Reparatory justice for people of Caribbean descent – a perspective from the diaspora

Emancipation statue, Barbados

When I was younger the thought of reparations and repatriation for the transatlantic slave trade seemed ridiculous. Events that happened so long ago. How could those wrongs committed by historic evil characters almost like caricatures, be equalised with a payment of money? I am a descendent of the enslaved, people who had struggled post-emancipation to carve out some kind of existence; stripped of culture, history, and ties to a land, to Africa, ties that were purposefully erased and repurposed as backwards and uncivilised in their psyche. Post-emancipation from slavery, generations focused on short-term survival through shareholdings or migration to find work, with longer-term goals reliant on the education and the progression of the next generation of children.  

The 2023 Brattle report quantified the monetary cost of reparations, estimating that Britain owed £18.6 trillion1. But for me, I could never imagine an amount of money that could be paid to me or my family to right something so heinous, so evil, so shocking in its all-encompassing nature that most people affected by it don’t understand it and don’t seek to understand it. Honestly, the fact that the transatlantic slave trade actually occurred still shocks me, and I have studied it academically.

Two things changed my perspective. First, the realisation that as a British taxpayer I was paying off the slave owners. 20 million pounds in compensation to former slave owners since 18382, because the British government took out a loan to pay this at the time which was finally paid off in 2015. Secondly, the Windrush Scandal.

The history as generally told in the UK (not as part of the school curriculum) is that the connection between the Caribbean and the UK starts with the arrival of the Empire Windrush ship to Tilbury Docks in 1948 with passengers from some of the Caribbean islands. The Windrush generation are defined as people who arrived in the UK from the Caribbean between the years of 1948 to 1971.

I have always called myself a child of the NHS. It felt like a family business. My father a mental health and addictions nurse and my mother a midwife (who ran the maternity unit in the Surrey town I was born in). When I was 5 years old our family moved to Brighton where my parents ran a residential care home for the elderly. My parents came to the UK when they were 19 and 20 years old. They had a colonial education. Before their islands became independent from the UK, they were not only part of the British empire but as explained in Fanon’s seminal book Black Skin White Masks, their entire world shaped them to culturally identify with England as their mother-country3. My parents both took an opportunity that was presented to them, they were recruited in the Caribbean to come to England and train as nurses.

The Windrush scandal

The outrage about the Windrush scandal was not limited to the people of the Windrush generation. The fact that it was newsworthy and that there was an inquiry shows that the outrage crossed racial and ethnic divides. The victims of the Windrush scandal; were unable to work, lost their jobs, unable to access healthcare, deported to countries they had left as children and had never been to since, some were detained, and some died over the years they sought redress. However, one thing that this scandal also demonstrated clearly was a general lack of knowledge about who the Windrush generation were and why they were here.

It is important to note that before 1948 people from the colonies had no rights or restrictions in how they travelled and worked in the UK. The 1948 British Nationality Act gave people from colonies the right to live and work in Britain. Then conversely the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act limited migration from the commonwealth countries, and the 1971 Immigration Act repealed all previous laws and created the current structure of immigration legislation that restricted citizens of the commonwealth. A significant consequence of the breakup of the British Empire was that for ‘nationals of former colonies such as India and Jamaica, access to the United Kingdom has been progressively eroded as the idea of British citizenship changed from someone who was an equal member of the empire and subject of the Queen to someone who was resident of or had direct ties to people in the four nations of the United Kingdom.’4

The Windrush scandal was a massive kick in the teeth for me. Because up until that point I honestly thought that I was part of this country. The journey of my ancestors, taken from Africa, enslaved, tortured, raped, brutalised and worked to death to fund an industrial revolution and the changing palates for sugar in this country. Then the continued draining of economic and intellectual resources from the Caribbean (my ancestors’ new home) to maintain the wealth and status of the UK. My parent’s recruitment in the Caribbean to come and work here to sustain the National Health Service. The shock they felt when they got here and experienced racism, adapting quickly and working harder than ever to prove the racists wrong. These issues are summarised well by Amelia Gentleman, ‘The West Indians were surprised to be asked repeatedly where thy had learned to speak such good English. Most of them had received a colonial education which closely mirrored the British system. Those who had completed their schooling had read Shakespeare…the public examinations they sat were set by the Cambridge examination boards.’5 In addition, the move to the UK was often more detrimental economically, due to racism in employment offers, West Indians who came in the 1950s, 22% had worked in unskilled/semi-skilled jobs in the Caribbean this rose to 63% in Britain6.

Before the scandal how could I not have believed that I belong here? Where else would I or should I be? How could it be so easy to treat this cohort of migrants who have an unsolicited attachment to the UK with such inhumanity? It shook my core. Not quickly. A slow impending realisation. It doesn’t matter who I am, who my family are and where we came from. I feel like the general rhetoric of this nation, via the messages from governments with a populist agenda, and media outlets that claim to speak for the voice of the everyday person, is to target people from my cultural background because of a general unspoken belief that we do not belong here. The key indicators that help people know we don’t belong here are that we are not white, and our immediate origins are the Caribbean. It does not matter how involved this country and its successive governments have been in the reasons why people with Caribbean heritage are here now. Every single step to my existence in the UK was determined by agents of the UK. Yet people like me are constantly forced to explain ourselves and our presence here.

This is not a new phenomenon, racism against black people has been documented as long as there have been black people on UK soil, attacks from the public and the police, and many ‘race riots’ (notably in 1919 and relatively recently 20127). And racist attacks, which most people will accept as wrong and unacceptable have to be viewed alongside incidents of everyday racism that come with being seen as ‘other’ and occurrences of structural racism which are harder to see and tackle as they often appear to be objective policies, such as the hostile environment policies that caused the Windrush scandal, or the policy to put children from Caribbean heritage into ESN (Educationally Sub-Normal) schools in the 1970s8.

The Windrush scandal should not be looked at in isolation, it is a chapter in a book. David Lammy MP, commented in a parliamentary debate about the Windrush scandal in 2018, ‘The Windrush story does not begin in 1948; the Windrush story begins in the 17th century, when British slave traders stole 12 million Africans from their homes, took them to the Caribbean and sold them into slavery to work on plantations…My ancestors were British subjects, but they were not British subjects because they came to Britain. They were British subjects because Britain came to them, took them across the Atlantic, colonised them, sold them into slavery, profited from their labour and made them British subjects. That is why I am here, and it is why the Windrush generation are here.’9 This is a potted history that many people it seems, were unaware of.

To date many of victims of the Windrush scandal have not been compensated and face continued burdens in accessing the compensation scheme. The international investigatory body, Human Rights Watch documented the injustice against the Windrush scandal victims as a human rights abuse by the UK government. Justice has still not been done.

Reparatory justice

So, it’s with this background that I started to look at reparatory justice with fresh eyes. What if reparatory justice was just that? Repairing this broken narrative, justice for the harmful ongoing repercussions of the transatlantic slave trade. In that case I’m sold. Please stop this cycle of ignorance and populism where a statement about migrants not integrating has become normalised to the point that it seems to make sense to a growing number of people. Where ‘identity politics’ is frowned on at the same time as identity being used to distinguish who needs to be excluded. There is a significant amount of doublethink happening. What if reparatory justice was a broad umbrella term for any action taken to repair the damage caused by the transatlantic slave trade?

The CARICOM plan has been agreed internationally and provides a roadmap for reparatory justice. It asks for a full formal apology, debt cancellation, and for former colonial powers to invest in countries’ health and education systems. The United Nations Human Rights Chief, Michell Bacholet, published a report in 2021 that said:

‘Reparations should not only be equated with financial compensation. They also comprise measures aimed at restitution, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition, including, for example, formal acknowledgment and apologies, memorialization and institutional and educational reforms. Reparations are essential for transforming relationships of discrimination and inequity and for mutually committing to and investing in a stronger, more resilient future of dignity, equality and non-discrimination for all.’10

There have been marches every year for at least 30 years for reparatory justice led by the Afrikan Emancipation Day Afrikan Reparations March Committee. They are calling for an All-party commission of inquiry for trust and reparatory justice. Centred in the UK and informed by grassroots community organisations. I recently learnt about these marches, and there is a legitimate question as to why this group and their work have received such little media attention in last 30 years. More recently, there are other organisations in the UK working towards building knowledge about reparatory justice, for example the Repair Campaign working in the Caribbean and the UK.

We must not forget the MP who forged a narrative for reparatory justice, Bernie Grant, who co-founded and chaired the African Reparations Movement UK in 1993 and made his last parliamentary speech requesting for the government to apologise. There are currently a handful of MPs who are trying to make reparatory justice the business of parliament. Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP, chairing an all-party parliamentary group for Afrikan reparations (APPG-AR) and Clive Lewis MP, leading a parliamentary debate on the need to start a dialogue on reparations. These attempts to at the minimum create a meaningful evidence-based conversation about reparatory justice for the Caribbean must be framed in the reality of the response from successive UK governments, most recently PM Rishi Sunak stating that neither an apology for the UK’s role in the Atlantic slave trade nor ‘trying to unpick our history’ is seen as a way forward.

Some UK based institutions are independently exploring their historical links to the transatlantic slavery as the origins of their historical wealth. These organisation are sometimes apologising for their role, (The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, The Scott Trust, owners of The Guardian newspaper) or commissioning and publishing research into their past links (The Church of England and The National Trust).

A relatively new organisation, The Heirs of Slavery are independently engaging with the Caribbean nations that the members of the group’s ancestors were slaveholders on and from which they benefited with generational wealth. They are campaigning for the CARICOM 10-point plan and acting as peer support to encourage other families who have benefited from wealth generated due to the transatlantic slavery to support reparatory justice.

Although they don’t have the title ‘reparatory justice’ so many organisations and campaigns are also pushing for reparatory justice. Every campaign for Caribbean and colonial history to be in the UK curriculum, every campaign for fair trade between the UK and Caribbean countries, every push for equal opportunities in higher education, the chance to remove barriers to progression because of bias and racism, improve health outcomes for black women in childbirth, end disproportionate deaths of black people in the criminal justice system, stopping biased stereotyping of black children in schools, fighting for victims of the Windrush scandal to be compensated, ALL these campaigns are campaigns for reparatory justice.

A way forward for the diaspora – focus on the curriculum

The CARICOM plan is helpful in addressing structurally pervasive actions at a global level that prevent the sustainable growth of Caribbean countries to reduce inequalities between the Caribbean and other countries. As a descendant of the enslaved living in the UK it feels clear to me right now that in order to create a UK mindset that would be able to even start to consider an apology or move towards taking actions on the CARICOM plan there is a need for a significant shift in narrative here in the UK.

Fundamentally many people in the UK do not believe the UK should apologise or be involved in reparatory justice because they don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of British history or understand how that history connects to what is happening now. The people of the ‘diaspora’ don’t necessarily know it either. There is a common misconception that because people have a ‘Black Caribbean’ ethnicity that they know about the Caribbean. Many people from the diaspora haven’t been there, or if they have it was like other British people on a brief holiday, visiting distant family who are essentially strangers. In 2020, still reeling from the revelations of the Windrush scandal, I visited my mother’s country, Grenada, and a friend of the family said, ‘there are a lot of foreigners in the country right now’, he was referring to me and people like me, visitors from the UK. This was a moment of truth for me, in the eyes of the UK government I didn’t belong in the UK, and for the people of the Caribbean I was a passing visitor.

The disproportionately negative outcomes for black people in the UK have been documented and evidenced, notably in the Lammy Review, Is Britain Fairer? and the government-commissioned Report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. The reasons for the differentials in outcomes are contested, with the concept of institutional or structural racism as a causal factor being politicised and debated.

A theme that runs throughout this reparatory justice story is a universal lack of knowledge of the lives of the enslaved, their experiences during and post-enslavement and their psychological and historical connection to the UK. This gap exists in the UK as well as in many of the Caribbean nations. One of many ways to address this gap is to plug it with mandatory teaching of black British history in the school curriculum. We must repair the roots of the problem by building a basic general knowledge of why people who have a black Caribbean heritage belong here, through teaching our shared history.

There are organisations, such as The Black Curriculum, who have been campaigning for black history to be part of the school curriculum and supporting teachers/schools who choose to make it part of their curriculum. The National Education Union and the Runnymede Trust have pushed for the government to make the curriculum more inclusive of black British History, to fulfil the promises set out in Inclusive Britain for a new model curriculum to be published in 2024. This may be too late and there is no guarantee that it will plug the gap created by hundreds of years of a dearth of knowledge. Schools can introduce good quality black history teaching to their curricula now. Why wait for guidance that will probably suggest a minimum requirement? it’s time to be bold and push for a curriculum to be positively “swamped”11 with the black, Asian and minoritised parts of British History. To push beyond the fear of difference and embrace the reality of history being different stories in the same timeline.

What can you do?

Let us assume that reparatory justice isn’t a destination but a journey. If you want to come on this journey here are some routes you can take:

  1. Learn more about Caribbean British history. I’m not suggesting you become a scholar but read a few articles/blogs, listen to some audiobooks/podcasts, buy your children some books on Black British history (and read them yourself – children’s’ books are good for everyone).
    1. For children, Black and British: A Short Essential History by David Olusoga and The History of the African and Caribbean Communities in Britain by Hakim Adi.
    1. For a potted but comprehensive understanding of everything reparatory justice related to the UK right now, the Heirs of Enslavement podcast is a great listen  (available on all the usual podcast platforms).
    1. Most recently, Sathnam Sanghera,’s book Empireworld is personal and universal in its commentary on how the British Empire has touched so much of the world we live in now.
  2. Support the campaign to diversify the school curriculum. The current narrative of people of Caribbean descent being nice migrants who arrived in 1948, that the UK should be sympathetic and caring towards is wrong. Black Caribbean people are and always have been British, globally British, for as long as there has been a black Caribbean in existence. This blog on the DfE education hub provides some basic awareness of how a school could integrate black history into their curriculum, push your local schools to take up this framework throughout the year, not just during Black History Month.
  3. Write to your MP. Ask them why the Windrush Scandal report recommendations have not been implemented in full and what they are doing about it. Support grass roots organisations such as the Liverpool Advocates for Windrush, who provide support to individual victims of the scandal to access the compensation they are entitled to.
  4. Communicate support to organisations and people who are attempting to act for reparatory justice. This does not have to be in public – a private DM or email will suffice. The environment we live in cultivates hate and abuse towards people who are trying to do the right thing. There must be counterbalance for those people who put their heads above the parapet to know they are on the right path. Contact the National Trust and tell them you appreciate their efforts to bring to light how the stories of the enslaved Africans are woven into the history of the UKs historic houses.
  5. Use your circle of influence. Our actions can only be achieved within our circle of influence and some people have more influence than others. If you have the power to encourage investment in new research to build a black history cannon, support the black academics who are lonely voices teetering on the edge of institutions that control the value of African history.

Final thoughts

It seems important to highlight that this piece is a personal perspective. A reflection on what I knew, how I feel and what I have learnt. There is no one truth or perspective. I have seen the emotion of shame touching almost everyone who is involved in this topic and my personal view is that we need to move away from shame and instead move towards truth and reconciliation. And by truth, I mean research and analysis of data and historical records. The evidence base is building to give people the opportunity to be informed. If people are informed it doesn’t matter what they believe because their beliefs, whether or not they seem agreeable are based on facts and it’s their right to believe whatever they want, which may include the belief that there should never be an apology or any reparations.

This story is not the only story like this. I am writing about it because I feel compelled to, because it is personal to me. Since the Windrush scandal, through Black Lives Matters and more recently seeing the growing public discourse about reparatory justice I have had a whirlwind of emotions. I’m now reconciled to understand my place as a child of the Windrush generation and an ancestor of the enslaved, living in the UK. The great race relations intellectual, A. Sivanandan said ‘We are here because you were there’. The people in my ancestral line gave everything they had; their lives, spirit, wealth, cultures, families, history and health, to create and maintain the UK as we now know it. And not by choice. Can you say that about your ancestral line? Is it not time for justice? To repair the damage that has been done and start a new chapter in this book.

  1. The Brattle Group; 2023; Report on Reparations for Transatlantic Chattel Slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean. ↩︎
  2. Beckles, H; 2013; Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide; University of the West Indies Press. ↩︎
  3. Fanon, F; Black Skin, White Masks. ↩︎
  4. Somerville, W and Walsh, P; United Kingdom’s Decades-Long Immigration Shift Interrupted by Brexit and the Pandemic; 2021; Migration Information Source.
  5. Gentleman, A; 2019; The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment; Guardian Faber; p107. ↩︎
  6. Ibid; p110. ↩︎
  7. Gilroy, P; 1984; Staying Power: The history of black people in Britain; Pluto Press; pp372-399. ↩︎
  8. Coard, B; 1971; How the West Indian Child Is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System; New Beacon Books. ↩︎
  9. Minors Entering the UK: 1948 to 1971; Volume 640: debated on Monday 30 April 2018; Column 9WH; Hansard. ↩︎
  10. Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related forms of intolerance, follow-up to and implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action: Promotion and protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Africans and of people of African descent against excessive use of force and other human rights violations by law enforcement officers; 2021; Human Rights Council; p20. ↩︎
  11. “swamped’ is a term commonly used in migration rhetoric to promote fear of migrant culture. ↩︎

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