Garveyism, Black Power, and the Intellectual History of the CARICOM Reparations Case

I was recently looking through scans of The Blackman, a periodical published by Marcus Garvey Jr., son of the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, from the late 1960s through the early 1970s.1 As one would expect, The Blackman is an important source for researchers interested in the role that Marcus Garvey’s ideas played in the intellectual history of the Black Power movement in Jamaica and the wider Commonwealth Caribbean; the paper was in large part dedicated to analyzing contemporary Jamaican political and economic issues through a Garveyite lens,demonstrating how Garveyism had an enduring relevance to the subjects of (neo)colonialism and the targets of white supremacy, while always keeping an eye on the broader stakes of the global Black struggle.

Cover of The Blackman
Cover of The Blackman

An article in the August 1972 issue of The Blackman—one of the last, if not possibly the final issue of the paper—caught my eye because it dealt with one of the most central aspects of Garveyism, that of repatriation of Blacks from Jamaica to Africa (In this article, Garvey, Jr. limits his scope to the Jamaican context). Part of Garvey, Jr.’s argument is that the costs of repatriation should be deferred through financial reparations paid by Great Britain to Jamaicans in compensation for the wealth and labor robbed from them through slavery and colonialism.

Currently, there are two distinct campaigns being made for reparations being made on the part of Black people in the Americas; one by African-Americans against the United States, and one by Blacks in the Caribbean against European nations that participated in slavery, the slave trade and colonialism. Since 2014, the question of compensating African-Americans for the enduring effects of slavery and Jim Crow has gained increasing attention thanks in large part to the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates,2 whose call for reparations (all too briefly) became an issue in the Democratic presidential nomination campaign.3

This most recent American reparations debate has unfolded alongside a campaign on the part of Caribbean nations to pursue the European imperialist powers for reparations payable to the West Indian people for four hundred years of slavery and colonialism. In 2014, the CARICOM nations approved a ten-point plan “to achieve reparatory justice for the victims of genocide, slavery, slave trading, and racial apartheid.” The Caribbean Reparations Commission has charged Britain, the Netherlands, France, and “potentially other nations who profited from the slave trade” with a number of human rights offences including racial apartheid and genocide, and have set forth a list of demands including a full formal apology, the funding of development and technology transfer programmes to make up for centuries of European extraction from the region, the cancellation of the international debts of the CARICOM nations and a programme to facilitate the repatriation and resettlement of the descendants of displaced Africans to Africa. 4

Sir Hillary Beckles
Sir Hillary Beckles

The Chairman of the Reparations Committee is Sir Hilary Beckles, a prominent historian of the West Indies who has written extensively about topics including slavery, gender and cricket; he is currently serving as Vice-Chancellor of The University of the West Indies. Beckles traces the intellectual history of the West Indian reparations movement to Eric Williams’s landmark 1944 text Capitalism and Slavery, in which the Trinidadian scholar did not call for reparations, but did “suggest that Britain’s magnificent, enviable industrial civilization emerged from the foul waters of colonial slavery.”5 The Williams thesis builds on the analysis that C.L.R. James, Williams’s former teacher, made of the role of the capital created by enslaved Africans in making possible the social conditions of the French Revolution in his 1938 history of the Hatian Revolution, The Black Jacobins.6

Eric Williams
Eric Williams

Beckles notes that an important obstacle facing the Caribbean reparations campaign is resistance on the part of Britain to facing its history as a slaving nation; he argues that the “shame, guilt and awkwardness” felt by the British people in reaction to being confronted with their history of slavery “have conspired to produce the deafening denial and solemn silence” that must be overcome as “a precondition for the actualization of the process called conciliatory reparations.” Beckles credits the work of the UNESCO Slave Route Project, where he serves as director of the Scientific Committee, with raising British awareness of the role of slavery in British history. 7

If Beckles and UNESCO are addressing a reluctant audience with lessons about the horrors of slavery and the need to settle the debts incurred by the British, in 1972 Marcus Garvey Jr. was addressing a readership that regularly engaged with the history of slavery in the West Indies in papers like The Blackman and Abeng, where Caribbean slavery and Black resistance to it were regular subjects of historical analysis and were often deployed as analogies to explain contemporary racism and neo-imperialist extraction from the region.

Unlike the CARICOM call for reparations, which includes repatriation as one element of a plan that is largely focused on using reparation payments as a way to rehabilitate West Indian economies and societies, Garvey, Jr. frames reparations as part of a plan for the mass repatriation of Jamaicans to Africa. Garvey, Jr. claims over half a trillion dollars as a reasonable sum—such an amount would be “more than adequate to finance the repatriation of the Africans of Jamaica, and even leave a bit over to help those who elect to remain in [Jamaica].” 8 The amount that Garvey, Jr. arrives at is based on taking the amount of money Britain paid to slave owners at emancipation to compensate them for their lost “property” as a basis for calculating the financial value of the work done by the enslaved and adding annual compound interest of 6% from the day of emancipation to the 1970s. He notes that, as he is not claiming any compensation for “the physical and mental suffering of our ancestors during the period of enslavement,” the amount he is demanding is a “conservative” one.

Like Beckles, Garvey Jr. roots a claim for reparations in the Williams thesis, arguing that “Liverpool, Bristol, Portsmouth and other British towns were built up out of the slave trade” and “the profits from slave trading gave Britain an early lead in the Industrial Revolution.” 9 That said, it is noteworthy that he does not credit Williams for the argument (he does credit C.L.R. James when he quotes descriptions of the conditions endured by slaves from The Black Jacobins). This reluctance to name Williams while drawing on his intellectual work perhaps speaks to the contradictory position the Trinidadian scholar and political leader sometimes occupied within the West Indian Black Power movement, where his intellectual work was a touchstone in the development of critiques of neocolonialism, while he was often vilified for becoming an agent of that same neocolonialism as a national leader.

Obviously, I have only begun to scratch the surface of the intellectual history of West Indian demands for reparations, but as I learn more, I see it as a topic that can reveal much about the development of Caribbean radical thought in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The centrality of Garveyite touchstones like repatriation and ideas originally advanced by figures such as James and Williams—that slavery and the slave trade made possible the development of modern European economies and societies—to Black Power-era demands for reparations and to institutionalized attempts to secure reparations like the CARICOM case speaks to the enduring relevance of earlier expressions of Caribbean radical thought not only during the Black Power era, but also in our own time.

  1. Many thanks to my friend and colleague Richard Mares, Ph.D. candidate in History at Michigan State University, for sharing the scans with me.
  2. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic, June 2014; “Slavery Made America.” The Atlantic, June 24, 2014; “Home Is Where the Hatred Is.” The Atlantic, June 26, 2014.
  3. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Why Precisely Is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations?,” The Atlantic, January 19, 2016.
  4. The complete list of charges and demands made by the Caribbean Reparations Commission may be found on the website of the commission’s legal advisors, Leigh Day.
  5. Hilary Beckles, Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Slavery and Native Genocide (Kingston, University of the West Indies Press, 2013), 4.
  6. C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, 2nd ed. (New York: Vintage, 1989), 47.
  7. Beckles, 5-6.
  8. Marcus Garvey Jr., “The Case for Repatriation,” The Blackman 4, no. 1 (August 1972), 8.
  9. Garvey, 9.
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Paul Hébert

Paul Hébert is an independent scholar who received his PhD from the University of Michigan. He is currently working on a book manuscript based on his dissertation, “A Microcosm of the General Struggle: Black Thought and Activism in Montreal, 1960–1969.” Follow him on Twitter @DrPaulHebert.