Summit or nothing: Claire Pickard-Cambridge attends a workshop on reparations

‘Repair is not just about money.’

‘Everyone needs to change and transform their consciences to take on board the damage of the past.’ | Photo: by Tyler Merbler on Flickr

The thorny subject of reparations for the transatlantic trafficking of enslaved Africans had struck me in the past as a mountain to climb.

But a two-part workshop on reparations organised by Quakers in Bristol in February and March cast a new light on reparations – that they should involve far more than money as a form of compensation. The workshops, led by the charismatic Esther Xosei, a legal specialist and international policy reparations advisor, had powerful messages that helped transform our thinking.

A first step would be recognising that reparations also require healing, restoration and empowerment in response to the long-term, devastating impact of enslavement on African heritage communities. And that reparations need to be taken in close consultation with these local communities.

Esther’s message drove home that ‘repair is not just about money’. Everyone needs to change and transform their consciences to take on board the damage of the past. ‘Repair is not one-sided,’ she said. ‘Healing from internal damage is an important part of the reparations movement’ as oppression continues through racist attitudes and a lack of access to resources and opportunities for many African heritage communities.

The workshop, held at Redland Meeting House, involved more than eighty people from varied backgrounds and a big range of Bristol organisations. This is giving us an opportunity to develop our work through a network of local institutions and community groups.

These steps come against the national backdrop of Quakers committing at Yearly Meeting 2022 to make practical reparations for the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism and economic exploitation. Yearly Meeting encouraged Quakers to learn about the background of the broader reparations movement and to consider how reparations might be made for past Quaker involvement.

Bristol Quakers are proud of the leading role that our own members played in the abolition of slavery, particularly from the 1780s onwards. But our own local research has revealed some painful findings, just as the Lancaster Quaker Meeting has acknowledged in recent years. Some prominent Bristol-linked Quakers were involved in the transatlantic trafficking in the 1700s and in a few cases they owned plantations using enslaved labour in the Americas and Caribbean. Other Quakers benefited directly from the city’s expansive ‘slavery economy’, which involved everything from shipping to trading of goods, arms production and banking.

Reparations should not be made in isolation. Esther highlighted that Bristol City Council passed a reparations motion in March 2021. This was developed by grassroots activists and supported by Lambeth Council in London and Green Party members. Esther advised the Bristol City Council on its reparations policy and is connected to many community organisations. She focused on the five basic UN principles and guidelines for reparations, namely:

• restitution (includes a right to return to one’s place of residence, return of property or assets, and finding a way of restoring people to the position they were in before they were harmed)

• rehabilitation (about healing of minds, often through joining the struggle for reparations or community rebuilding)

• satisfaction (which includes acknowledgement, apology and public commemoration)

• compensation (putting a monetary value on harms of the past)

• guarantees of non-repetition (including legislation to prevent further harms).

Esther is also the director of the Maangamizi Educational Trust. The Swahili or Pan-African term ‘Maangamizi’ refers to the intentional destruction of peoples and nations. It takes a holistic approach and refers to a ‘continuum of harm’ extending from the transatlantic chattel slavery through colonialism to racism in modern society, genocide and other crimes.

Esther says it is crucial to understand ethics around reparations. Firstly, international law on reparations states that affected communities have the right to participate in any reparation programs – they must be consulted and involved in helping to shape them. Otherwise, we replicate the racism and inequalities of the past, Esther said. We must ensure our ‘objectives connect with reparations plans being driven by Bristol African heritage community organisations and contemporary reparations movements’.

Secondly, there are ethics around the use of language, which can cause deep hurt or offence. Speaking of the need for ‘linguistic repair’, Esther said the word ‘slavery’ represents a system of violence and trauma. By speaking of ‘enslaved people’, rather than ‘slaves’, and ‘enslavers’ rather than ‘masters’, we recognise the immoral power relationship that existed.

The use of ‘slave’ terminology dehumanises African people and hurts children of African heritage, leading to self-hatred. ‘The legacy of African chattel enslavement is everywhere,’ she said.

Workshop participants were made aware that they are entering an area of contestation as views evolve around reparations. Even black-led organisations have different perspectives on this. ‘Your best approach is… to learn as much as possible before embarking on any action,’ Esther said.

Once a reparations plan has been adopted it needs to be well structured with a clear idea of objectives, tasks, and who will implement them. The timeframe for implementation, criteria to determine success, and resources required, must all be considered carefully.

Esther warned of pitfalls to avoid in reparations. One is ‘elite capture’, when some institutions take reparations actions to look good, ensuring their own priorities shape the process.

Dependency can also develop on donor funding, resulting in a reshaping of the agenda. ‘Movement capture’ is another challenge because the increasing flow of funds into the reparations space can attract the wrong organisations.

I came away from the workshop with a growing appreciation for the complexity of reparations. But the climb to the summit no longer looked impossible, with several routes signposted and some important footholds along the way.

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