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The Call for Reparations Rises Again

Posted on Apr 11, 2015

By Channing G. Joseph

  An African girl is tortured aboard a slave ship in this Isaac Cruikshank print from 1792. (Library of Congress)

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Each seasick night aboard the Zong, the crewmen must have dreamed of being back in England at last, with their purses full of gold. The ship’s two-month voyage had been an arduous one. The supply of drinking water was running dangerously low, and many on board were gravely ill, including Capt. Luke Collingwood.

In fact, Collingwood was so deliriously sick that he could not navigate properly, and the sailors—who had believed they were bound for Black River, Jamaica—ended up overshooting their destination by some 300 miles.

Panic set in when they realized their error. Survivors would later testify that they had feared there would not be enough water to sustain them and their valuable cargo for the entire way back. This is how, they claimed, they came to the damnable decision—in late November and early December of 1781—to unload a sizable portion of their cargo, tossing overboard more than 130 West African prisoners and leaving them to drown in the blue depths of the Caribbean Sea.


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The murderers eventually landed in a London court—in a case known as Gregson v. Gilbert—not to face charges for the massacre but in a dispute over an insurance policy taken out on that human cargo.

When the 200 or so remaining Africans had been sold and the crew had returned to England, the expedition’s leaders filed an insurance claim to recoup some of the money they had lost on the people they had killed. Understandably, the insurers refused to honor the claim, but at trial a jury found that they were in fact legally bound to do so—just as they would have been if the cargo had consisted of horses. (The plaintiffs later appealed, and the court agreed that a new trial should take place, yet for some reason none ever did.)

Today, almost no one in the United States has heard of the Zong massacre, though among academics it is known as one of the most notorious incidents in the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Even in Black River, Jamaica, just a single, lonely plaque stands in memory of the nameless Africans who lost their lives before reaching shore. Neither the slave traders nor the insurers who profited from the Zong expedition were ever held accountable.

It is now more than two centuries later, but not everyone has forgotten.

Jamaica and at least 13 other members of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) have issued a renewed call for reparations for the descendants of slaves, like those who survived the Zong massacre.

In 2013, Caricom leaders voted to establish a regional reparations commission. Its mandate is to make the case that European governments—the United States government is not mentioned—owe the descendants of black and indigenous peoples, not only because their ancestors were victims of torture, enslavement and even genocide but because the consequences of those atrocities can still be seen and felt in the prevailing social and economic inequalities of 2015. After all, those governments condoned and encouraged the slave trade, which enriched their economies for centuries.

Significantly, the Caricom nations are not seeking payments to individuals at all. Instead, their short list of 10 demands includes things like an apology from Europe’s former colonial powers, economic and technological development initiatives, debt cancellation, public health assistance, and settlement in Africa for any blacks who want to move there.

Perhaps most important, the list includes a demand for education and psychological rehabilitation. It reads:

For over 400 years Africans and their descendants were classified in law as non-human, chattel, property, and real estate. They were denied recognition as members of the human family by laws derived from the parliaments and palaces of Europe. This history has inflicted massive psychological trauma upon African descendant populations. This much is evident daily in the Caribbean. Only a reparatory justice approach to truth and educational exposure can begin the process of healing and repair.

The Caribbean’s call appears to have reached the shores of the U.S., where interest in reparations waned after 9/11 and the subsequent election of a black president:

Last December, Sir Hilary Beckles, the vice chancellor of the University of West Indies, spoke on reparations before the United Nations General Assembly. And this year, the entertainment world saw the premiere of the science-fiction film “No Boni,” about an experiment to administer reparations in the form of a mind-altering drug.

In New York City, a three-day reparations summit began on April 9, exactly 150 years after the end of the U.S. Civil War and the birth of the nation’s broken promise to provide “40 acres and a mule,” a kind of reparations, to its former slaves. (That promise—first voiced by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and later echoed by Reconstruction officials like Clinton B. Fisk and Republicans eager to capture black votes—was one that the historian Walter Fleming said some older blacks were still waiting and hoping to see fulfilled in 1906, four decades after the war’s end.)

The New York summit, organized by the nonprofit Institute of the Black World 21st Century (IBW), welcomed delegations from 10 Caricom countries, Belgium, Belize, Britain, Canada, France, Martinique, the Netherlands and Sweden. Roundtable discussions and performances were scheduled, along with speeches by the actor Danny Glover, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the famed Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., was also honored for his decades of work championing reparations in the U.S. Congress.

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