Reparatory Justice

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
December 04, 2018

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeThe Jamaica Gleaner, it is true, was impetuous. On November 25 it announced that the University of Glasgow (UG) and the University of the West Indies had reached an agreement regarding reparative justice. According to the Gleaner, UG had agreed to pay “£200 million (approximately J$34 billion) of value in reparation payments to The UWI.”

The Gleaner quoted Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, as saying: “The University of Glasgow has recognized that Jamaican slave owners had adopted the University of Glasgow as their university of choice and that £200 million of value was extracted from Jamaica and the Caribbean.”

A day later, Sir Hilary noted that the Gleaner’s headline was incorrect. He admitted that there was no confirmation yet about this deal “but the quoted content of the story is correct, the headline that suggests an agreement to pay £200 million to The UWI is not. The universities are working through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) built upon the principles of ‘reparatory justice.’ But there is no ‘agreement about the repayment of £200 million to The UWI.”

The Gleaner’s anxiety was understandable since Jamaicans, more than most of our Caribbean brethren—with the exception of the Haitians—were exploited mercilessly by the English and Scottish planter class. To Jamaicans, the news of reparatory justice couldn’t come soon enough.

Earlier this year I read Christer Petley’s book, White Fury, that examines the life of Simon Taylor (1760-1813), Jamaica’s biggest slaveholder. It is instructive to compare Taylor’s life with that of William Hardin Burnley, the subject of my biography.

Taylor attended Eton; Burnley, Harrow School for Boys, both of which are prestigious prep schools (the British called them public) in England. Both of them arrived in the West Indies at the age of 20 and made enormous fortunes from sugar. Each remained resident slave owners in the Caribbean. Taylor had 2,248 slaves; Burnley had 980 slaves.

Both Taylor and Burnley violently opposed the liberation of black people. Taylor fought against stopping the slave trade which ended in 1807; Burnley traveled to London in 1830 to lobby to maintain slavery which ended in 1834.

Each man believed that black people were inferior to whites and depicted them as children. Both were members of the local legislatures: Taylor was a member of the Jamaican Assembly; Burnley, the senior member of Trinidad’s Council of Government.

When the slaves rose up in Haiti in 1792, Taylor blamed it on the British abolitionist; when they rose up in Trinidad in 1849, Burnley blamed it on the 1848 revolution in France. Both Taylor and Burnley believed Africans possessed no agency on their own. They died at the age of 73 and 70 years respectively.

One can feel the happiness the Gleaner felt that some form of reparation was in the offing. Their joyfulness reflected the feeling that blacks in the Caribbean were beginning to get their just due. Both Petley and I point out how the British overlords exploited the labor of our forefathers.

Sir Hilary was on point when he emphasized: “In good faith the two universities, ever since the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Glasgow, Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, indicated that his university seeks to be excellent and ethical, have had excellent conversations about how the University of Glasgow can contribute to clearing up the colonial legacies of slavery that are holding back the region.”

It is this ethical impulse that led UG to reexamine its involvement with slavery. Dr. Stephen Mullen and Prof. Simon Newman, authors of Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow, explained that their report on UG’s involvement with slavery was guided by how American universities such as Brown, Yale and Georgetown “have dealt with the issue of slavery-tainted gifts.”

While Mullen and Newman could not identify every source of slavery money that enhanced UG, they were clear that UG “enjoyed a significant financial benefit from slave-holding and the profits made from slave-ownership and the trade in slave-produced gifts.” Any ethnical response to the conduct of their elders demanded that they call upon their university to try to repair the damage the latter caused.

No one can deny the indefatigable work Sir Hilary has put into this effort. While he says rather modestly that he has been working harmoniously with the leadership of UG to repair this centuries-long damage, no one should mistake how he uses his scholarship to clarify how the injustices of the past have held us back in this region.

UWI and UG have agreed on a “Reparatory Justice MOU.” The content of the reparations is being structured by a committee. Sir Hilary assured me: “The Glasgow team is committed to a reparatory justice approach that will see considerable resources being made available to the region.”

In 2013 Sir Hilary was granted an honorary doctorate from UG, which suggests the high esteem in which the university holds him. It is conceivable that he is working and influencing the MOU from both sides of the Atlantic. What stands out to this observer is the level head he keeps when all around may be losing theirs and how he bridges the gap between past wrongs and the desirability to achieve meaningful outcomes in the present.

All things being equal, there might be a signed MOU before the end of the year.

5 Responses to “Reparatory Justice”


  • I am just wondering how reparation payments to the University of the West Indies could clear up the colonial legacies of slavery that are holding back the Caribbean region?
    Even though this reparation payment would be a welcomed symbolic step and could be viewed as some sort of apology or admission of wrong doing, it would represent a mere trickle.
    Presently those in the Caribbean still seriously affected by the legacy of slavery would probably never benefit, directly or indirectly, since their chances of seeing the doors of any university are very slim.
    Could we call this a superficial, elite colonial solution to a colonial problem to appease an intellectual Caribbean elite class?

  • Dear TMan: You might call UG’s gesture “a superficial, elite colonial solution to a colonial problem to appease an intellectual Caribbean elite class” but you must remember that the steps proposed by the UG, as outlined by the Jamaica Gleaner, goes beyond “seeing the doors of any university.” It involves interventions in health and other outcomes. But even if it were only about “seeing a university door” doesn’t the longest road begin with one small step. And when the United States and Russia cooperate in areas of space exploration don’t all of us benefit in one way or another from their working together. It is said that cynic sees only the negative aspect of all things, never the positive. To me, the acknowledgment of a wrong done could be the beginning of many other cooperative efforts.

    • It is sometimes true “that cynic sees only the negative aspect of all things, never the positive”.

      But,if you’re pragmatic, you’re practical. You’re living in the real world, wearing very comfortable shoes.

  • “UWI and UG have agreed on a “Reparatory Justice MOU.” The content of the reparations is being structured by a committee. Sir Hilary assured me: “The Glasgow team is committed to a reparatory justice approach that will see considerable resources being made available to the region.”

    The question is not if there is a case to be made for reparations. It is really how much! And to whom!. The UK benefitted from the colonies making their nation great. India was producing 23% of the world goods and services, at the end of colonialism with millions worth of treasures stolen and lives destroyed their economy was in ruins. Who benefitted? The universities and people in England.

    It is no diffrent in the Caribbean where a case could be made for ex slave and indentured labourers who worked for England benefit. Reparations is a reasonable expectation.

  • The University of Glasgow, seeing the money extracted from the WI slave trade had gone to its coffers, offered reparation to the University of the West Indies. A University is a center of learning. The benefits of its learning are diffused to the society at large. Research into cancer, for example, benefits those suffering from cancer in the wider society, not only university professors. The same applies for engineering, and for research done in the social sciences. The element of reparation is expressed by the demand that this should benefit in some way the descendents of those victims of slavery. So I can see where reparation payments can be used in various areas in the University to aid in this objective. I, for one, am concerned with the psychological harm done to the psyche of the African descendents by the trauma of slavery and the effect this has had on their lives. Much of that psychological trauma stems from the philosophical dehumanization of African culture and African peoples. African peoples were considered to be sub-human, in order to justify slavery. They were considered to have no history, no culture, no civilization, they were said to be sub-human in all that that entails, in order to justify slavery. A stereotype of the African, of African history, of African civilization was manufactured; that stereotype still holds today. It is still propagated in the world today. Part of this reparation payment from UG should go towards righting this wrong of slavery that was legitimized by many of the intellectuals of the West, Aristotle for instance who believed that some people were natural slaves and who therefore would benefit from slavery. This stereotyping of African peoples exists today and is at the root of bias, discrimination and racism against African peoples. I suggest therefore that part of reparation payments should go towards establishing a department of African history, philosophy and civilization at UWI. There may be disagreements on what reparation payments to UWI should go towards, but I agree with Selwyn Cudjoe that the longest road begins with one small step and that the “acknowledgment of a wrong done could be the beginning of many other cooperative efforts”.

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