Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The Living Memories of Slavery

On the question of Grenadian Reparations
28 February 2023
by Dr Candia Mitchell Hall

The Concept of Reparations

The concept of Reparations is not new in the repertoire of Caribbean peoples. Due to the historical injustices of slavery, the descendant communities in the former slave colonies have had a strong reparations case for decades. In 2013, the Caribbean Community (Caricom) established the Caricom Reparations Commission (CRC) after Pro-Vice Chancellor of the UWI and Chair of the CRC Hilary Beckles published his ground-breaking work entitled Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide. As Beckles contends, Caribbean peoples “have a legal right to reparations claim” as a means to reconcile the past haunts of slavery with the persistent deprivation and struggles experienced by the descendent communities in their lived existence. Hence, reconciliation between the descendants of the enslaved and enslaver(s) is most paramount for reparatory justice to occur.

Trevelyan Reparations

More than a fortnight ago, very few Grenadians (myself included) knew who Laura Trevelyan was. Trevelyan is a British-American British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) journalist based in the US who was born in Islington, London. She is also a descendant of the aristocratic Trevelyan family of Britain who owned 6 estates in Grenada during slavery, namely, the sugar estates of Tempe, Simon, Requin, La Sagesse and Beausejour spanning the 3 parishes of St Andrew, St David, and St George across hundreds of acreages. In Grenada, on 5 February 2023, she would be catapulted from obscurity when the BBC published a striking editorial entitled “Wealthy UK Family Apologise in Grenada over Slave-Owning Past.” The editorial announced that the Trevelyan family will publicly apologise (both in written text and verbal communication) to the descendant community of Grenada for its role in enslaving a little over 1,000 enslaved Africans in Grenada in the 19th century.

In 1835, the Trevelyan family was awarded £34,000 (the equivalent of £3,476,564 in 2021) in compensation reparations for the “abolition” of Chattel Slavery and Black Emancipation. Based on the editorial, the Trevelyan Reparations would also include material recompense in the form of £100,000 or $EC325,000 to establish a community fund for economic development in Grenada and the Eastern Caribbean. Although the Grenada Reparations National Committee (GRNC) recognise the Trevelyan restitution as commendable, they contend that the material recompense is “a drop in the bucket” given the racialised atrocities, struggles, trauma, and horrors the enslaved peoples endured across time and space. However, they have also noted the possibilities this familial reparations provide as a means to encourage other slave-owning families to take the “bold step” and open the doors of reparations in Grenada and elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Trevelyan herself mused over the “inadequacy” of the reparations but hoped to be an example to other slave-holding families to apologise for the wrongs committed by her ancestors. In May 2022, Trevelyan visited the island for the first time to film a documentary of the same name (as the editorial), which to date has attracted over 30,000 views and over 630 comments from Grenadians at home, the Diaspora, and citizens of the Caribbean Civilisation.

Confronting Sites of Memory

According to Trevelyan, her rationale for visiting Grenada was to “confront the past and ask how it shapes the future,” especially within the context of the ongoing debates on reparations and reparatory justice in Grenada. The visit was facilitated by Dr Nicole Phillip Dowe, Vice Chair of the GNRC and Head of the UWI Open Campus in Grenada, and DC Campbell, the author of Winds of Fedon: A Grenada Novel. The tours comprised sites of slavery and memory, including Market Square, Fort Frederick, Carenage and estates. The physical representations of slavery’s brutalities (instruments of torture and control) brought to stark relief the draconian nature of “Chattel Slavery” and evoked feelings of horror and shame. Most importantly, the tour provided opportunities for Trevelyan to gauge the lingering legacies (living presence) of slavery like poverty, unemployment, lack of cultural institutions, health crises including chronic diseases, psychosocial, mental health issues, and lack of educational archives etc.

Public Narratives and Counter-Narratives

To be sure, the public discourse around reparations in Grenada has gained new currency since the Trevelyan editorial and documentary. A wave of responses emerged in different quarters of the nation, region and Diaspora, including newspaper articles, television, and social media platforms. The main focus of these discussions centred around for what the recompense would be used, who should be its custodians and how much the Trevelyan family is worth today. The debates largely signified a pro-reparationist ethos in Grenada as most Grenadians support this effort to make amends for slavery. Grenadians are unsettled by the horrors of slavery and agree that it was a crime against humanity. As the editorial would coincide with Grenadian Independence, a panel of local Grenadians on “Beyond the Headlines”, a Television programme on Grenada Broadcasting Network would commemorate the event with a discussion linking the unfinished business of liberation/freedom with Independence and Reparations. Chair of the GNRC Arley Gill would make the poignant argument that reparation is part of the process of freedom.

Nonetheless, the discourse would bring to the surface the complexities of the diasporic double consciousness of past colonised peoples by calls it made for the dismantling of symbolic titles like “Sir” etc.

Of course, this discourse would open up the possibility of airing concerns about our present constitutional systems of governance where the Royal family is Sovereign Head of State which is duly vested in the representative, the Governor General. This debate is fair enough, but it will also mean that Caribbean peoples will have to confront the present representative structures that govern us. In 2021, the people of Barbados relinquished its ties to the British Crown by pursuing the path of Republicanism which denounced the British Honour Systems and joined those who had forged ahead like the Republic of Dominica, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. As history cannot be un-done, all previous honours given under the former dispensation are presently retained. There is also a sense in which other colonised experiences are so indelible that they cannot be erased. Can we banish our family names (surnames), religion, sports or even language? How far are we willing to erase our own personal histories?

The Politics of Reparations

Regional discourse also emerged concerning the politics of reparations in the context of White heroisation. In other words, the Trevelyan Reparations were viewed as an attempt to heroise themselves, the former enslavers for publicly atoning for the wrongs of their ancestors hence shifting the focus from the injustices of slavery to the reparative act of recompense. Put another way, many critics view the Trevelyan compensation as an attention-seeking device to revel in the past exploits of slavery by apologising for their ancestors’ ill-deeds. But with this critique of these descendants, it begs the question of what are they do to with the skeletons in their ancestors’ closet. And what do we really want or hope to accomplish when we call for reparations?

A few critics also called for the revision/excise of the term “slave” for the more politically sensitive term “enslaved” as a means of consciously countering the erasure of the West Africans’ humanity under slavery. It has also been noted that the use of the term “slave” represents the sustained relations of domination between Whites and Blacks. In other words, the word conjures oppressive recollections that continue to demean the memory of the enslaved ancestors. However, it is difficult to prove the thinking of the Trevelyan family; it is easier to unpack the documentary to present some of its aesthetics of reparations and traces to/of slavery memory. The Trevelyan reparation adopted a sort of truth and reconciliation model whereby the offenders would admit/speak on behalf of their forebears by taking responsibility for their family’s dark history with slavery, confront the descendant communities and ask for forgiveness. But should reparations be pursued as nation states or collectively under Caricom? Was Slavery a national crisis or an act of the coloniser enslaving the West Africans who were dispersed across the Caribbean and Americas?

Closer to the end of the documentary, a sort of historical encounter/connection between enslaver and enslaved bridged the distance between history and time. As Laura Trevelyan faced Garfield Hankey a descendant of enslaved peoples from one of their estates, we got a glimpse into the potency of reparatory justice. Perhaps the critics are clear in their argument that this gesture is not the one we had hoped for as a kickstart, but as a Grenadian daughter of the soil, I am fascinated by the reparatory tenor the Trevelyan reparations has opened up in the Grenadian nation and wider Caribbean Civilisation.

Dr Candia Mitchell Hall is Lecturer of Caribbean Civilisation, Heritage, and Memory at the University of the West. Indies, Mona Campus. Send feedback to candiamitchellhall@gmail.com.