Book Review: Hillary McD Beckles, Britain’s Black Death: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Genocide, Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2013.

Given the recent discussions in the letter columns of the dailies on reparation, I thought my review of the above book might be useful.
Over the past three decades or so, there have been a number of organisations, associations, countries, regions, and conferences on reparations for African slavery in the Americas. However, the call for reparations was uncoordinated and fragmented among the aforementioned institutions and agencies.
Not until the UN conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa in 2001 that a sound platform for reparations became a serious issue.
Government officials, delegates, activists, representatives as well as academicians from the world over, including Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe, attended this conference. Various positions for and against reparations were discussed and debated.
Professor Beckles’ book builds on this conference and intensifies the call for reparation in the British Caribbean, home to a majority of Africans.
Beckles presents a compelling case for reparation in which he argues that Britain and other European slave regimes should take responsibility, apologise, and pay reparation for three centuries of African enslavement in the Caribbean.
Beckles uses international law as well as morality and argues impressively that African enslavement in the Caribbean was a crime against humanity. He posits further that the link between slavery and the continuous harm and hurt of the descendants of Africans is still prevalent in the Caribbean.
While Beckles’ case for reparation is impressive, one is forced to ask whether the call for reparation will receive support and whether former slave regimes in Europe and in North America will answer in the affirmative. Caribbean countries have wholeheartedly supported reparation through Caricom.
Most African countries have followed the position of Caribbean countries but some have rejected the idea on the basis that there are pressing issues to be dealt with in Africa. Some African countries have taken a neutral position on reparation.
The United States and former slave regimes of Europe and the European Union have rejected reparation. They stated that they will not apologise or pay reparations for African slavery in the Americas because slavery was a legal institution, and therefore they should not be held accountable for a situation that occurred a long time ago. They argued also that slavery was too remote for any recuperative strategy.
Furthermore, “Officials of the British state have also suggested that even if one accepts that a crime against humanity has been committed, the challenge of meeting reparation case is impossible owing both to enormity of the slavery system and to the impossibility of crafting a reparatory response that would be meaningful and would bring closure to the case” (p 167).
The United States condemned African slavery but refused to accept one nation holding another financially liable for a historical situation that happened a long time ago. Britain offered a statement of regret and deep sorrow but refused to apologise or pay reparation for African slavery in the Americans.
What is sad and disappointing when reading the conversations for and against reparation is that the delegates who represented and spoke on behalf of former slave regimes (the United States and Britain) were of African descent. For example, Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, and Condoleezza Rice, a national security advisor, spoke against reparation.
Beckles’ contribution is not so much that he shows former slave regimes are reluctant to apologise or pay reparation. This is expected because to apologise for slavery would mean guilt and subsequent financial compensation which amounts to 7.5 trillion pounds.
Beckles has done remarkably well to first, have contemporary leaders of former slave regimes recognise and respond to the horrors of slavery, and second, to mobilise and internationalise the call for reparation.
Because of Beckles’ book, the call for reparation, like slavery, is the newest common thread that binds Africa and the African Diaspora. One suspects that the call for reparation will persist, and perhaps someday it will be decided in the international court of justice.
Meanwhile, the book will be useful to professionals, researchers, and to the descendants of African slavery in the Americas
([email protected]). Review was first published in the Journal of Third World Studies (2015)