What are reparations? They can be defined as an act to make up for or amend for a past wrong or injustice inflicted on another individual, group, or even state. These injustices in the case of former colonies occurred over decades of time and have only ended in the not-so-distant past. However, the depths of their impact and the legacies they left behind have never been fully appreciated. The fight for reparations, in any form, has persisted for decades, much akin to the myth of Sisyphus. Countless individuals have strained and pushed the giant boulder of this responsibility up the mountain of white fragility so that those whose ancestors suffered under colonial rule can have their stories and suffering honored and fully recognised.
There is an irony in the fact that Haiti was the first to pay reparations within the context of slavery. Following a bloody revolutionary war, Haiti secured its independence from France in 1804, however, it was not recognised as an independent state by any slave-owning European country. Haiti was forced to pay reparations for the ‘loss of property rights in Africans, livestock, plantations, and other forms of property’—refusal to pay would mean trade embargoes, isolation and being cut off from the international community. It is clear and obvious that this is a blatant injustice and insult to the idea and concept of reparations, depicting the emancipation and freedom from slavery and from the brutal French colonial regime, not as a right (despite ideals like justice equality and freedom being coveted by the French during this period), but as a debt you owed to your oppressor and enslaver.
While this case is an example of financial reparations (albeit, twisted), what many people get wrong is the belief that the act of reparations can only be done through the transaction of money. This act can come about in many ways, in its truest sense, (as Shashi Tharoor describes) ‘it involves the elimination of structures created by the colonial atrocities, as well as the acceptance of the moral responsibility for the crimes committed.’
Some may then point to what is currently popularizing headlines in the UK— museums and universities repatriating objects back to their native homes as the only right or best form of reparations. There are millions of objects, many of spiritual and cultural significance, miles away from their native homes, filling western museums, galleries, storage facilities, and even homes, that were taken in wake of European colonial explorations. The Western world fell in love with the ‘primitive’ objects of their colonies, coveting them as decorative pieces through which they could show off their wealth, intelligence and class. While were lawfully brought and gifted, others were looted, stolen, or pillaged in the act or threat of violence.
But it is hard to accept this as the only form of reparation. Through the gaze of those who have felt the legacy and trauma of colonialism, it feels like the barest minimum. Afterall, how, after decades of colonial violence and its bloody legacy, can a nation, community, or religious group feel like their trauma caused by imperial brutality and the effects of white supremacy has been fully appreciated and respected, simply because what was stolen has returned?
Would you be satisfied?
How then can former empires eliminate these structures and accept their moral responsibility? While the case for financial reparations is strong for many former colonies, the areas which should be looked at to truly make an act of reparations is through social and educational changes. It has been argued for decades by scholars, activists, and educators that reparations should be the re-evaluation of the education system to combat the current racist narrative around colonialism and legacy of the empire in order to make amends. It has been pointed out (and seems to be obvious to everyone but people like Boris Johnson and Liz Taylor) that the ‘sweeping of the imperial past under the rug’ and focusing on simply returning a few objects now and then (a whole other can of worms) is a legacy of colonial power. This is (relevant, impactful, problematic, concerning) because it continues to control the narrative on their former colonies past and suffering, allowing the continued spread and encouragement (as seen in Brexit propaganda) of naïve, idealistic beliefs around colonial powers
The topic of reparations is hard, painful, and difficult, but we are not Sisyphus. One day, the burden of this fight will reach the top of the mountain, and the stories of our loved ones, of our ancient neighbors, and of our native homes will finally be honored and remembered properly.
Editors: Evie F., Amshu V.
Photo Credits: Jamiel Law for Quartz