Sir Hilary Beckles: Reparations for slavery

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Zeinab Badawi (BBC’s HARDtalk, August 2, 2021) speaks to the eminent historian professor Sir Hilary Beckles in Barbados on reparations as a development strategy: “Over three centuries, Africans were transported to the Caribbean to toil on sugar and cotton plantations – a trade that made Britain rich. For decades there have been calls for compensation to atone for the sins of slavery. Sir Hilary is Chair of the CARICOM Reparations Commission. Can there be justice for the descendants of enslaved Africans?” Listen to the interview at BBC-HARDtalk. Here are excerpts of the interview from the Barbados Advocate.

Acknowledging that the fight for reparations has been ongoing for over 100 years by the Rastafarian and Pan African community, he said: “It took us all of the 19th century to uproot slavery from the world – the Haitians first in 1804, through the English to French or Dutch, and ultimately, the Portuguese in Brazil. It took 100 years of struggle to end slavery, then it took us another 100 years to convert freedom into civil rights. It took us all of the 20th century to get civil rights. If it takes us all of the 21st century to have reparatory justice, generation by generation the struggle goes on.”

During the interview, Sir Hilary did not agree with the view that all persons of African descent should speak with the same voice on the issue of reparations. “Why? Because there’s tremendous intellectual diversity within the African American community. There’s tremendous conceptual and pedagogical variations across the dynamics of the black world and the brown world. Now to expect one voice is to actually hinder your progress.

“We all know what we want, but there are different ways to conceptualise it. The different ways to proceed. There are multiple roads leading into the roundabout, and we don’t want to necessarily have everyone walk in like sheep down a narrow path. We are a community of multiple experiences in diversity.”

He made the point that while a strong argument is being made by the United States for reparations in the form of cash, the same is not true for the Caribbean. “We have said our reparatory justice model is about development of our infrastructures. We want more schools, we want public health infrastructures, we want to have systems to allow development to become endemic within our societies. And that is the focus of our reparation. In the Caribbean, we are looking at a different circumstance. We have the highest percentage of diabetes, hypertension in the world, per capita as a result of these sugar plantations where you consume what you grew, you grew sugar, you consume it. Now we all have a sugar problem in the Caribbean, because we’ve been eating sugar as a meal and exposed to that … and now we are all addicted to it with the consequences. We have to repair that.”

He stressed that the beneficiaries of the crimes against the victims of the colonial past should not be in a position to determine how reparatory justice is perceived. “It is for us, the descendants of the victim class, and all of us are victimised as a race. If you consider the slave trade when the Europeans went into Africa, to kidnap and to pillage the labour force of Africa, they were not looking at the income distribution of the peoples they were enslaving. There were agricultural people, there were teachers, there were artisans, there [were] politicians, all kinds of people were straight up into slave trade, and brought to the sugar plantations. They didn’t consider the diversity of occupation and wealth at the time. So why should they be concerned about it today? That has always been a feature of the victimisation of the black community.”

When asked if he would wish to see Barbados leave the Commonwealth, Sir Hilary responded: “I live in a modern world, I live in a realistic environment. The Commonwealth is a very significant institution. There are challenges of course, with most institutions, the Commonwealth is made up of the categories of the British Empire. There is the white Commonwealth, there’s a brown Commonwealth and there is a black Commonwealth. All together under the rubric of the Commonwealth. “There are some serious challenges within the relationship and the elements within the Commonwealth. But on the whole, I believe on balance at this moment in time, it is a force for progress.”

As Barbados moves to Republic status, Sir Hilary dismissed the idea of being the Head of State. “No, I don’t think so. I think we have a model, and that model is that our Heads of States ought to be diplomats, to be people who transcend all of the social forces and the contradictions of society. My role in society is to identify those contradictions, promote them, build advocacy around them, explore all the challenges we are facing, to make the society a better place. We have to re-engineer the society. I see my role as an engineer, not a diplomat,” he said. 

To listen to interview, go to; August 2, 2021; this 23-minute interview will be available for one year.]

For “Vice-Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles: Reparations a process, not an event,” see

For Kareem Smith’s “Sir Hilary: Impacts of slavery still evident in Barbados, former slave societies,”

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