Present day issues relating to chattel enslavement
“The causal link between the crimes of slavery and the ongoing harm and injury to descendants is everywhere to be found in the Caribbean.”
Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Chairman, CARICOM Reparations Committee
Chattel enslavement, genocide and colonisation inflicted unimaginable harm and damage – the traumatic legacies of which are still felt by descendants today. And, as the above quote states, it is fair to say present day suffering and development deficiencies in the Caribbean region are directly related to these legacies.
To give some background, colonies and plantations existed to serve the interests of the coloniser and were characterised by exploitation, extraction and dependency-creation. This essentially meant colonialism left Caribbean countries over-exploited and significantly depleted. Newly independent countries needed to borrow heavily in order to provide basic services. What’s more, many former colonies were forced to pay European colonisers for their emancipation leading to more debt and dependency.
Even though many Caribbean countries made great strides in the periods after emancipation and independence, poverty and inequity has been inescapable. Day-to-day reality for people in the Caribbean is marked by widespread social issues and communities struggle with deteriorating conditions including unemployment, chronic diseases, limited access to education and opportunity, economic inequality, inadequate public infrastructure and land issues.
The below offers a brief snapshot into current socioeconomic realities for the region, rooted in the legacies of chattel enslavement and colonisation.
In the 300 years since chattel enslavement, Caribbean diets have largely consisted of foods high in salt and sugar. This comes as no surprise considering sugar cane was the primary cash crop in the region. As a result, “more amputations are committed in the Caribbean per capita than any other part of the world,” and billions of dollars are spent each year trying to manage this crisis according to Sir Hilary Beckles.
Additionally, the region has one of the fastest growing rates of type 2 diabetes with 60 per cent of people over the age of 60 years having type 2 diabetes or hypertension. Non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer are the most common causes of illness and premature death in the Caribbean today.
Further compounding matters, the Caribbean health system is drastically under-resourced and lacks capacity to deal with such health crises. This also explains why the region was most affected demographically by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Education in the region still carries remnants of colonisation. For example, Eurocentric curricula, set in 1980s for many countries, was inherited from the colonial era and often fails to reflect the diverse cultural and historical experiences of Caribbean people. This hinders the development of a strong sense of identity, erodes self-esteem, and perpetuates a limited understanding of the contributions made by Caribbean societies.
The Caribbean has the lowest youth enrolment in higher education in the hemisphere while at the primary and secondary level, schools are still under-serviced, under-funded and overwhelmed. For women and girls, the reality is even starker. As an indication, in Grenada, Saint Lucia and Jamaica, one in three young women are not engaged in education, employment or training and are constrained due to their unequal role in family responsibilities, early pregnancy and gender norms that relegate them to the domestic sphere.
The debt crisis in many Caribbean countries can be traced back to the extraction of resources and underdevelopment of industry during colonialism. The wealth extracted from Caribbean colonies positioned countries like Britain as global superpowers for centuries, leaving no such empowering legacy for the colonies themselves. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, the Caribbean is among the most indebted regions in the world with debt levels averaging 90 per cent of GDP (excluding Haiti). Related vulnerabilities have slowed growth and poverty reduction across the region.
There is also a high dependence on imports, particularly food with CARICOM countries importing between 60-80 per cent of all food they eat. This highlights more broadly the dependence on foreign economies – a direct result of colonisation. Dependence on external economies and heavy borrowing has only been exacerbated by various factors including economic mismanagement, political instability and a decline in the export of key commodities.
The plantation economy in the Caribbean was built on the exploitation of enslaved people, and women were particularly vulnerable to violence.
The region experiences high rates of sexual and gender-based violence and three of the top ten recorded rape rates in the world occur in the Caribbean according to UN Women Caribbean. The report states that, “while the worldwide average for rape was 15 per 100,000, The Bahamas had an average of 133, St. Vincent and the Grenadines 112, Jamaica 51, Dominica 34, Barbados 25 and Trinidad and Tobago 18. It was also noted that in nine Caribbean countries, 48 per cent of adolescent girls’ sexual initiation was ‘forced’ or ‘somewhat forced’.
According to National Women’s Health Surveys, 25 per cent of women in Suriname and 24 per cent of women in Jamaica have experienced sexual harassment – the highest prevalence in the region among the countries for which data is available – although these figures likely drastically underestimate reality. In terms of intimate partner violence, prevalence rates among countries vary but UN Women Caribbean estimate figures range from 55 per cent in Guyana, 48 per cent in Suriname, 44 per cent in Trinidad and Tobago, and 39 per cent in Grenada and Jamaica.
Toxic masculinity, another consequence of the historical power imbalances rooted in chattel enslavement, plays a significant role in perpetuating gender-based violence. The dominance and control over women’s bodies that were reinforced during chattel enslavement continue to be perpetuated and is characterised by aggression, entitlement and the suppression of emotions, leading to harmful behaviours.
The issue of land ownership in the Caribbean is deeply intertwined with the region’s history of chattel enslavement and colonialism. The issue has compounded generation after generation in the Caribbean, as colonial powers held onto their privatised lands and discriminatory systems kept newly freed people from accessing and owning good quality land. Similar to the “40 acres and a mule” promise made to former enslaved people in the United States, newly freed Caribbean people were often granted small plots of land to grow their own crops. However, it was common for this land to be of poor quality and insufficient for their needs.
In the smaller Caribbean islands like Antigua and Barbuda, it was difficult for newly freed individuals to obtain their own land, as there was not much unclaimed land left on which to settle. In larger islands, former enslaved people might have been able to buy land, but they faced significant challenges such as discriminatory laws and practices that favoured white landowners. As generations turned over, it was common for colonial landowners to pass down their lands to their descendants, resulting in a small group of people owning a large percentage of the land.
Land ownership continues to present significant problems in Caribbean societies and even spills over into ethnic tensions.