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Published On: Sat, Nov 7th, 2020

The trouble with reparations

By Hilbert Haar

Before anyone wants to hold it against me, let me say this: I support the notion that slavery was wrong for one hundred percent. We may however have different opinions about who was responsible for the slave trade in the past and who should be held accountable for it today.

I am not going to throw numbers around, because they do not change anything about how people on different sides of the fence perceive this ugly part of human history. There is no doubt in my mind that the parties involved in the slave trade included West-Africans who rounded up their fellow countrymen to be sold on the coast to slave traders. There was a chain of supply – kept alive by black Africans – and a chain of demand fueled by European slave traders and their customers on the other side of the ocean.

These days the matter of reparations – monetary compensation for the injustice done to our ancestors – is very much en vogue. And from the proposal the Peter Choharis Law Group has submitted to the parliament I understand that St. Maarten wants the Netherlands to come up with cash to make up for the bad behavior of Dutch slave traders.

Choharis has already indicated that this venture is of a speculative nature, so how realistic is it to expect that the Netherlands will sign an agreement next year to pay?

The road to reparation is paved with uncertainties. Cor Speksnijder interviewed the retired professor of maritime history Henk den Heijer for Caribisch Uitzicht, a blog of the working group Caribbean Literature.

Speksnijder asked the professor’s opinion about financial compensation for the slave trade. Den Heijer found plenty of problems: ‘Who do you have to pay? The victims are untraceable, it happened five, six generations ago. A part of the black community of the time has been set free during the slavery era. After that one-and-a-half century has gone by. One should not exaggerate. As if slavery is up to this day traumatizing. I do not believe that there is a broad movement among historians in Suriname and the Antilles that support the demand for reparations. What we should do is helping countries that have fallen behind because of the colonialism.”

Den Heijer’s answer reflects on who the recipients of reparations should be. But there is another factor to think about: who should pay and why?

Sandew Hira (pen name of Dew Baboeram) is the director of the International Institute for Scientific Research in The Hague. He is also described as a “decolonial thinker”. In an article in the Suriname Herald of October 30, 2017, Hira wrote that Indonesia paid 4.5 billion guilders (around $2.4 billionat today’s rate of exchange) to the Netherlands in reparations as part of an agreement in 1949 whereby the Netherlands recognized Indonesia’s independence. The Dutch demand that Indonesia pay an additional 2 billion guilders for the expenditures the Netherlands had incurred during the dirty war in its former colony was dismissed under pressure of the United States that had also forced the Netherlands to accept Indonesia’s independence.

That, my friends, is of course the world upside down. No question about it. There is however a difference between a deal on that level and a demand for reparations based on the slave-trade.

But still, it is not unheard of. President Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation bill of 1862 granted slave-owners $300 for every freed slave. In today’s money, that would be more like $8,000.

That does not mean that today’s demands for compensation are without merit. As recently as last August, CNN reported that Joe Biden (at the moment of this writing almost the next President of the United States) supports studies into how reparations could be part of larger efforts to address systemic racism. Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris has co-sponsored a bill that would study the effects of slavery and create recommendations for reparations.

From that perspective St. Maarten’s demands for reparations come at an appropriate time. In the United States, Thomas Craemer, a researcher at the University of Connecticut, calculated the reparation for black Americans in the USA at $14.2 trillion.

Craemer calculated the hours slaves worked between 1776 and 1865, multiplied the hours by the average wage of the time and added 3 percent annual interest. It would result in almost $300,000 in compensation for every descendant of a slave.

The main problem is obviously that being black is not enough to qualify for such a payment. One must be reasonably able to prove being a descendant of a slave – and not everybody will be able to do that. In that sense St. Maarten cannot seriously expect that it will be receive any compensation. A country cannot claim to be a descendant of a slave.

Another question that arises from the demand St. Maarten’s politicians are about to put to the Netherlands is: who should pay?

There are obviously plenty of people living in the Netherlands – and paying their fair share of taxes – whose ancestors had nothing to do with the slave trade. That makes paying from Dutch tax revenue problematic or at least debatable.

There are plenty of other ideas about who should foot the bill – if it ever arrives. Families whose wealth is based on profits derived from the slave trade; companies whose wealth stems from the same source.

While this sounds perfectly reasonable, claimants will have a huge challenge. First of all they will have to establish their status as a descendant from a slave. Then they will have to prove the link between current wealth and the obvious wrongdoings of people who are all dead as a doornail.

I am not saying this is impossible, but these arguments strongly suggest that expecting a lump sum payment from the Netherlands is an ill-fated pipedream.

And all this does not even take into consideration that St. Maarten has more pressing matters to deal with like the COVID-19 crisis and the resurrection of its collapsed economy.

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