Rectifying the Colonial past

President Irfaan Ali just attended a meeting of the Heads of Government of the Commonwealth, which we know consists of 54 countries that were former colonies of the British Empire. It has signalled that it is open to new membership and, in fact, Rwanda, where this meeting was held, was itself a former colony of Belgium. Since it already includes about a third of the world’s population, in a realignment of the post-WWII global order, it can possibly play a very important role. However, some of its members who suffered under the old colonial regime have been calling for a reckoning.
Caricom, as we should all know, has supported a call for reparations for the enslavement of millions of human beings from the African continent. They were forced under mind-numbing force and brutality to labour on the sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations without compensation for hundreds of years. As chattel, they were subjected to the same treatment doled out to animals. Finally, when the system was abolished – for economic reasons being that free trade would deliver markets to the new industrialising Britain – it was the slave owners who were compensated, rather than the slaves. This is the basis of the call for reparations.
As part of that call, Caricom has outlined ten demands, which begin with an apology. There has been much ado about Prince Charles, who represented his mother Queen Elizabeth, the nominal head of the Commonwealth, moving in this direction. He said, “I want to acknowledge that the roots of our contemporary association run deep into the most painful period of our history. I cannot describe the depths of my personal sorrow at the suffering of so many, as I continue to deepen my own understanding of slavery’s enduring impact…If we are to forge a common future that benefits all our citizens, we, too, must find new ways to acknowledge our past. Quite simply, this is a conversation whose time has come.”
But while Charles did not mention Caricom’s call for reparatory justice, and reparations are not formally on the Commonwealth’s agenda, his statements were very tone dead in view of the reaction to the visits of several of the members of his family to the region recently.
They were reminded very strongly that future relations would be linked with Britain’s apology and acceptance of reparations. Caricom specifically addressed statements such as Charles’s in its 10-point Reparations Plan: “Some governments, in refusing to offer an apology, have issued in place Statements of Regret. Such statements do not acknowledge that crimes have been committed, and represent a refusal to take responsibility for such crimes. Statements of regret represent, furthermore, a reprehensible response to the call for apology, in that they suggest that victims and their descendants are not worthy of an apology. Only an explicit formal apology will suffice.”
The second point concerns repatriation to the African continent: “A Repatriation Program must be established, and all available channels of international law and diplomacy used to resettle those persons who wish to return. Resettlement should address such matters as citizenship, and deploy available best practices in respect of community re-integration.”
But this demand would bring up the ticklish matter of the responsibility of the present governments – such as Nigeria and Ghana, fellow Commonwealth members – for reparations, since their predecessor indigenous rulers before the colonial annexation played an active role is securing and supplying slaves to the European traders, and shared in the profits of such trade.
In its third Reparations Demand, Caricom invoked the plight of Indigenous peoples and stated unambiguously, “The governments of Europe committed genocide upon the native Caribbean population.” Charles evidently attempted to address this charge by invoking Canada’s treatment of their Indigenous peoples: “…people across Canada are…determined to lay a foundation of respect and understanding upon which a better future can be built. It seems to me that there are lessons in this for our Commonwealth family.” This is too little, too late.
He misses the point of the reparations call.