Reparation and the Religio-Legal Injustices of Empire

November 2013

Hilary McD. Beckles, Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide (Mona: University of the West Indies Press, 2013); 292 pages; ISBN: 9789766402686 (paperback).

The crusade is important. In fact, “this crusade is . . . important because only reparations can heal our land, comfort our souls and restore our self-respect.”1 These words, uttered by Nigerian businessman and fervent pan-Africanist Chief Moshood Abiola and subsequently reinforced during the 1993 First Pan-African Congress on Reparations, capture a major thrust of reparative justice campaigns the world over. Caribbean claims against British imperial governance of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries are certainly not exempt. Prior to Hilary Beckles’s Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide, however, the Caribbean arm of global reparations discourse has been grossly omitted from scholarly literature. Beckles’s thoroughly researched project dynamically offers the first comprehensive study of the Caribbean reparations movement.

Because of the British Empire’s systematic extermination of Caribbean natives and the enslavement of Africans in the empire’s West Indian colonies, Caribbean countries, according to Beckles, have a legitimate reparation claim against Britain—and those claims should be adjudicated in Caribbean courts.

The monograph is divided into two parts and is systematically written on multiple thematic registers. Chapters 1–11 establish the historical, legal, and religio-moral ethos that imbued native genocidal campaigns and African enslavement. Beckles first introduces the political stakes of these murderous campaigns; he then discusses the ways legal and religious discourses conspired to justify them. Chapters 12–15 engage the late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century Caribbean British reparations debate. Beckles here highlights the tension with which “Western” nations engaged reparations and their principle arguments against it.

In asserting the stakes of these enterprises, Beckles carefully highlights that indigenous genocide and African enslavement were crimes against humanity, invested in not only by private corporations and corporate insurers but also by the government itself and the royal family. Driven by the obsession to ensure a thriving national infrastructure, the empire considered Caribbean natives savages, worthy of enslavement or expulsion from native territory. When native guerrilla resistance assaults became too much for British colonial officials to manage—in the Lesser Antilles, specifically—natives were worthy of extermination by all British military force. The Caribbean faction of the debate, Beckles demonstrates, is critically important not only because it articulates reparations discourse as a regionally emergent phenomenon but also because the British practices of colonization, extermination, and enslavement laid the foundation for the impoverishment of an entire region for centuries to come. Beckles has provided us with this important story of governmental and private wealth accumulation until now largely untold.

Beckles next elucidates his argument on the legal register. He is careful to articulate the complete and deliberate subordination of enslaved Africans to “nonhuman” status within English common law. According to the law, enslaved Africans were property, real estate, and chattel. The irony herein is that through the law, human beings had their property stripped from them (or were stripped from their property) and were subsequently designated “property” themselves—categorized alongside appliances, land, and cattle. This is one example of the ways the law has consistently helped constitute the very conditions of mass-scale suffering that it often claims to disavow. Finally, in expanding upon historical context, Beckles makes haste to mention the role of the Church of England in this capitalistic enterprise. In his chapter “Dividends from the Devil,” the author highlights the two-pronged work of the church: first, the church ideologically—through its writings and orations—helped legitimate colonial slavery and the trade by establishing a theological account of African “sub-humanness.” The moral work coupled with legal and political logics to mount a comprehensive campaign to procure unimaginable wealth for the empire. Second, in a practical sense, the church, Beckles notes, owned large-scale plantations and often drove African slaves under harsher conditions than plantations not under clerical auspices.

In turning toward the global reparations discourse, Beckles illuminates the hypersensitivity surrounding indictments of state-sponsored historical wrongs that, in my opinion, characterize a neocolonial present. The moment around which Part 2 is centered is the 2001 United Nations–sponsored World Conference against Racism, Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, held in Durban, South Africa. The conference gathered representatives from particular countries and aligned them regionally: the “Western” nations, the European Union, and the Caribbean. Beckles aims to highlight the ways “Western” and European powers continue to shirk responsibility for the commission of historical crimes under an imperial regime. Britain’s representatives both denied the magnitude with which colonial slavery formed the basis of national wealth and “strong-armed” the African and Caribbean delegations in order to silence indictments of a state-sponsored British crime. Interestingly, as the author notes, the United States refused to attend the gathering; as former US secretary of state Colin Powell and former national security advisor Condoleezza Rice stated, “The world must not tell the United States how to handle its racial past and present” (176). Though this type of denied responsibility for any moral blemish on the US national countenance is not unusual, Beckles fixates primarily on Britain’s delegates who maintain a thoroughly antireparationist agenda. They not only maintained this posture, they did it by force, threatening to abandon the conference if reparation discourse legitimately sought to hold their government accountable. This threat of violence (albeit, diplomatic violence) is not unusual for colonial regimes that exploit power relations.

The British antireparationist argument is primarily legal. The paramount claim is that the empire committed no crime against humanity. There was no crime against humanity because there was no crime at all; under seventeenth- to nineteenth-century law, slavery and the slave trade were legal. Notwithstanding that the claim of continual legality is false (by royal decree, Queen Elizabeth I criminalized the organization of English slave trading, insofar as taking Africans without their consent was, to her, detestable), this legal defense highlights a more important elision. The ways “the law” comes to be established in the first place is necessarily founded on imperial violence. In this historical example, prior to the erection of colonial law there was impositional violence enacted for the conditions of that law’s authority to be established. Besides this, the contemporary claim that no crime against humanity existed directly gestures back to national law. Insofar as crimes against humanity seemingly need some national, at least large-scale, endorsement, it seems tautological to claim that because of that national endorsement, there was no crime against humanity. State officials flee at the very sound of “crime against humanity” because under international law standards, crimes against humanity mandate reparatory dispensation.

The author concludes by highlighting the ways the Durban conference, although disappointing (especially for Afro-Caribbeans and African Americans committed to the social justice imperative of reparations), sparked grassroots activism among Caribbean communities to develop local, national, and regional scaffolding to mount thoroughly researched and legally formidable reparation claims against Britain.

Regarding recent studies of black reparations politics, while most texts are US -based, Britain’s Black Debt not only centers Afro-Caribbean discourse; it also excavates important legal and religious genealogies. Other studies simply do not highlight these intersections as critically. Scholars of the global reparations movements, third world scholars, and activists alike will appreciate this text. It is comprehensive in scope (both thematically and temporally) and offers practical examples of the ways reparations debate is still alive. Another strength of the text is its recognition of the histories of violence that often attend minoritarian populations not as accidents of liberal societies but as fundamentally constitutive of them. Beckles’s refusal to perceive slavery and genocide as mere aberrations of history—instead seeing them as foundational to the ways the British Empire amassed wealth and power—is quite astute. Though the text does not expansively articulate the ways grassroots support has been mobilized in the current moment—certainly not as a brainchild of Durban—this does not take away from an exceptionally well-argued, formidable piece of scholarship, sure to be among the great literatures of this conversation.


Taurean J. Webb is a PhD candidate in the Department of African American Studies at Northwestern University. He is also a Legal Studies Fellow in the university’s Center for Legal Studies. His research interests include historical and contemporary discourses of black reparation and reparatory justice politics, postcolonial theory, twentieth-century African American and US legal history, critical race theory, and liberationist theology movements.


1 Hilary McD. Beckles, Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide (Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2013), 177.