Wed | Jun 16, 2021

Verene Shepherd | Long arm of reparation movement in Jamaica

Published:Sunday | June 21, 2020 | 12:17 AM

On Monday, June 15, 2020, on the anniversary of his death (in 1991), eminent scholars gathered virtually in a public seminar to celebrate the life and work of W. Arthur Lewis. Most know that Lewis was born in St Lucia on January 23, 1915, of Antiguan parents; that he attended the London School of Economics (LSE) to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees; worked at LSE until 1948; held academic positions also at the Universities of Manchester and Princeton, and as an economist, became famous for his prescriptions for the industrialisation of the West Indies.

Lewis envisaged industrialisation as a process requiring the simultaneous development of agriculture and industry. Industry would absorb the surplus labour emanating from agriculture, allowing the sector to increase its productivity and standard of living. The Caribbean is yet to fully implement that formula. Lewis also served as an economic adviser to numerous African and Caribbean governments; was a past vice chancellor of The University of the West Indies (UWI); was knighted in 1963 for his contributions to economics; was the first president of the IDB; and was a Nobel Laureate (sharing the prize for Economics with Theodore Schultz) in 1979.

What might be less well known is that as a young 24-year-old, he was a passionate advocate for reparation for colonial wrongs. Indeed, those at the symposium crowned him the father of the modern reparation movement, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, explaining that Lewis located reparation within the framework of economic development, which influenced the CARICOM Reparation Commission to conceptualise the Ten-Point Action Plan for reparatory justice within the framework of a development package for the Caribbean. I bet that came as a surprise to many, even those who read Lewis’ Labour in the West Indies as undergraduate students or later on in life.

But it was Sir Arthur who drew to the British attention in 1939 that the 200 years of free labour it extracted from enslaved people in the Caribbean was “ a debt” that must be repaid. Lewis wrote this in the aftermath of the 1930s labour protests in the Caribbean and ahead of the publication of the Moyne Commission Report, grounded in the belief that post-war economic policies in the Caribbean could not be done in isolation of Britain’s substantial financial input. He justified the reasons for which the Caribbean was entitled to economic input by Great Britain by insisting that “… it is the British who by their action in past centuries are responsible for the presence in these islands of the majority of their inhabitants, whose ancestors as slaves contributed millions to the wealth of Great Britain, a debt which the British have yet to repay”.

The demand that Britain should participate in the development of the Caribbean was expressed by some who gave testimony before the Moyne Commission (including Amy Bailey and Alexander Bustamante); by Eric Williams (e.g. in his Capitalism and Slavery, which has served reparation activists well ); and later, by Sir Ellis Clarke, the Trinidadian government’s United Nations representative to a subcommittee of the Committee on Colonialism in 1964, who stated clearly that“an administering power … is not entitled to extract for centuries all that can be got out of a colony and when that has been done to relieve itself of its obligations ... . Justice requires that reparation be made to the country that has suffered the ravages of colonialism ... .”

Ellis Clarke, like Williams and Lewis, was fervent in his belief that Britain could not just fob off Caribbean people with independence on the cheap. He and people of his generation may not have all used the word “reparation”, but they left it in no doubt that Britain was responsible for the colonial mess and had a responsibility to return to the scene of her crime and clean up the colonial mess.


Of course, the call for reparatory justice in whatever language used by Lewis, Williams, and those of their generation had long been supported by enslaved Africans through their resistance activities, including anti-slavery wars and by freed people who struggled for social justice in the aftermath of the unjust Emancipation Act. These previous waves of articulation and activism inspired the entry into the movement of the committed Rastafari, civil society actors, scholar activists, individual politicians, and since 2013, by CARICOM heads as a collective. Together, they have brought us to where we have reached. But the region still needs the economic development fund Bustamante, Norman Manley, Lewis,and others demanded. The offer instead by Britain to build a prison is again dividing us while we should be focused on the fund to clean up the colonial mess, such as the massive slum cleaning and illiteracy the Empire handed over to the nation. And we need all hands on deck. What we do not need is a fracturing of the movement by the claiming of rights to the movement by some and the “dissing” of the contributions by others.

In this regard, the June 12, 2020, virtual History Education Forum hosted by the Centre for Reparation Research (CRC) at The UWI in which there appeared to have been some divide between the survivors of native genocide and the survivors of African enslavement will have to be mended. The differential roles we play in the reparation movement must be honoured and respected. The example set by the CRC, working seamlessly with national committees, headed by government ministers (like Jamaica’s Minister Olivia Grange) and Chairs across political divides is a best practice. The committees/councils/commissions they lead right across the Caribbean are themselves bi-partisan. The goal is reparatory justice.

Going back even further, there was no discourse in Jamaica immediately after the 1831-32 Emancipation war as to whether Baptists or Moravian activists should be punished or after the Morant Bay massacre in 1865 as to whether the contribution of William Gordon was greater than Paul Bogle’s in terms of the mobilisation and education of the justice movement even though we hear that in contemporary times. What was significant was that the British government took them all to the gallows for challenging its imperial right to own the country. And the truth is that if either Gordon or Bogle had said and done then what we know today of their contributions, they would have suffered the same fate, with a rope disabling their capacity to breathe.

Which brings me to the most recent discourse with respect to the real or active contribution of former Prime Minister P.J. Patterson and Minister of Labour and National Security Lester Michael “Mike” Henry to the reparation movement. It appears to me as if this discourse falls within the colonial legacy of ‘divide and rule’ tactics that assured the colonisation of Jamaica for over 400 years despite the endemic and pervasive culture of resistance to oppression by the masses of people and runs the risk of internal fracture and the subversion of the general movement.


Both Patterson and Henry have made significant contributions to the reparatory justice movement, and neither should be discounted. In 1992, the year he became prime minister, Patterson discussed the issue of reparation with President Ibrahim Babangida and offered his support for a process that was in its infancy. He also held discussions on the issue of reparation with Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, who subsequently became chairman of the Eminent Persons Group established by the Organisation of African Unity in 1993 to pursue reparation. Under Patterson’s watch, Jamaica participated in the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, held in South Africa in 2001, a conference significant in advancing the international debate on reparation.

Like Henry, he backed President’s Aristide’s call on France for restitution of the monies extracted in exchange for the recognition of Haiti’s independence and consistently called on former colonial powers to respect the right to development, which debt cancellation would aid. Emancipation Park decked out in Ghanaian Adinkra symbols is an illustration of Patterson’s belief in iconographic decolonisation as was his support for and launch of the 2007 Bicentennial Committee (with its subcommittee on reparation) and the all-island education marathon by the JNBC (with public lectures by reparationists Randall Robinson and the late acclaimed Nigerian poet, Chinua Achebe) in an effort to reverse the discourse on Jamaican freedom that was popular in the UK, and even in some quarters in Jamaica, on exactly who had brought about the abolition of the transatlantic trade in Africans.

Patterson would pass the Bicentennial baton over to Portia Simpson Miller. But by that time, plans were already advanced under his watch to build public sites of memory to the victims of the slaver Zong and the 1831-32 Emancipation war led by Samuel Sharpe, later unveiled jointly by Bruce Golding and Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller; and an informal debate on reparation held at Gordon House chaired by then minister of tourism, entertainment and culture, Aloun Ndombet-Assamba and attended by Ambassador Dudley Thompson and members of the Bicentenary Committee. I recall Dudley Thompson calling for a National Reparation Commission, but that honour goes to pro-reparation stalwart Minister Mike Henry and Minister Olivia Grange, who, in 2009, established the National Commission on Reparation chaired by the late Profdessor Barry Chevannes.

Even out of power, Patterson found time to find ways to support the cause and gave a stirring keynote at the the Opening Ceremony of the Second Regional Conference on Reparation in Antigua and Barbuda in 2014, urging unity: “I implore all of us to see ourselves as working towards one aim, one destiny – the search for justice and repair of our societies … disfigured by colonisation; societies that continue to suffer the legacies of enslavement and native genocide. We need all hands on deck, wherever we are located.” He also urged the younger generation of Caribbean leaders, represented at that conference by Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, to “never let that [reparation] torch be extinguished”.

Just one year later, just like Mike Henry, he would publicly express his outrage at former UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who insulted Jamaicans by suggesting that we should move on and forget about slavery. In a Gleaner article of October 8, 2015, headlined “PJ Slams Cameron for stance on reparations”, he stated indignantly: “You have refused to apologise...yet your government has apologised to everyone else for horrid crimes. Are we not worthy of an apology or less deserving?” Recently, he suggested a plethora of responses that African and Caribbean governments must take to adequately respond to the current crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, some of which included the renewal of campaigns for reparative justice against slavery and its legacies for African people and people of African descent and debt relief, on the basis that - as has long been argued in the reparatory justice movement – our enslaved African ancestors and post-colonial governments in the Caribbean received no compensation and have been left, in an impoverished state, to deal with the colonial mess (i.e. environmental degradation, climate change, and inadequate social infrastructure) left by European colonial powers.


Henry, of course, woke us from our slumber when he, like Dudley Thompson, publicly demanded the repayment of the compensation money extracted from the region by the British government to pay planters at Emancipation and has consistently argued, in writing and in speeches, that the immorality of chattel enslavement by the British must be confronted. He has condemned the plight in which France put Haiti when it demanded reparation from that proud nation that took its independence; was a key member of the Jamaica reparation movement led by Barbara Blake Hanna after the Durban anti-racism conference in 2001; and initiated several debates in Parliament that ended with the bi-partisan motion giving the nation the go-ahead to seek reparation from Britain. He has supported repatriation and internal reparation for Rastafari and apologised as an individual for the Coral Gardens Massacre before the Government of Jamaica under PM Holness did so officially. He fearlessly confronted visiting British politicians like former PM Cameron and former UK Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott who stopped short of apologising for colonial wrongs on their visits to the region.

He has supported the CARICOM entry into the movement, attending the first ever regional reparation conference in St Vincent and the Grenadines in 2013, and, along with Minister Olivia Grange, established the first ever National Commission on Reparation in 2009, which each political party has reappointed though the composition may vary and the name changed from Commission to Council. Whether in power or out of power, he has given support to all reparation activities in Jamaica as well as to all reparation commissions/councils. His latest activist project is a petition that will see the country pursuing reparation all the way to the Privy Council against Queen Elizabeth II. Government duties may make his public lobbying appear sporadic recently, but he is “on the case” – always.

So, clearly, Patterson and Henry’s roles and functions have varied, reflecting their different public offices, personal and private styles, and national connections. But behind and before them, the movement exists as a powerful river heading to the ocean of success. The ability of oppressors to divide movements of resistance and pit one challenger against another has been effective in the past. We have the power to disrupt and interrupt that legacy, especially at a time when the Black Lives Matter Movement has done so much to reignite a global movement for black liberation and the demand for reparatory justice. Let us join hands across the political and ideological divide in the service of our ancestors and their descendants living with the legacies of colonialism. Even the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michele Bachelet, has urged countries at the special Human Rights Council Session on anti-racism to confront the legacy of slavery and colonialism and make amends for “centuries of violence and discrimination” through reparations, a call that has the potential to bring reconciliation to victims and perpetrators – if acted upon.

- Verene Shepherd is director of the Centre for Reparation Research, The University of the West Indies. Send feedback to