Beckles looks at the calls for reparations for black populations in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery in the mid-19th century. Many groups in the Caribbean have spoken out about the history of oppression among their people and the need for other countries to make amends for the trauma caused in the past. The author considers the evidence as it particularly relates to Britain and argues that the nation indeed needs to make some reparations to the Caribbean population. The work takes both a descriptive and prescriptive approach, aspects that I will expand upon later. But now, I will comment on Beckles’ expertise and background as it relates to this work and then consider the content, purpose, and authority of the book, and conclude with my evaluations.
Beckles is an economic historian. However, his activities include larger issues of social justice as well as arguing for historical truth. That is, he is concerned about human rights, and how policy and international relations contribute to the views of culture. He also advocates for the truth of history. This seems to play a critical role for Beckle in the current work, an aspect that I will return to later. However, Beckle is also a participant of various governmental and academic groups to which he contributes to the practical betterment of society as a whole and informs his academic publications. These credentials support the credibility and authority of Beckles. While it, of course, does not override the necessity for cogent arguments, it does entitle him to speak and be heard with care.
In Britain, Beckles considers evidence regarding the law, the development slavery of Caribbean people, and also the institutions in Britain that participated in such slavery. These institutions present the most interesting evidence, and in my judgment, some of the strongest. It seems that royal family, the church, the government, prominent and wealthy families, and various public institutions all supported or participated in the slave trade, often benefiting from the enslavement of Caribbean people.
Beckles considered benefit from a financial perspective, primarily. Thus, he looks at the amount of money earned by these institutions over the course of hundreds of years, with the help of slaves. It seems that individuals, groups, and formal institutions gained financially from slavery as well as the subsequent income acquired through help of slaves. On the one hand, this perspective is quite convincing, as Beckles looks at slavery from more than a dealing and trading side. Often, histories of slavery and the financial situation looks at benefit from the aspect of the slave traders and the revenue from selling persons. However, Beckles looks at finances from a more complex and holistic side. He considers how these plantation owners and institutions actually earned money by means of the black labor. For example, even as housekeepers, Caribbean populations would save a family money by working for less or merely nothing at all. This constitutes a financial benefit in Beckles’ judgment.
Yet on the other hand, I have trouble with Beckles’ financial perspective. Once you start to measure revenue in an indirect or potential way, it seems to weaken the argument or at least place it on less firm ground. For example, considering the financial benefit of household servants based on the difference in cost for non-Caribbean servants, does seem to constitute some financial benefit. Yet, consider the example of some group of Caribbean workers laboring in the field. They may work and work for less, but most likely they will not be working as hard as a fairly paid employee who would instead work more efficiently and possibly with more integrity. This difference in work ethic would certainly alter the financial gain of whatever area of labor that these men and women were working in. I do not think that these approaches are terrible for Beckles’ case. But they do represent questionable methods for determining the financial gains of the owners of slaves. In either case, it was an enlightening part of the book, and a substantial one, that informed me of many contexts in which slaves were used.
Regarding the Caribbean, Beckles also considers the institutional perspective. He claims that the calls for reparation have come from those concerned with equity, social justice, with the rights of people, education, and the identity of culture. Thus, this turns the book to the modern day. Beckles shows the movement for reparation in the Caribbean, as officials and activists have appealed for returns based on the history of enslavement. Those from the social justice sector champion the negative social consequences that such a history has had on the people. Those in education, claim that their students need a new direction of history in order to gain some self worth rather than being belabored by the treacherous past of slavery.
This also turns the cultural identity of the Caribbean peoples. While Beckles does place weight on this, I think that it constitutes more of an emphasis than it was given. People fundamentally are concerned with who they are. What is our identity and how does it affect how others treat us? Those mark serious questions for a person and for a culture. The Caribbean people do not want only or merely financial reparation or apologies, they want a redefinition of their global identity. Years of slavery have clouded that identity, robbing it of dignity and value. Thus, the question becomes, can Britain or anyone even return that or redefine it? Beckles does not touch on the depths of this question, but I think it constitutes a needed ground for study.
These former considerations look primarily at the content of the book. I have attempted a brief but adequate summary that then makes better sense of the purpose and my evaluation of Beckles’ work. I have already considered the financial perspectives and cultural identity issues offered, but what else might be said about Britain’s Black Debt? It seems that Beckles has accomplished part of his purpose. He outlined the history of Caribbean slavery in England and considers the currently appeals to reparation among the Caribbean peoples. However, his calls for action will only be proven in time. In that sense, I am unsure, although some prominent figures, globally, have been making apologies for various historical wrongdoings. However, regarding his call to action, I do wonder how much reparation is deserved so many generations out. Many people attempt to downplay the gap, and claim that four generations is quite close in time. Yet I think, while not downplaying the tragedy and consequences of the problem, that many of us feel far removed from such events. Furthermore, the fixation on consequences as grounds for reparation is a delicate and not entirely convincing argument. True historical consequences are complex, and can rarely be simplified to a pattern of enslavement.
Finally, what constitutes authority for Beckle in his work? He cites many population studies and current authority figures in Britain and elsewhere. A lot of his research stems from Britain itself as opposed to external scholars of the nation. This may be dangerous but seems to support his argument nonetheless. In all, I find Beckles’ work illuminating, convicting, and though not without critical consideration, worth considering for national action. In the United States, it seems that this sort of argument might have even for influence. For the history here, while not the same as that in Britain and the Caribbean, is nonetheless just as severe and in need of address.
- Beckles, Hilary. Britain’s Black Debt (University of the West Indies Press, 2012).
- Beckles, Hilary. Liberties Lost: The Indigenous Caribbean and Slave Systems (with Verene A. Shepherd; 2004).
- Fryer, Peter. Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (London: Pluto Press, 1984).
- Warner, B., E. Beck, and M. Ohmer. “Linking informal social control and restorative justice: moving social disorganization theory beyond community policing.” Contemporary Justice Review 13 (2010): 355–369.