Barbados may give energy to reparations case, which is as much about politics as money

Slaves cutting sugarcane on the island of Antigua, 1823. Photo by British Library on Unsplash

I was reminded of a Financial Times piece on reparations (paywall) when I heard that the prime minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, will be delivering a keynote address on reparations at next month’s State of the Black World Conference in Baltimore, Maryland. (Click here to read my 2014 National piece on reparations for the Caribbean.)

The FT piece, by Stephen Bush, used an heirloom – a silver tea set from the family farm in South Africa – as a metaphor for the whole testy issue of who should pay for historical injustice.

The unanswerable moral argument for reparations, Mr Bush noted, is that “on average, the family with the silver tea set is going to be richer and more successful than the family that mined the silver. No amount of hard work or good luck is going to close the gap — only some form of redistributive action is going to cut it”.


This is likely to be the focus of the conference, which Ms Mottley will attend alongside Ghana’s President Nana Addo Akufo-Addo. The meeting’s theme is Global Africans Rising, Empowerment Reparations and Healing and it wants reparations to be the “human rights issue of the 21st century”.

Can it? Will it?

Indeed, the moral argument for reparations has become increasingly unanswerable in the very many decades since the question was raised.

As Cambridge PhD sociology candidate Mohammed Elnaiem points out in this interesting piece, the international movement for reparations is marked by a thick interwebbing of links. The CARICOM reparations commission was set up by 12 Caribbean states to demand state-level reparations from countries that benefited from the enslavement of their ancestors. Under the leadership of the African Caribbean Reparations & Resettlement Alliance (ACRRA), the people of the Virgin Islands have long fought for reparations from Denmark for decades. ACRRA itself came into being in the presence of Dorothy Lewis, a co-founder of the National Coalition of Blacks in North America, which took the reparations agenda “from the streets into the halls of power”, Mr Elnaiem writes. He adds that the reparations case was preached by parliamentarians in the Caribbean, advocated (paywall) by Nigerian politician Chief Abiola, “who would have become president had he not faced a coup” and it has been demanded by ex-slaves and kept alive by their descendants.

In this century, there is new momentum for the reparations movement and Ms Mottley’s intervention may spur things on. She has intellectual heft and energy. More to the point, she has great determination. Remember, she led Barbados to its transition from monarchy to republic just three years after her 2018 election as prime minister.

There is likely to be new heat and light on the reparations issue as a result of Ms Mottley’s new role at the heart of an overarching movement, which forms an unbroken link between the Caribbean, Africa and America.

Also read:

Britain’s new Carolean age is beset by the unfinished business of history

Gambia’s case on behalf of the Rohingyas underlines shared humanity not just Muslim concerns

Acknowledging the past is key to closing a reparations deal for the Caribbean

Slavery and African-Americans: Without the first, the second would not exist