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Emancipation without reparations is hollow

By Patrick Robinson

Patrick Robinson has been a Jamaican member of the International Court of Justice since 2015. Prior to this he was formerly the President of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. This week’s column, published to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Demerara Slave Rebellion, is the text of his address delivered on 23 August at the Mayor of London’s Celebration of Emancipation. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the International Court of Justice.

May I at the outset congratulate Mr. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, for hosting this milestone event. I also wish to thank the Community Advisory Group.

I must also commend your choice of the theme for this year, “Fighting Slavery’s Legacy Of Racism through Transformative Education, Black Resistance-Memory, Power, Restorative Justice, the Future”. This is a very powerful and inspiring theme and one which must be actioned. Today we celebrate the formal liberation of the enslaved from Transatlantic Chattel Slavery (TCS). I describe the liberation as formal because, as we all know, the discriminatory treatment of the enslaved, which was the essence of their chattelization, continued after emancipation, and is readily witnessed today in the treatment of many of the descendants of the enslaved.

Let us pause to remember the enslaved, who fought and gave their lives for their freedom. I recall Sam Sharpe, the Baptist Deacon, who led the Christmas War in Jamaica in 1831, which was a significant factor in the decision to abolish slavery in 1834. Let us also remember the descendants of the enslaved who fought to give meaning to that freedom. I recall Marcus Mosiah Garvey of Jamaica, who, in the words of Martin Luther King, instilled in Black people a sense of their “dignity and destiny”.   Let us use education to memorialize the courage and resilience that were the hallmark of the Black Resistance to TCS.

Let us be clear about what it is that the enslaved were emancipated from. Let us be clear about the features of the grotesque wrong of Transatlantic Chattel Slavery.

The transatlantic chattel enslavement of African people is the starkest example of man’s inhumanity to man in the history of humankind. It was:

–              Unmatched for its duration of over 400 years;

–              Unmatched for its barbarity and dehumanizing characteristics —demonstrated in the 18th century by the Englishman Thomas Thistlewood, whose favourite punishment for an enslaved runaway from his plantation in Jamaica was to coerce one of the enslaved to defecate in the mouth of the runaway, whose mouth was then gagged for about 3 hours;

–              Unmatched for its sheer scale, demonstrated, first, by the length of the pernicious triangular crossing from Great Britain to Africa, then to the Caribbean, and to the Americas in the infamous Middle Passage (in which over a million died) and back to Britain, a distance of over 12,000 miles or 19,300 kilometers; and, second, by

–              the number of persons enslaved—well over 15 million, according to Nigerian scholar Joseph Inikori, or about 19 million, including those born into slavery, according to the Brattle Report;  and

–              Unmatched for its profitability—manifested in the fact that in 1774 the average white person in Jamaica was 52 times wealthier than the average white person in England and Wales.

The chattelization of Africans had seven phases: capture and sale of Africans in Africa; the trek to the slave dungeons on the coast and ships in the harbor; internment in those dungeons and ships; the Middle Passage and the passage to Brazil; sale on the auction block in the Americas and the Caribbean; work on the plantations or elsewhere; and the concomitant trade in slaves. I must tell you that the work on the plantations was so rigorous that the average lifespan of the African after commencement of work was between 7 and 10 years.

Every phase of the chattelization of Africans was wrongful conduct under international law at that time.  The European dichotomous approach, which approved of Transatlantic Chattel Slavery in European colonies but condemned its practice in European countries, was itself a breach of the normative, general principle of humanity that called for respect for the inherent dignity and worth of every human being, whether African, European, Asian, or any other nationality. The United Kingdom and the USA, both slave holding States, acknowledged as much when in 1814 they concluded the Treaty of Ghent, in which they agreed that the trade in slaves was “irreconcilable with the principles of humanity and justice”; one year later, in the 1815 Vienna Declaration, eight European States, including the United Kingdom, France, Portugal and Spain, all slave holding States, also agreed that “men of all ages considered that the trade in slaves was repugnant to the principles of humanity”. Ladies and gentlemen, having reminded you of the scale, horrors and illegality of Transatlantic Chattel Slavery, It must be clear that emancipation without reparations for the enslaved and their descendants to fight slavery’s legacy of racism was hollow. Reparations for the unlawful practice of TCS are required by international law and are necessary for the completion of emancipation. 

Mr. Mayor, ladies and gentlemen, at this point I would like to share with you a recent Report that quantifies the reparations for Transatlantic Chattel Slavery.

In 2020, as the Honorary President of the American Society of International Law (ASIL), I proposed that the Society convene an International Symposium on the Lawfulness of Transatlantic Chattel Slavery. This Symposium concluded that the practice of Transatlantic Chattel Slavery was unlawful. Naturally, this conclusion led to another symposium, this time on Reparations for Transatlantic Chattel Slavery. Quantification of the reparations due was carried out by the Brattle Group of Valuators, a body of highly qualified and expert economists.  The Brattle Report is historic because for the first time there is available a scientific and well-argued quantification of the reparations that are due in respect of the universe of Transatlantic Chattel Slavery, that is, in all the countries in which it was carried out, in the Caribbean, Central America, South America, and North America.  The Report quantifies the reparations that are due in respect of over 30 States and overseas territories in which TCS was carried out. The Report also quantifies the reparations that are due in respect of the post-enslavement period. The total sum of reparations to be paid by all former slave holding States in respect of the period of enslavement is about 107 trillion US Dollars; in respect of the post-enslavement period, the total sum of reparations to be paid is about 22 trillion US Dollars, making a grand total of about a 130 trillion US Dollars. The figures are high. For example, the United Kingdom is required to pay as reparations for TCS in 14 countries, the sum of about 24 trillion US Dollars; of that sum the UK is required to pay about 9.5 trillion US Dollars in respect of Jamaica. The reparation sums are high for several reasons, including the very long period of hundreds of years over which the calculations have been made at a particular rate of interest, and the fact that reparations have never been paid. My colleagues and I – members of an Advisory Committee that had been established –  spent a long time considering these sums and ultimately decided that they should not be changed because they accurately reflect the enormity of the grotesque and unlawful practice of TCS. The high figures constitute a clear, unvarnished statement of the grossness of the practice of Transatlantic Chattel Slavery. Nonetheless, the Brattle Quantification Report’s Introduction – necessary for interpreting and applying the Report –  makes clear that it remains within the sovereign will of a victim State to determine what sum, other than the compensation to which it is entitled, it will accept as reparations. This is a very consequential finding. It means that, for example, it is open to Jamaica to determine that it will accept as reparations from the United Kingdom a sum other than the compensation of 9.5 trillion Dollars set out in the Report. I should also let you know that two of my colleagues on the Advisory Committee are some of your own, Professor Robert Beckford, of the University of Winchester, who in 2005 produced the seminal documentary, ‘ The Empire Pays Back’ on reparations owed by the UK for TCS in the Caribbean; there is also Barrister at Law Priscellia Robinson who is here with us tonight.

Mr. Mayor, ladies and gentlemen, I commend the Report to you for its value and credibility. In that regard I remind you that the Brattle Report on Quantification of Reparations and its Introduction follow the earlier finding that the practice of TCS was unlawful.

This Report may be found on websites of the University of the West Indies, Cornell University, and the American Society of International Law. The Report and its Introduction provide a sound basis for resolving the question of reparations for Transatlantic Chattel Slavery by the convening of a meeting between former slave holding States and victim States of TCS.

In light of the earlier analysis of the incidents of TCS, I certainly endorse the relationship that your theme makes between racism and slavery. One of the most effective ways of fighting slavery’s legacy of racism is to strive for justice through the payment of reparations to the descendants of the enslaved, whether they are in the United Kingdom, in the Caribbean, in Central America, in South America or in North America; by justice, I mean fairness under the law. Even though the Brattle Quantification Report and its Introduction are confined to the Caribbean and the Americas, it is difficult to understand why descendants of the enslaved who are in the United Kingdom would not also be entitled to reparations for TCS. Once a State carries out a wrongful act international law mandates it to pay reparations. TCS is such an act. The fight for justice in response to slavery’s legacy of racism therefore calls for reparations. The payment of reparations is inherent in the struggle against slavery’s legacy of racism.

Reparations for TCS are for the benefit of the descendants of the enslaved. Reparations should be used for developmental purposes to provide services, in education, housing and other areas, of which the descendants have been deprived through slavery’s legacy of racism.

While access to services in all areas of national life is important, I agree with the stress placed by the theme on education. I am also attached to the reference to POWER in the theme. Reparation funds should be used to fight slavery’s legacy of racism by educating the descendants of the enslaved and the descendants of the enslavers about the history of TCS. Empowerment of these two groups with knowledge is necessary to combat the revisionist approach to TCS that is evident in many parts of the world, including the United Kingdom. Education can provide knowledge that is transformational,  and constitutes POWER in the fight against racism.

And what about the future, so appropriately highlighted in your theme. Here I wish to draw attention to the plight of the Windrush Generation, a people who in 1948 answered the UK’s call for help, came to the UK from the Caribbean and have given tremendous service to the country. Over the next two decades many more came to the UK.  It has been argued that they have been subjected to discriminatory treatment that reflects slavery’s legacy of racism. The ill treatment of the Windrush Generation would seem to bring to mind what a great English literary figure called, “ingratitude more strong than traitors’ arms”. I hope that the problems of the Windrush Generation will be addressed.

Mr. Mayor, ladies and gentlemen, we must not falter in the quest for reparations for TCS. For it is only when reparations have been paid that the justice called for by international law would have been achieved. Slavery’s legacy of racism calls for justice through reparations and this must be achieved, without question.

To access the Brattle report on Reparations for Transatlantic Chattel Slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean, see

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