Barbados, Jamaica and other countries are marking 200 years since the end of slavery in the British Empire, using this year’s Emancipation Day to renew calls for reparations.
In statements on Tuesday, officials from former British colonies commemorated the destruction and suffering wrought by slavery and called for a fuller recognition of its legacy.
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“Today, Emancipation Day, may we never forget the hardships our ancestors faced under slavery and in the fight for freedom,” Mia Amor Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, said in a post on Twitter.
“The struggle for total emancipation is not yet over. So let us lift up our ancestors’ legacy, and commit to seeking justice and reparations for our people.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also released a statement, acknowledging the “painful history of slavery in Canada and other parts of the world” and touting efforts to promote anti-racism in the country.
As we observe Emancipation Day today, let us reflect on our history and the sacrifices of our forefathers in the struggle for freedom.
Happy Emancipation Day, Jamaica! pic.twitter.com/6oRVDEDhBs
— Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, GOJ (@mfaftja) August 1, 2023
Calls for reparations
In recent years, countries across the Global South have called for greater efforts to acknowledge the consequences of slavery, which played an essential role in the economic and political institutions of Western powers such as Britain, France, Portugal and the United States for hundreds of years.
In late July, representatives from Caribbean and African nations joined together in the Barbadian capital of Bridgetown to call for reparations and connect the horrors of slavery to contemporary issues.
“It is crucial to recognise how slavery, colonialism and racism intersect and impact the lives of Black people around the world,” African Union official Youssouf Mandoha said at the conference, dubbed the “Reparations and Racial Healing Study Tour”.
The meeting stemmed from an African Union decision in February to create a “programme of action” on reparations.
It follows similar efforts from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) bloc of nations, which set up its own reparations committee in 2013.
As part of its work, the committee released a 10-point plan calling for former colonial powers to issue a formal apology and offer reparations like debt relief and public health services.
“The [committee] sees the persistent racial victimization of the descendants of slavery and genocide as the root cause of their suffering today,” the plan explains.
Centuries of violence and exploitation
Many of these efforts draw attention to the widespread suffering inflicted by slavery — and the harms that continue into the present.
Between the 15th and 19th centuries, at least 12.5 million people were kidnapped from Africa and funnelled into a global network that used cruelty and repression to extract free labour.
Barbados, for instance, received 600,000 slaves between 1627 and 1833, who were then forced to work in grueling conditions in sugar plantations to the benefit of British owners and merchants.
Slavery was formally abolished within the British Empire on August 1, 1834. Former enslavers were compensated, but formerly enslaved people were not.
While Western nations have taken steps to acknowledge their role in the slave trade, they have largely rejected calls for economic reparations.
In December, for instance, when Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologised for his country’s actions in enabling and profiting from slavery, some critics rejected the effort as not going far enough.
Speaking to the Reuters news agency, Roy Kaikusi Groenberg — a member of the Honor and Recovery Foundation, a Dutch Afro-Surinamese organisation — compared the apology to a “neocolonial belch”. He felt descendants of slavery had not been adequately consulted in the process.
“It takes two to tango,” he said. “Apologies have to be received.”