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Commentary: Climate change and reparations

Tuesday, 17 September 2013 12:00 Written by  font size decrease font size decrease font size increase font size increase font size

By Demion McTair

It may sound like a strange combination; but Caribbean territories pushing for reparations for slavery, using climate change as a major factor, may well have a stronger case.

Professor Beckles, presenting his case here in St Vincent for reparations for slavery, said, “The British made the most money out of slavery and the slave trade…. And, importantly, they knew how to convert slave profits into industrial profits.”

What industrial profits was Dr Hilary Beckles referring to?

Was he trying to say that slavery was inextricably linked to British industrialization in some way?

Well – this is no new theory: in fact, it is a theory which has been raised by the late Trinidadian scholar and former prime minister, Dr Eric Williams, who in his 1944 book “Capitalism and Slavery”, argued that profits from slavery ‘fertilized’ many branches of the metropolitan economy and set the scene for England’s Industrial Revolution.

“His thesis has focused decades of debate and controversy. It correctly identified the very intimacy in 18th – century Britain between making money from slavery on one hand, and the financing of British capitalist development on the other,” says Robin Blackburn, who published a BBC article on the issue.

It is also a thesis that many scholars in Britain have been trying to avoid – stating that the evidence and insights presented by Williams are ‘highly contested’, while at the same time admitting that it remains influential, according to Professor David Richardson, who reviewed the book “Slavery, Atlantic Trade and the British Economy, 1660 – 1800”.

Even without Williams, Beckles and other scholars’ publications and insights on the issue, it is undeniable that slavery is linked to British industrialization and that Britain benefited tremendously from Atlantic slavery.

This point being established, the question arises; has the industrial revolution rapidly intensified climate change and global warming?

Scientific evidence has proven that indeed, since the industrial revolution and as a consequence of the industrial revolution, human activity has increased the amount of green house gases in the atmosphere to a marked extent.

The United Nations secretary general Ban Ki Moon has said that small islands developing states are very much at risk due to rising sea temperatures, rising sea levels, coral bleaching, more intense storms, hurricanes and other perils as scientists have said that global temperature will continue to rise in this millennium.

We don’t have to look too far to see these effects here in the Caribbean already.

This reality shows that slavery has given the Caribbean a “double whammy” of social, political and economic hurdles to our developmental; hurdles to which no definitive end can be seen.

On the one hand, we have to live with the prevailing effects of slavery on our modern civilization; while on the other hand, we have to deal with the effects of climate change brought on by the industrial revolution.

A revolution, largely powered by the profits made from slavery!

Some may argue: well how is this so – when it has been shown that Britain produces less than 10 percent of global carbon emissions at present, and it is countries like India, China and the US that produce the most carbon emissions – thus accelerating climate change.

It therefore must be highlighted that Britain started the industrial revolution; one fertilized by Atlantic slavery and one which spread throughout the world and particularly, in countries once colonized by Britain. These countries are; the US, India and China, who all gained their independence from Britain and who under Britain, were largely industrialized.

Did Britain colonize the Caribbean for its resources and industrialize those larger countries for free?

So in essence, our ancestors got nothing from slavery and by extension the industrial revolution, and today we, the descendents, continue to pay that price.

It’s like putting persons to dig graves against their will as you seek some economic benefit from the activity, but the persons who are forcefully digging these graves are not aware that their great and great-great grand children will end up being forcefully buried alive in those very graves.

We are therefore not advocating for reparations for the industrial revolution. We are advocating for reparations for our ancestors’ unwarranted and uncompensated involvement in ‘fertilizing’ the industrial revolution via forced labour and oppression: a historical wrong to which we face many social, political and economic resultant problems up to today.

Furthermore, we need compensation for the perils that now face all of us, the descendents of slaves, due to the effects of climate change; a phenomenon accelerated by the greed-driven industrial revolution, and which has put us in a labyrinth of problems, thus creating an uncertain future.

Finally, for those descendents of slaves and all in the creolized Caribbean who are still ambivalent about reparations; wake up!

This is beyond payment and apology.

This is about our quest for survival and longevity as occupants of these small islands developing states; a quest started by our ancestors and one which colonialism threatened to stop with genocide, slavery and inhumanity.

We need to continue this quest for survival today, fighting a new battle in an old long-standing war, designed to destroy our sovereign right to freely and safely occupy these islands we call home.

To me, that is something worth fighting for.
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