Victims of slavery deserve reparations 

People protest the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Kingston, Jamaica

People protest the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Kingston, Jamaica, on March 22, 2022. Demonstrators gathered in Kingston to protest the official visit of Prince William and Kate to the former British colony and demand the monarchy apologise for its role in the slave trade. 

Photo credit: AFP

Said it was 96 degrees in the shade Ten thousand soldiers on parade Taking me to meet a big fat boy Sent from overseas The queen employ Excellency before you, I come With my representation You know where I'm coming from

You caught me on the loose Fighting to be free Now you show me a noose On the cotton tree Entertainment for you Martyrdom for me

96 degrees in the shade Real hot in the shade

Some may suffer, and some may burn But I know that one day, my people will learn As sure as the sun shines way up in the sky Today I stand here as a victim, the truth is I'll never die

‘96 degrees in the shade’, a song by Third World.

February is the month when black culture is celebrated across the world.

This column makes a modest contribution towards keeping the memory alive of millions of blacks who have perished from all sorts of man-made oppressions. But none supersedes the barbarity of black slavery of the triangular trade.

The song above was done in commemoration of one Sam Sharpe. Samuel Sharpe was born into slavery in the Caribbean in the 1880s. Sharpe became a preacher in the Baptist Church.

The enslaved blacks, meanwhile, closely followed the British parliament's discussions surrounding the abolition of slavery. It was within this context that Sharpe organised a peaceful demonstration across many sugar estates in western Jamaica to protest against harsh working conditions.

The colonial government used the armed military forces to quell the protests. Afterwards, reprisals followed. The government tried, convicted and hanged many of the ringleaders, including Sharpe, in 1832.

In the months leading up to his execution, while in jail, Sharpe had meetings with Rev. Henry Bleby, a missionary, who reported that Sharpe told him: “I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live my life in slavery.”

Parliamentary inquiries

The rebellion and government response provoked two detailed parliamentary inquiries.

The Caribbean government’s inhumane reprisals in the aftermath of the rebellion caused the passage by parliament of the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act.

The above is just one example of the brutality and inhumanity of slavery. Millions of innocent blacks perished during this phase of inhumanity.

But there are those that benefited from this trade and justice demands reparations. Various Western states working in cahoots with local collaborators benefitted from this inhumane trade.

An argument can be made that much time has passed since these violations occurred. In any event, some might argue, why punish the present generation of the West for gross violations of the past done by their ancestors?

However, states exist in perpetuity. Second, the effluxion of time should not be raised particularly on matters of gross violation of human rights. Some inhumane acts embed cross-generational unfairness and hence reparations help in balancing matters out.

There is also precedent and hence what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

In the Second World War (1939–1945), Germany organised pogroms and millions of Jews perished. Germany lost the war and in 1952, the Reparations Agreement between Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany was signed on September 10, 1952, and it came into force on March 27, 1953.

Germany paid Israel the costs of “resettling so great a number of uprooted and destitute Jewish refugees” after the war and to compensate individual Jews, through the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, for losses in Jewish livelihood and property resulting from Nazi persecution.

United States paid reparations to the Japanese Americans arising out of World War II atrocities. Japanese Americans became aggrieved and formed a redress movement that culminated in the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

US reparations

This law gave surviving Japanese Americans $20,000 in reparations and a formal apology by President Reagan for their incarceration during World War II. But its passage did not happen overnight. It took years to turn the redress movement into legislation.

The same US government provided reparations to native Indian tribes in 1946. The US parliament created the Indian Claims Commission, designed to hear historic grievances and compensate tribes for lost territories. It commissioned extensive historical research and awarded about $1.3 billion to 176 tribes and bands. 

In Canada, on January 20, 2023, the federal government and 325 First Nations agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit seeking reparations for the loss of language and culture brought on by Indian residential schools, for $2.8 billion. Last year, the Canadian government made the largest settlement in Canada’s history, paying $31.5 billion to fix the nation’s discriminatory child welfare system and compensate the Indigenous people harmed by it.

Japan concluded in the 1950s the San Francisco Peace Treaty, bilateral peace treaties with several countries and paid reparations. US$550 million was paid to the Philippines, and US$39 million to Vietnam; the International Committee of the Red Cross received 4.5 million pounds sterling to compensate prisoners of war.

Japan relinquished all overseas assets (approximately US$23.681 billion). Other reparations amounting to US$200 million were made to Burma and US$223.08 million to Indonesia.

A case can therefore be made that an international legal norm has been established justifying the payment of reparations to historically mistreated groups. Customary international law refers to international obligations arising from established international practices, as opposed to obligations arising from formal written conventions and treaties. 

Therefore, black African states can lodge a case against western states that benefited from slavery, either collectively or otherwise, to press for reparations.

Reparations should be channelled for collective and societal benefit. Such funds can be managed independently of states for societal goals like education and health sectors.

Scholarship opportunities for underprivileged and poor but bright black people can also be provided by the impugned states. That would be the moral thing to do, at least in memory of millions like Sam Sharpe who died for no good reason.

Dr Kang’ata is the Governor of Murang’a County.