CARICOM, Chattel Slavery and Indentureship

The following letter to the editor is republished from Kaieteur News Online and was written on March 11, 2024 by Eric Phillips, Chair, Guyana National Reparations Committee.

Eric Phillips, Chair, Guyana National Reparations Committee

Dear Editor,

I am writing to you regarding the Communiqué from the 46th Regular Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of CARICOM in Georgetown, which was held from 25 to 28 February. On the issue of “reparations”, the Communiqué stated:

“The Conference proposes to place more emphasis on direct engagement, advocacy, and negotiations, including strengthening partnership with the African Union. They agreed to broaden the context for Reparatory Justice to include native genocide, chattel enslavement, indentureship, and colonialism and recognized the peculiar circumstances of overseas territories in the Region in relation to Reparatory Justice. They requested the PMSC [Prime Ministerial Sub Committee] on Reparations to advise on modalities for their involvement in CARICOM’s Reparations agenda”.

The Guyana Reparations National Committee commends the Conference of Heads of States for its commitment and leadership in advancing the reparations agenda and for its recognition of the diverse and complex historical and contemporary realities of the Caribbean region. GRNC respects and appreciates the work and the vision of the Conference and the PMSC on Reparations and its efforts to advise on the best ways to involve overseas territories in the reparations’ agenda.

The Guyana National Reparations Committee has received many calls about the Declaration by the Heads and as such, offers these comments, observations, and suggestions regarding the inclusion of indentureship and colonialism in the context of Reparatory Justice. It is quite understandable that the inclusion of indentureship has generated some confusion and controversy among various stakeholders in the Caribbean, Africa, the United States, and the European African Diaspora as the first impression is that the current CARICOM 10-Point Plan for Reparatory Justice that addresses “Indigenous Genocide will be modified to include “Indentureship”.

Indentureship was a system of labour migration that involved the recruitment and transportation of millions of workers from India, China, and other countries to various colonies and territories around the world, including the Caribbean, between the 19th and 20th centuries. Indentureship was regulated in India by the Immigration Act of 1854, which was passed by the British Parliament and the Government of India, and which stipulated the terms and conditions of the contracts signed by the indentured workers, such as their wages, food, clothing, accommodation, religious needs and duration of service.

Indentureship was a complex and controversial phenomenon that had both positive and negative impacts on the lives and societies of indentured workers and their descendants. On the one hand, indentureship provided opportunities for economic and social mobility, cultural diversity, and inter-ethnic solidarity for many indentured workers and their descendants, who contributed significantly to the development and identity of the Caribbean region. On the other hand, indentureship also involved various forms of exploitation, discrimination, and violence against the indentured workers and their descendants, who faced many challenges and hardships in their new Caribbean environments, such as poor housing, working and living conditions, low wages, high mortality rates, limited rights and freedoms, and social and political marginalization.

Indentureship deserves to be acknowledged and addressed as part of the reparations’ agenda, as it is an integral part of the Caribbean history and experience. It has left a lasting legacy and impact on the Caribbean region and its people.

However, scholars and historians have stated that indentureship should be distinguished from native genocide and chattel enslavement, which are widely recognized as crimes against humanity by the international community and the United Nations, which has had International decades for both groups. `Indentureship, while involving many injustices and abuses, was not a crime against humanity, nor was it created to treat as non-human or deny the humanity of the indentured, as it was not a systematic and deliberate attempt to exterminate or enslave a group of people based on their race, ethnicity, religion, or nationality. Chattel slavery was and is, one of the greatest crimes the world has seen and includes genocide.

Similarly, colonialism, the political and economic domination of one country or territory by another, should also be differentiated from native genocide and chattel enslavement. It was not a crime against humanity, although it often involved or facilitated various forms of oppression and violence against the colonized peoples and territories.

The context for Reparatory Justice should be clarified and refined to reflect the different nature and scope of the historical injustices and grievances that affected the Caribbean region and its people, to avoid any confusion or misunderstanding among the various stakeholders involved in the reparations’ agenda. Differing interpretations among stakeholders have the potential to shape differing visions and mandates and retard the growth of a global reparations’ agenda.

The Guyana National Reparations Committee proposes that the context for Reparatory Justice should include the following categories:

  1. Native Genocide: The systematic and deliberate killing, displacement, and dispossession of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean by the European colonizers, which resulted in the near extinction of many native cultures, languages, and populations.

  2. Chattel Enslavement: The forced and brutal transportation, exploitation, and dehumanization of millions of Africans by the European slave traders and plantation owners, which resulted in the genocidal loss of lives, dignity, and identity of many African descendants, as well as the enrichment of the European powers at their expense. The purposeful negation of the humanity of the enslaved person was an essential and major component of chattelization –where Africans were treated as property. The legacies of chattel enslavement are well documented and include persistent poverty, the denial of opportunity to generate wealth from one’s labour, and, more critically, the prevention of the creation of intergenerational wealth by Africans and their descendants.

  3. Indentureship: The regulated and contractual migration, employment, and settlement of millions of workers from India, China, and other countries by the British and other colonial authorities, which resulted in the diversification, development, and integration of the Caribbean society, as well as the marginalization, discrimination, and violence against many indentured workers and their descendants.

  4. Colonialism: The political and economic domination, administration, and influence of the European and other foreign powers over the Caribbean territories and peoples, which resulted in the modernization, globalization, and cooperation of the Caribbean region, as well as the disruption, oppression, and dependency of the Caribbean nations and cultures.

The modalities for the involvement of the overseas territories in CARICOM’s Reparations agenda should be based on the specific historical and contemporary realities and needs of each territory. The participation and consultation of the representatives and stakeholders of each territory should be ensured and respected.

The Guyana National Reparations Committee highly recommends that the Prime Ministerial Sub-committee on Reparations (PMSC) should establish and coordinate separate and specialized commissions or committees for the indentureship and colonialism categories of the Reparatory Justice agenda and continue the present arrangement where genocide and chattel slavery, both “crimes against humanity” are managed in the CRC.

It is hoped that this letter will lessen the racial or ethnic overtones associated with the recent announcement of the Heads at the 46th Conference as the Guyana Reparations Committee believes that the reparations agenda is a common and shared cause that transcends any differences or divisions among the Caribbean people.

 

Sincerely,

Eric Phillips

Chair,

Guyana National Reparations Committee