Following the decision by a group of Caribbean nations to sue Britain for reparations for slavery, Rev Wale Hudson-Roberts calls for the Church to support them in this quest
We will never know what slavery was like. We will have heard the stories, read the books, and locked our eyes on the pictures. But we will never experience its horrors. We have no idea what it must have been like for the enslaved to have their names changed; the names of their children changed; forced into a life of enslavement in a foreign land; used as money-making machines – their purpose purely commercial, and never will have.
Yet, despite not being there, we know that slavery was heinous. Every last inch of it was laden with indignity. The persistent, systematic degrading of the enslaved so deeply maligned the enslaved that they remained in a perpetual state of soulnessness – in other words, bereft of hope. Knowing the longevity of the enslavement, from cradle to grave, must have made it even more unbearable. Their dehumanisation was permanent. For hundreds of years, Queen and King gave it theological justification. How any form of malevolence can be given theological credibility is surely a contradiction in terms, but this was, and increasing numbers of people became rich on the back of it. Their ‘bling’ – visible signs of oppressive activity – became increasingly voluminous.
It was evil. In the master’s house or on the master’s plantation field, the enslaved were forced to serve their masters. The slightest whiff of independence, such as a desire to read or write, would be met with the worst type of punishment: whipping. Marriage, the most natural and profoundest expression of love, was prohibited. And, as for children, even they could not be guaranteed a safe home with their parents. A mother, whose privilege it was to give birth, still had no rights over her child. It belonged to the system – The Empire. Her child’s destiny lay firmly in the hands of its slave master; it was he who possessed the power to relocate a Black child at whim; to prolong or curtail its life; to grant freedom or what felt like eternal incarceration.
Despite its long time span, its legacy still lives on. Like it or not, we are largely informed and shaped by its past. It is impossible, I think, for us not to be affected by it, even if the consequences are, according to some, negligible. We are, each and every one of us, influenced by our history. The collective stories and experiences of previous generations feed, often unwittingly, into our unconscious humanity. We might yearn to extricate ourselves from aspects of our history, but the dissonant and jarring noises of the past have a way of inadvertently influencing our collective trajectories and individual narratives. The history of slavery is no different; it has left its mark. Its economic and social footprint continues to hover over parts of the Caribbean.
Now with all that has been said – and there is so much more that can be said about the pernicious and degrading nature of slavery – this is among the most important: I am delighted that a coalition of Caribbean countries has unveiled its demands for reparations from Britain and other European countries. Somehow, the benefactors of slavery need to, at the very least, attempt to atone for the incalculable damage they have inflicted on vulnerable communities. Their desire for absolute domination over their slaves and its actualisation has damaged generations of Black people. Its residue continues to cast a heavy shadow. Naturally, I too am aware that reparations alone cannot assuage past guilt, completely repair legacy, or placate its victims, but they are a contributory factor and a significant one at that. Importantly too, the concept of reparations has its roots in the Bible, for example, the story of Zacchaeus. In Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus, the ethic of reparations is loud and clear: Zacchaeus is expected to ‘give back’ what he has wrongly taken, in the hope that this will lead to him being reconciled with those he has exploited.
There are many who attribute blame for the suffering of the enslaved onto previous generations. This, they argue, absolves present and successive generations from guilt, the need to say ‘Sorry’ and from making appropriate amends. The theological term for this is repentance. Directly responsible or not, that White British people have handsomely benefited from slavery, calls for reparations to be made. For, at its height, the trading of Africans generated vast sums of money for Britain. Even when slavery reached its lowest ebb, Britain was still making huge sums of money, much of it invested in making Britain ‘great’. It is also important to remember that the greatest export of slavery, as Robert Beckford reminds us, is racism. The twin evils of slavery and racism have left plenty of carnage in their wake.
Therefore, an apology is a good start, but it is just a start. Platitudes and rhetoric are not enough. The damage inflicted on Black people over hundreds of years has been nothing less than calamitous. As a result, words and concrete action should somehow converge and not diverge. In short, the Caribbean islands deserve financial recompense. The amount is clearly debatable. What the islands do with it is equally debatable, but financial recompense is indisputable. The recent reparations project, embarked upon by some of the leaders of the Caribbean states, is an applaudable piece of strategic work, with masses of theological resonance. This courageous pursuit of justice needs to be supported by our churches, and in kind by the British Government and other governments that have amassed a fortune on the back of Black people.