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Slavery Reparations: The difficult flowering of an unconstructive demand

On the 13th of December 2017 Ana Lucia Araujo came to Leiden to discuss the long history of the demand for reparations for slavery. In the basement of the Van Stockum bookstore she presented her recent book on this issue and discussed the research project with Karwan Fatah-Black.

Ana Lucia Araujo (Twitter)

The meeting was hosted by Nancy Jouwe and organized as part of the NWO-Veni research project 'Paths through Slavery' which examines how enslaved people in the Dutch Atlantic found ways through and out of slavery in adverse circumstances. Beneath the surface of the sometimes toxic exchanges regarding the legacy of slavery in Dutch society smolders the question of reparations. Will admittance of 'guilt' by the Dutch state lead to demands for financial reparations?  

From individual to national demands

If the wrongs of slavery should be remedied is hardly a contentious issue nowadays. The demand for financial compensation on the other hand seems to be one that only a few dare to discuss. The UN's initiative for a Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024) explicitly posits that slavery, the slave trade, colonialism, apartheid and genocide have a legacy that needs to be faced. To the question if actual financial compensation should be paid the response is far more negative. Across the Atlantic World raising the issue of righting the wrongs of slavery through financial compensation triggers strong opposition from governments and black activists alike. Activists often feel the demand for reparations detracts from their struggle against institutional racism and practical paths to empowerment. Still, the demand for financial reparations does not go away. Ana Lucia Araujo did not let the widespread uneasiness with the question of reparations deter her from facing the issue head on and write a study of the difficult flowering of the demands for reparations in the United States, Brazil and Cuba.

No demands for financial compensation for slavery have ever been granted. Tracing case by case we see that almost everywhere slave owners were compensated by governments for the loss of their ‘property’. Incidentally some people who were regarded as being ‘wrongfully enslaved’ did manage to receive indemnities as well. People who had been regarded as legally enslaved remained unsuccessful in staking their claim. Their individual demands made to slave owners characterize the initial period immediately after the abolition of slavery. Quite often, these demands are not framed as compensation for the time one had been enslaved, but rather as a request to alleviate hardship after slavery. This was also the form of the first collective movement for reparations that asked governments to intervene. Former slaves requested pensions from the US government. These were never granted and the movement was repressed. As the last people who had lived in slavery began to pass away, so did the request for pensions. Reparations became increasingly a rhetorical tool of activists to show that the demands of their movement were only modest, since they did not (yet) raise the issue of what was actually due to the descendants of the enslaved.

The aftermath of the Second World War and especially the Holocaust would propel the demand forward. It both emboldened reparations activists to see how formal apologies were made to Jews and actual financial reparations paid to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and other groups who had fallen victim to wrongful treatment. The great breakthrough came in the nineteen nineties when the social and political lessons of the Second World War were translated into policy. The idea that social, religious and ethnic groups within nation states were in need of protection gained currency, offering reparationists a larger platform and hearing than any time before. Also the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it the demise of the international Communist movement opened space internationally to frame demands outside the ideological deadlock of the Cold War. In the 21st century states have begun to taken up the question of reparations transnationally, making it an issue of international relations, far removed from the initial requests made by former slaves to their former masters.

Reparations in the Netherlands

After discussing the findings of prof. Araujo, the first copy of the book was offered to Antoin Deul, director of the Netherlands Institute for the Dutch History of Slavery and its Legacy (NiNsee). Deul thankfully accepted the book and in his acceptance speech stressed the importance of the discussion for the Netherlands. Deul told the audience that in the nineteenth century during the parliamentary discussion regarding the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands, the suggestion had been made to pay out sixty guilders to all those who were going to be freed. The idea was quickly dismissed. Reparations are conceptualized in broad terms by NiNsee. They choose to argue for official recognition of slave history, medical programs to treat ailments that are specific to descendants of the enslaved, as well as education programs and national governmental support for a museum of slavery and a heritage institution. As the evening showed, the harsh demand for direct financial compensation is not regarded as a constructive option, it does however open the space for talking about symbolic, social and other forms of reparations.

Text: Karwan Fatah-Black
Photos: Twitter

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