Caribbean needs British cash to defeat legacy of slavery

Countries are struggling with life expectancy, infant mortality and education which stunt economic growth

By: Denis O’Brien

December 19 2023.

Denis O'Brien, Founder, The Repair Campaign

There is an innate sense of decency among people in the United Kingdom, and this has been demonstrated in everyday life over centuries. Now there is an opportunity for the nation to admit to its role in perpetrating 300 years of chattel slavery, which came to an end in 1838.

During this period, over 12 million enslaved were brought mainly from West Africa to the Caribbean and were sold into the most brutal living conditions known to mankind.

Many of my friends in the UK tell me this is all ancient history — but it’s not, because the government borrowed 40 per cent of its GDP in the 1830s to compensate owners of the enslaved for loss of property and earnings. This debt was only paid off in 2015 and is the equivalent of £17 billion today.

When the Caribbean countries obtained their independence in the 1960s and 1970s, their new governments were left with an exchequer akin to a bare cupboard. These independent island states have struggled to create economies that can withstand both economic recession and climate change.

Yet the families who owned the enslaved invested their profits in the Industrial Revolution, which made the UK one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

Every part of the British establishment benefited from the profits of slavery, including the royal family, Church of England, London Stock Exchange, Lloyd’s and the major universities. But it is not just the responsibility of the UK to make amends — France, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands were all active participants in enslavement in the Caribbean.

Today nearly all the Caribbean countries that experienced chattel slavery are struggling with issues such as life expectancy, infant mortality and low levels of engagement in higher education, which are stunting economic growth.

Having invested, over two decades, in 23 territories in the Caribbean, I have seen first-hand how investment can change a country dramatically. For this reason, I set up The Repair Campaign 18 months ago to not only understand the impact of chattel slavery in each of the 15 Caricom states but also to create socioeconomic reparatory justice plans for each country.

The Repair Campaign is working within the framework of the Caricom Reparations Commission’s 2014 ten-point plan for reparatory justice. We have sent two teams of rapporteurs to all Caricom member states and met more than 330 stakeholders from civil society, grassroots organisations and governments.

We are advocating that the UK and the EU jointly fund the socioeconomic reparatory justice plans specific to each of the Caricom member states affected by enslavement over a 25-year period. These funds would be supplementary to the main government budget and would support initiatives in early childhood education, a dramatic increase in higher education enrolment, converting to renewable energy, infrastructure projects, water treatment solutions and the proper development of health systems.

These investments would create an intergenerational impact for the people of the Caribbean, as reparations are not just about money, they are about justice, equality and fairness.

In the past year the UK has prioritised monetary interventions internationally, including £1 billion to Ukraine to supplement its budget, so why would the UK not give the same consideration to the issue of reparations for the Caribbean?

There is a deep affection for the royal family and the UK in the Caribbean and that’s why it is time to grasp this opportunity and come to the subject with an open mind. I think that if the issues are explained to the public in the UK and the EU, they will understand that this is a way to recognise what happened.