Introduction: On Reparations for Slavery and Colonialism

By Anna Kirstine Schirrer

Emergent Conversation 10

A special series of essays, On Reparations for Slavery and Colonialism

This PoLAR Online series, On Reparations for Slavery and Colonialism, engages anthropological and socio-legal scholars to understand the challenges that new reparations movements simultaneously pose and confront. It seeks to contribute to an emergent research program that engages the social worlds that produce and are produced by reparations claims for historical injustices with a focus on slavery, colonialism, segregation, and racial discrimination. On the one hand, the series seeks to encourage scholars working in post-colonial, post-slavery, and settler societies to take seriously histories of structural violence in their scholarly work and to ponder the kinds of reparative demands these histories require of our analytical and theoretical frameworks and ethnographic engagements. On the other hand, this series offers a small overview of the complex legal, moral, and practical circumstances within which questions of reparatory justice emerge. While the series assumes that logics of repair have long histories, it also seeks to confront the stunning absence of ethnographic research on contemporary claims for reparations for slavery and colonialism within the discipline of anthropology.

The anthropology of reparations has principally focused on reparations for international human rights violations in the latter half of the twentieth century (see Dill 2009; Laplante and Theidon 2008; Phillips 2009). The limited anthropological works on reparation claims prior to this period have investigated post-World War II lawsuits and compensation programs in the context of the Japanese Empire (Koga 2013), as well as post-Holocaust Jewish reparations. Susan Slyomovics (2014) considers Holocaust reparations vis-à-vis the German notion of wiedergutmachung, or “to make good again,” problematizing the “monetization of guilt” and the impetus to render money a vehicle for forgiveness. Anthropological studies of reparatory justice and repair in the context of slavery and colonialism remains glaringly absent.

This series builds on Deborah Thomas’s guidance to conceive of reparations as an analytical framework for studying structural lineages of violence emanating from the New World encounter (Thomas 2011). Echoing the recently published article “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn” by Ryan Cecil Jobson and his conversation with PoLAR contributor Kamari Clarke conducted by Lucia Cantero, this series contends with a case for letting anthropology burn by seeking to prioritize political projects of reparations, repair, and abolition in our conceptual and methodical work  (Jobson 2020). By “letting anthropology burn,” Jobson argues that anthropology must abandon liberal suppositions and the universal liberal subject to adopt and practice radical humanism. This series contributes to the project of “letting anthropology burn” by focusing on “political life in the wake of plantations” (Thomas 2019) within the context of transnational legal institutions and practices in the postcolonial aftermath.

The series also highlights a number of pressing questions for exploration. For example, what are the implications of quantifying Black suffering when thinking through international and national reparation programs (Thomas 2011)? And furthermore, what is the relationship between reparatory justice and an abolitionist anthropology (Shange 2019)? Or further still, what is the relationship between claims for reparations and our studies of repair, reparatory justice, and liberal progressive state logics? And what ethical demands does a critical orientation impose on our research?

By including contributors from disciplines beyond anthropology such as economics, law, and public policy, this series confronts limitations within anthropology as a discipline with regards to reparations studies. Research on how to ethnographically conceive of reparations for slavery and colonialism is long overdue; this series is a preliminary attempt to engage multiple disciplines with the histories and politics of repair, and to identify possible directions for ethnographic studies of reparatory justice for transatlantic slavery and colonialism.

Contemporary Calls for Reparations

The statue of Colston is pushed into the river Avon. Edward Colston was a slave trader of the late 17th century who played a major role in the development of the city of Bristol, England, on June 7, 2020. Photo by Giulia Spadafora/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

Calls for reparations are on the rise in both legal and political venues, nationally and internationally. Internationally, in 2013, the multi-state Caribbean Community (CARICOM) presented a Ten-Point Plan for Reparatory Justice from Western European nation-states.  Reparations are sought for both historical injustices and for ongoing racial harm, in recognition of the present and structuring legacies of these injustices. Reparations claims can be traced genealogically in a number of historical iterations. The historian Ana Araujo (2012), for example, provides a comparative and transnational historiography on reparations for slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean, focusing on the central role of Black women in making reparations claims. Araujo shows how continuous demands have been shaped by their historical and social context (Araujo 2012). Danish philosopher and historian Astrid Nonbo Andersen has also documented the formation of a reparations movement in the U.S. Virgin Islands demanding redress from its former colonizer, Denmark, a decade prior to CARICOM making its official demand in 2013.

Claims for reparations in the Caribbean include iterations in Rastafari communities that have advocated for repatriation since the 1930s. Although the focus on relocation to the African continent is a separate, but recognized, issue in the CARICOM reparations program, the term repatriation—while related to reparatory justice—has a distinct set of historical and social meanings and significations (see Barnett 2012; Bedasse 2017; Rowe 1980; ). Other scholars have focused on the long history of the formation of reparations as a social movement within the U.S. Focusing on the history of The National Coalition for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), this scholarship examines a more recent turn to courts and law as instruments of justice, tensions within elite and non-elite Black populations over reparations, and the significance of competing ideologies within social movements for reparations (see Aiyetoro and Davis 2010).

More recently in the U.S., contemporary calls for reparations were already increasing before the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor directed national attention once more toward systemic racial injustices. The U.S. H.R. 40 bill first introduced in 1989, known as the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, was contentiously debated in the summer of 2018 during a congressional hearing. The term reparations was taken up more widely in U.S. domestic politics when Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Kamala Harris tentatively voiced support for reparations to African Americans during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. And more recently, the very week of George Floyd’s murder, Human Rights Watch published a report advocating reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma for the 1921 race massacre. In June 2020, the state of California passed a bill to set up a Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans, and in July 2020, the City Council of Asheville in North Carolina voted unanimously in favor of reparations for Black residents. Rather than individual payments based on ancestry, Asheville’s plan is focused on directing public funds toward populations in the city who have been collectively harmed over time by systemic and structural racism.

A number of reparative initiatives have also materialized at universities in North America and the UK. At Georgetown University, US, students voted for taxing themselves to pay descendants of enslaved persons. Working groups and other organizations have made cases for reparations in their respective universities such as “A Case for Reparations at the University of Chicago” by Reparations at University Chicago Working Group. The University of Glasgow, in Scotland, and the University of the West Indies have signed a Memorandum of Understanding committing the two universities to working together to found a Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research. Glasgow has committed to raise £20 million as part of this programme of reparative justice. Although not addressing the question of reparatory justice, Columbia University has mapped out its historical relationship to the institution of slavery, and Harvard University has launched a similar mapping initiative.

CARICOM’s Ten-Point Plan argues that Western European moral, legal, and political responses to the historical genocide of Indigenous peoples and the enslavement of African peoples in the region have been inadequate. In the same period, African countries such as Namibia demanded reparations from their former colonizers. Their case was brought to a New York court in 2017.

European governments’ willingness to embrace responsibility for historical injustices (Barkan 2001) is steadily growing and has recently extended to the crown of a former colonizing European nation-state. In late June of this year, the Belgian King Philippe issued a statement expressing his regret for the country’s harrowingly violent colonization of the Congo under the leadership of King Leopold II. Congolese politicians have demanded that the conversation extend to reparations. The Belgium parliament has subsequently given mandate to a “special commission” to examine the country’s colonial occupation of Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. Similarly, civil society organizations in Suriname have long called for an official apology from the Netherlands, and in February of this year, the former Dutch colonizers announced their consideration of providing an apology to the Caribbean country. There is to date no coordinated effort on behalf of European former colonial powers to respond to CARICOM’s official claim. Importantly, the UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet (OHCHR) declared on June 17th 2020 in an urgent debate during the 40th Meeting of the 43rd Regular Session Human Rights Council “We need to make amends for centuries of violence and discrimination, including through formal apologies, truth-telling processes, and reparations in various forms”. A reference to the Sustainable Development Goals could indicate a more substantial effort on the part of the UN to advocate for reparations. For now, the High Commissioner’s reference of the term “reparations” within the context of histories of slavery and colonialism is notable.

Although an international framework for reparation claims remains absent, these national and local initiatives indicate a larger global turn to reparatory justice in the early decades of the twenty-first century. While such willingness is welcomed, these new initiatives call for continued and increased scrutiny of the terms on which they are established.

Neither reparative logic nor appeals for mass reparations are new; what is new, however, is the conversation about material reparations occurring within governmental and international organizations, and the proliferation of various reparative rationales across multiple scales. Reparations are no longer considered merely in terms of apologies and other symbolic markers of redress. At this early stage of discussing material reparations at a larger institutional scale, the pieces in this feature are only a beginning for developing and thinking through ethnographically oriented research approaches to reparative justice.

“Clean up the Colonial Mess”

Press conference from the launch of the Centre of Reparations Research at the University of the West Indies, Mona campus, in Kingston, Jamaica. From the left Mr. Eric Philips, Chair of the Guyana Reparations Committee, Honorable Olivia Grange Jamaica’s Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sports, Chair of the CARICOM Reparations Commission Sir Hilary Beckles, Ghanaian politician Samia Nkrumah and daughter of the the first president of Ghana and Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah, Director of the Centre for Reparations Research Verene Shepherd, and Jomo Thomas former Speaker of the House of Assembly of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and representing Prime Minister of the twin islands Ralph Gonsalves.

The CARICOM reparation claim is ideological in its scope. It speaks to the moral imperative of reparatory justice, and it speaks directly to former colonial powers in Western Europe. The CARICOM demands are abundantly clear. Academics such as Sandy Darity and Kirsten Mullen (2020) have laid out a blueprint focusing on national reparations for Black Americans in their recent publication From Here to Equality. In contrast, the CARICOM Ten-Point Plan does not provide a blueprint for how to materialize their demands. I think of this indeterminacy as a strategic response to the law of consent in international law, and as a diplomatic gesture to encourage European states to voluntarily participate in dialogue on the matter and on how to resolve it.

“Clean up the colonial mess” is how Sir Hilary Beckles, chair of the CARICOM Reparations Commission, characterized reparations demands during the press conference at official launch of the Centre for Reparations Research at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, in Kingston, Jamaica.[1] I attended the launch in the fall of 2017 as part of my dissertation research. This phrasing accentuates the historical and practical implications of CARICOM’s comprehensive Ten-Point Reparation Plan.

Reiterating the region’s official commitment during a recent seminar at the Centre for Reparations Research entitled “From Apology to Action: CARICOM’s call for Reparatory Justice,” Sir Hilary Beckles opened the meeting by calling for a three-day summit with European governments to “discuss phase two of the independence project.” In the same seminar, Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados reaffirmed her commitment to the regional CARICOM claim. She asserted that colonial powers left the region’s people with the expectation that newly independent governments would right the wrongs of prior colonial administrations, and renewed her call for a Caribbean Marshall Plan. Honorable Olivia Grange, Jamaica’s Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sports, also reaffirmed the government’s commitment to the claim.

Several other leaders from the Anglophone Caribbean have spoken on the issue in recent years. Vice President Ralph Gonsalves, of St Vincent and the Grenadines, who spearheaded an introduction of the claim to CARICOM heads of government, has repeatedly addressed the matter during the UN General Assembly over the last two decades. In November 2019, Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda went beyond the Ten-Point Plan and directly indicted Harvard University School of Law for founding its school with funding from a plantation owner in the twin islands. In 2016, President David Granger, of Guyana, published “Crime without Punishment: The Caribbean Case for Reparative Justice.”

The CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC) insists on the twofold predicament of the claim: it is simultaneously an issue of past debt and an issue of future development. By proposing a summit, the CRC is effectively inviting former Western colonial powers to enter a conversation based on the premise that a debt exists and that the region, despite acquiring independence, was left with impossible conditions for development. It is now up to Western European states to mirror nascent U.S. state and private sector efforts in contributing to the organization of a summit and committing to attending.


Vicissitudes 3.” The underwater sculpture “Visissitudes” in Moliniere Bay, Grenada. By SunCat. CC BY 2.0.

This series emerged through the process of writing my doctoral dissertation focused on how international claims for redress for transatlantic slavery and native genocide in the Caribbean converge on or diverge from national organizations’ claims for land titling in Guyana. In my research we see how multiple, incommensurable claims to redress coexist within the single conceptual language of reparations. This project situates “political life in the wake of plantations” in relation to transnational legal institutions and practices in the postcolonial aftermath (Thomas 2019). It considers the legacies of the plantation system and how its governing logics continue to shape and replicate forms of violence. “Political life in the wake of plantations,” in my analytical orientation, encompasses the countries and regions of former colonizers as well. The Caribbean is an interesting point of entry for considering reparations because those in positions of power are themselves descendants of enslaved people. Caribbean nations are Black states seeking the institutional means to assert claims upon white European former colonizers. I investigate a relationship between the politics of post-colonial nation states and the moment at which reparatory justice comes to direct claims.

My research is in conversation with the contributions in the series through a shared concern with how international and national political and legal institutions embodying sovereignty formulate, administer, and adjudicate claims for redress. Read together, our research projects contend with the notion that reparatory justice demands we consider the structural lineages of violence undergirding European democracies, and their contemporary implications for our shared socio-economic and legal lives.


We have sought contributions from scholars who have focused directly on questions of reparations in their academic, and sometimes activist, work. Economist Keston Perry’s essay emphasizes international Black solidarity, connecting histories of ecologically extractive colonial slavery and of liberatory pan-Africanist movements to address the increasingly urgent need for climate justice. This approach sheds light on the ethical preoccupations of international reparations claims. By appealing to Black global solidarity, Perry pushes against the tendency to privilege nationally-oriented reparations programs.

Legal scholar Vasuki Nesiah’s essay considers nineteenth-century mixed tribunals, formed to implement slave trade abolition, in light of valorizing histories of human rights and international criminal law. She demonstrates how the history of categorizing humanity in law, and the current international regime’s origins in a racialized world order, actually work to erase those origins from the category of humanity itself. This historical analysis has profound implications for how Black subjects are conceived, or made inconceivable, in international law, and for judicial recognition of reparation claims for slavery and anti-Black racism today.

Drawing on his ethnographic research and a critical interest in the relationship between late liberalism and the twenty-first-century turn to reparatory justice, anthropologist Howard Rechavia-Taylor’s piece examines responses to a reparations case brought by descendants of Namibian genocide victims in a New York City court. Considering liberal common sense ideas about the emancipatory possibilities of international law in relation to slavery and colonialism, Rechavia-Taylor confronts the imaginary of a global liberal legal order and its ideological force.

Explicating the moral imperative of reparations, political scientist Thomas Craemer’s personal essay explores Holocaust reparations calculations to make the case for reparations for slavery. Craemer argues for scaling up per-victim Holocaust reparations to arrive at a would-be monetary amount for slavery reparations. He argues for settling a debt earlier rather than later, since postponement does not diffuse the debt, but rather exponentially compounds it.

Anthropologist and geographer Jovan Scott Lewis contributes a piece examining scamming in Jamaica as an articulation of reparative ethics, drawing from his forthcoming book Scammers Yard: The Crime of Black Repair in Jamaica. Lewis argues that scamming remedies not only the injury of the colonial encounter but also the postcolonial retreading of the sites of inequality and injustice by newer actors like the United States government, its citizens, and its corporations.

Together, these pieces open a preliminary conversation about social worlds and logics of repair, and their pressing significance for anthropological research on reparations for slavery and colonialism.

We are introducing the series on August 1st, Emancipation Day in the English-speaking Caribbean, with Keston Perry’s piece on climate reparations. We invite readers to continue their reflection and engagements in the coming weeks as we publish the above essays.

Anna Kirstine Schirrer is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology and a certificate fellow with the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. She is currently curating a PoLAR Online series on the politics of reparations for slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. Her dissertation project focuses on how international claims for redress for transatlantic slavery and native genocide in the Caribbean converge on or diverge from national organizations’ claims for land titling in Guyana. Anna is the recipient of the Wenner-Gren Foundation Dissertation Fieldwork Grant and the National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Grant from the Cultural Anthropology and Law and Social Science Programs (Award Abstract #1823901). Her broader research interests are international law, reparations, race, human rights, and postcolonial Western Europe.


[1] Sir Hilary Beckles is also vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies

Works Cited

Aiyetoro, Adjoa and Davis, Adrienne D. 2010. “Historic and Modern Social Movements for Reparations: The National Coalition for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) and its Antecedents.” 16 Texas Wesleyan Law Review 16:687; Washington University in St. Louis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 10-06-08.

Araujo, Ana. 2012. Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade: A Transnational and Comparative History. London:  Bloomsbury Academic.

Barnett, Michael (Ed.). 2012. Rastafari in the New Millenium. Syracuse, NY:  Syracuse University Press.

Bedasse, Monique A. 2017. Jah Kingdom: Rastafarians, Tanzania, and Pan-Africanism in the age of Decolonization. Chapel Hill, NC:  University of North Carolina Press.

Barkan, Elazar. 2001. The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices. Baltimore, MD: JHU Press.

Dill, Katherine. 2009. “Repairing” Plan de Sánchez: Reparations and the Subjects of History. In Anthropology News. Volume 25. Issue. 4, pp. 25-33.

Jobson, Ryan Cecil. 2020. “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn: Sociocultural Anthropology in 2019.”  American Anthropologist 122(2):  259–27.

Koga, Yukiko. 2013. “Accounting for Silence, Inheritance, Debt, and the Moral Economoy of Legal Redress in China and Japan”. In American Ethnologist. 40(3):  494-507.

Laplante, Lisa J. and Theidon, Kimberly. 2008. “Truth with Consequences: Justice and Reparations in Post-Truth Commission Peru.” Human Rights Quarterly (29)2007:  228-250.

Rowe, Maureen. 1980. “The Woman in Rastafari” in Caribbean Quarterly: A Journal of Caribbean Culture 26(4):  13-21.

Scott, David. 2014. “Preface: Debt, Redress.” Small Axe 18(1) March (43):  vii-x.

Slyomovic, Susan. 2014. How to Accept German Reparations. Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press.

Shange, Savannah. 2019. Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness and Schooling in San Francisco. Durham, NC:  Duke University Press.

Thomas, Deborah A. 2011. Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica. Durham, NC:  Duke University Press.

Thomas, Deborah A. 2019. Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Sovereignty, Witnessing, Repair. Durham, NC:  Duke University Press.

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