrendous crimes against humanity.

Steven: The prime minister, who calls himself comrade Ralph, enjoys his reputation as one of the Caribbean's more outspoken politicians. But he insists that he is not making this appeal on his own. He's spearheading what could become a multibillion dollar class action by all Caribbean nations against the European powers that brought slaves to these island.

The call comes at a time when tiny micro states like this are still struggling to recover from the 2008 world economic downturn, and in particular, the reduction in aid budgets from some developed countries that are not the U.K.

Gonsalves says the legacy of slavery is a defining issue of our age which has to be discussed.

Ralph: This is not a diplomacy of protest. This is a diplomacy of engagement. We've had historic wrongs. They must be righted.

Steven: Let's be clear. Are you seeking money or an apology?

Ralph: Oh I want an apology, but I want more than an apology. I want a repair and apology alone is not going to repair it.

Steven: There're going to be a lot of people though, who say, this is history. I mean, we are talking about a crime that was committed 200 years ago, the perpetrators of that crime are long dead, the victims are long dead ...

Ralph: Sure.

Steven: ...you know, can we, should we dig out the past like this?

Ralph: First of all, we are not dealing with individual crimes. Slavery was an organized state system of racial discrimination and economic subjugation. No question. Organized state system. The British passed the laws, the bill then forts in West Africa, and they went on a hunt for the slaves. Let's understand that. It is true that one or two African marauders would've helped them in the exercise, but this was an organized European activity, no question about it.

Much of the wealth in Britain was built, has been built, as a consequent of slavery.

Steven: One of the things though, that the people who disagree with your point of view say is that, OK, how far do we go? Do we go back to ... you know ... Should the ... Should the British take action against the Italian government because the Romans occupied Britain and enslaved some of them, or against the Norwegian government for the Viking, you know ...

Ralph: Well, that's for you to decide, on your end in the European Union. You decide that. I'm not answering that hypothetical question. All I'm saying is that there is today, a legacy, this period, contemporary, a legacy in my region, in my country, of native genocide and slavery. That legacy is a legacy of underdevelopment.

Steven: The Atlantic slave trade was a hugely profitable triangle of trade between Europe, Africa and the Caribbean, which was at its peak between the XVII and XIX centuries before finally being abolished in 1838.

Manufactured goods were taken from Europe to Africa, and traded for slaves. The slaves that the British alone transported three point one million, were then forced onto the same ships that have brought the goods and taken in appalling conditions to the Caribbean, where they worked on sugar plantations. The slave ships then returned to Europe ladened with sugar where it was often sold at a huge markup to improve the flavor of tea, that blood sweetened beverage, as contemporary abolitionists described it.

In Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, like most Caribbean countries, the remnants of the brutal, yet lucrative business are everywhere. This plantation house, now an ultra luxurious boutique hotel was once the grand home of a slave owner. This tunnel, designed to access a sheltered bay where the sugar could be more easily loaded onto ships, was built by African and Carib slaves, under the supervision of the British. It was considered something of an engineering miracle in its time.

And there is, of course, and even more obvious living legacy of what was the biggest displacement of people in history. Today more than 80% of those living on Saint Vincent and other Caribbean islands are of African descent.

The movement for reparations has been led by black power and Rastafarian groups for over two decades, but with little concrete success. This group, celebrating Independence Day, are pleased that at last the politicians are listening to them.

Unknown speaker: Our history was so rich before slavery, that slavery destroyed the knowledge and the quality, the spiritual reality in us. So the talk for reparation is not just about money. It's about regaining ourselves. Our African ancestry.

Unknown speaker: Reparation doesn't necessarily and totally mean financially. Reparation is an effort for people who has committed the wrong, to acknowledge that slavery was an injustice against humanity. That to acknowledge that, they should apologize to it, because that is something wrong.

Steven: European leaders have to date resisted issuing full apologies for slavery, partly to avoid there by admitting responsibility and opening the way for legal action against their governments.

In 2006, the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair released a carefully worded statement in which he didn't apologize, but he expressed deep sorrow for the trade.

Last year, the Dutch Social Affairs Minister Lodewijk Asscher chose similar words describing the deep regret his government felt.

More outspoken was the president of Benin, Matthieu Kerekou, who in 1999 apologized for the role of his African forbearers in selling slaves. All parties must confess our responsibility before history for this shameful trade.

Those seeking compensation for the crimes of the past have been emboldened by a twenty five million dollar out of court settlement, made in June last year, by the U.K. government to these former members of an anti-colonial group in Kenya.

They had argued that Britain was responsible for the violent suppression and torture carried out against them by the colonial administration. The same London law firm which represented them, is now acting for the Caribbean governments.

But slavery reparations would appear far more complicated. How do you begin to put a figure on the amount to be claimed?

All the Caribbean nations have set up Reparations Committees to look at just that.

Diligent bookkeeping bu British officials and slaver owners makes that task easier. One precedent which many here are citing is the fact that compensation for slavery has already been assessed and paid once to the slave owners.

When slavery was abolished in the XIX century, the British government paid former owners what they deemed was the value of their now free slaves. The equivalent of 26 billion dollars in today's money.

Curtis: 20 million pounds in 1834, you can see the size of how that would be. There's a value that we can attach to the lands. Using the value that the British themselves used back then, unrelated to today's value. So there are several methods by which we could come up with that sort of information.

Steven: But there are those who question whether, whatever the figure's being mentioned, seeking compensation for crimes committed at least two centuries ago is either realistic or even desirable.

A short ferry ride from Saint Vincent is the even smaller island out-posed of Bequia. This is the base of Sir James Mitchell, the second prime minister of Saint Vincent and The Grenadines after independence, who served for a total of 16 years.

Sir James: How are you going to quantify the figure for reparations? And to whom would these reparations go? You look at somebody like me. I have a background, and a genealogy that is mixed of Africa and Britain. And there are thousands, hundreds of thousands of us, of mixed ancestry, in the Caribbean like that. Am I going to get some of that money? Who is going to decide that we get the money? Is it going to be a Caribbean court, a British court, a European court, a United Nations organization? We'll be raising the expectations of all people, of something that may never be delivered.

Steven: Sir James also questions whether the Caribbean really was left in a state of underdevelopment by its departing colonial masters.

Sir James: I was involved in the operation of this country from the time, from Colonialism to independence. I'm the only one left. And I know what it was like to get grant [inaudible 12:45] of administration. They paid for our budgets for years. Long before we learnt how to budget for ourselves.

We also got the English language, we got Christianity, we got a judicial system, we got a lot of components of the Western civilization that is part of our being.

Steven: But the current prime minister, who is politically on the other fence to Sir James, says a fundamental crime needs to be admitted and repaired.

Ralph: It's not just a balance sheet ledger of ticking off are there three good points here and three bad points. And assets and liabilities. It doesn't work like that. You have to look at the total picture and make a judgment. So I said to the British, there are some good things that you brought, but for heaven's sake, you can't really claim that for the rule of law and one man one vote and the Parliament and judges in wigs, that you had to kill [inaudible 14:07] of the Caribs, the Garifuna and the Garinagu, and enslave millions of Africans across the Caribbean. That can't be a justification.

Steven: The British government was represented at the Independence Day's celebrations by a diplomat based in neighboring Saint Lucia.

Ralph: To her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Second.

Guests: The queen.

Steven: He was not authorized to give us an interview, but the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued this statement. Slavery was and is abhorrent. It is a sad fact that although slavery is outlawed internationally, millions of people are still living in conditions of slavery worldwide. The U.K. unreservedly condemns slavery and is committed to eliminating it. We do not see reparations as the answer.

Curtis King from the Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Reparation Committee, who is also the Headmaster of the country's main boy school, disagrees. He sees the pursuit of reparations as akin to a truth and reconciliation committee.

Curtis: So that we are saying that we would hope that they would sit down and come to realization that yes, we had cases where you had crimes basically against humanity, and arrive at a settlement, outside of the court. But if they are not prepared to do that, well we are prepared to go all the way.

The minimum would be an apology, but certainly it lure off our ... if you like lost opportunity to develop. In other words we are saying you must have material resources to pay for the underdevelopment that we experienced during that time. So yes, we are also looking for money.

Steven: Some European taxpayers might say, but hang on, you know, through development aid, in the post colonial period, we've been paying directly to these countries. I mean, this school we're in now, has benefited from European Union development aid. So isn't that part of the reparation?

Curtis: Yes, we have received support from the British government over the years. But that has come out of our mutual relationship, and I would want that relationship to continue. But what we are saying, you are responsible for certain activities that in many instances can be classified as crime against humanities. It is only fair that you atone.

Steven: One form of atonement already being suggested, is that the European powers set up an education fund for the entire Caribbean in perpetuity.

Another idea is that money should be donated to create a world class museum in the region where the true story of Transatlantic slavery can finally be told.

There are those that say that seeking money for a crime which happened so long ago is at best a hopeless dream, at worst a distraction from the more pressing problems of today. But plenty here do believe that is only fair that someone pays for the sins of the past.

There may be small errors in this transcript.

Original report by CCTV America.

Jun 14, 2014

Flash Video Embed

This video is not supported by your device. Continue browsing to find other stuff you'll love!

In case you were wondering what matters to us, it's your privacy. Read our updated privacy policy.

Hey, Internet Friend. Looks like you're using a crazy old web browser, which is no longer supported. Please consider upgrading to something more modern—for a better experience, and a safer time online. We only want the best for you.

Download Google Chrome, and try it for a week. Don't think about it, just do it. You'll thank us later.