Dr. Nora Wittmann

As an international lawyer and social anthropologist, I have done extensive

research on the matter of reparations for transatlantic slavery and colonialism

over the past years. Amongst other points where this research is

successful in deconstructing the hegemonic legal opinion – which stands

against reparations -, it argues and establishes along international law precepts

that transatlantic slavery, as part of the Maafa, was not only illegal and a crime

against humanity at the time it was perpetrated, but that transatlantic slavery

and the Maafa at large meet the legal elements of genocide. This is generally

not accepted because it is claimed that one of the legally required definition

elements of genocide, intent, would not be given in the case of transatlantic

slavery. In international law doctrine and practice, mass murder directed

against members of a definable group is only considered genocide when

the perpetrators aim at exterminating the targeted group, or a part of it, as such.

With regard to transatlantic slavery, it is usually contended that such intent

would be missing because the aim of European slavers would not have

been to exterminate Africans or groups of Africans “as such”, but to extract work

from them. The hegemonic opinion maintains that Europeans slavers did not

want to destroy African people, but only needed a working force, and that

the hundreds of millions of victims would have been an unintended

by-product of slavery.

Yet, Raphael Lemkin, the lawyer who coined the term “genocide” after WWII,

actually defined it as the expression of “a coordinated plan or different actions

aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups,

with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objective of such a plan

would be disintegration of the political and social institutions of culture,

language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national

groups and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity and

even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. Genocide is directed

against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed

against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the

national group.”

Now, when one looks at the historical facts of transatlantic slavery, it is apparent

that European slavers aimed at exterminating groups of Africans, at stripping

them of their humanity, and at rendering them into work instruments. Most

historians come to the conclusion that transatlantic slavery made about 100 to

210 million direct victims, whereby they estimate that for every African who

made it to the Americas and was sold there, four to five had died in Africa or

during the Middle Passage through violent action associated with the

transatlantic slavery system. Diop-Maes estimated that Africa’s population of

600 million habitants in the 14th century had been reduced to 200 million by the mid-19th century, because of transatlantic slavery.

Pertaining to this forced mass removal of Africans from the continent, there

exists an interesting UN commentary on genocide (UN doc. A/C.6/234) and it

clearly states that “[m]ass displacement of populations from one region to

another does not constitute genocide. It would, however, become genocide

if the occupation were attended by such circumstances as to lead to the death

of the whole or part of the displaced population (if, for example, people were

driven from their homes and forced to travel long distances in a country

where they were exposed to starvation, thirst, heat, cold and epidemics). (…)”.

We know that the mortality rate during the Middle Passage on any given ship

was between 20 and 80 percent of the enslaved Africans on board.

According to the International Law Commission, the “intention to destroy the

group ‘as such’” refers to the will to destroy it “as a separate and distinct entity,

and not merely some individuals because of their membership in a particular

group”. Perpetrators must select victims on the basis of their group identity and

aim at the destruction of the group as a group. There is no doubt that in

transatlantic slavery, European private slavers and the governments that stood

behind them and controlled and directed the crime, selected their victims based

on the fact that they were Africans in general, and that they were members of

certain African groups that slavers aimed at at one time or another in

specific. Generally and fundamentally, it was only through the destruction of

African society at large and specific groups of Africans as such that this

massive enslavement was rendered possible.

Thus, they may not have aimed to kill Africans as such, but without any doubt

did Europeans slavers aim to destroy them as human beings and to render them

into things, into disposable work instruments. And this line of conduct clearly

fulfils the required elements of legal definition of genocide. A clear indication of

this is how European slavers and slaver states dealt with Maroons and other


Hans Sloane, author of a renowned book on the natural history of Jamaica,

recollected some of the treatment that he witnessed enslaved Africans to suffer.

“For rebellion, the punishment is burning them, by nailing them down to the

ground with crooked sticks on every limb, and then applying the fire, by degrees,

from the feet and hands, burning them gradually up to the head, whereby their

pains are extravagant. For crimes of a less nature, gelding or chopping off half

the foot with an axe.”

The fact that enslaved Africans who participated in rebellions received the

harshest and most brutal punishment is hardly surprising, yet it abets the claim

that transatlantic slavery was genocide since it was through rebellion that

Africans also affirmed themselves as a group and were intentionally and

ferociously killed and brutalized for this precise reason.

Beyond that, the intent requirement is also fulfilled if it extends only to the

destruction of a part of a victim group. Taking account of the historical facts,

there remains no marge of doubt that European enslaver states disposed of such

intent with regard to the Maroons, communities of self-liberated Africans who

had succeeded in escaping from the plantations and reconstituted their

communities from elements of their African motherland. It is crucial in that

context to fully overstand that Maroons were determined to uphold their

identity as Africans, and that it was also because of this determination that the

colonial states persecuted them with such utmost ferocity. They thereby testified

their intent to destroy the Maroon part of African society precisely because

of its unrelenting free Africaness, which was incompatible with the slave status

that European slavers aimed to impose on all Black people.

Colonial powers trained dogs to lacerate freedom-takers. One instance of

this is documented from mid-16th century Panama where the Spanish loosened

dogs on Maroons. In Demerara, then a Dutch colony and today on the territory of

the state Guyana, Amsterdam, the leader of a Maroon settlement, was

captured in 1795 and “was sentenced to be burnt alive, first having the flesh torn

from his limbs with red-hot pincers; and in order to render his punishment still

more terrible, he was compelled to sit by, and see thirteen others broken and

hung; and then, in being conducted to execution, was made to walk over the

thirteen dead bodies of his comrades.”

In 1749, a captured Maroon couple was executed publicly in Cayenne,

“French” Guiana. “Copena is sentenced to having his arms, legs, thighs, and back

broken on a scaffold to be erected in the Place du Port. He shall then be placed

on a wheel, face toward the sky, to finish his days, and his corpse shall be

exposed. Claire, convicted of the crime of marronage and of complicity with

maroon Negroes, shall be hanged till dead at the gallows in the Place du Port.

Her two young children Paul and Pascal, belonging to M. Coutard, and other

children- Francois and Matilde, Martin and Baptiste- all accused of marronage,

are condemned to witness the torture of Copena and Claire.” The genocidal

plantation system not only kept the enslaved adults in check by the

omnipresent reality of bestial punishment for captured freedom-takers and

the constant threat this implied for every enslaved African, but also by

permanently maintaining the same threat for the children of those who dared to

break free. “Captured women with small children ran the risk of seeing heavy

chains being placed around the necks or feet of their infants, some only six years

old, which weighed them down and, in the view of one government official, always

left severe bruising.” In 1832 Xavier Tanc, a magistrate in Guadeloupe observed

“a little girl about six years old dragging this heavy and irksome burden with

torment as if the crime (…) of the mother was justification for punishing this

young child in such barbarous manner. At that age, her fragile frame and delicate

flesh were all battered.” This structural and public staging of the consequences

that people who refused to accept their imposed slave identity and upheld

their Africaness would incur, was a central element in the strategy of social

and psychological mass control that was necessary to uphold the genocidal

slavery system, and stands in a straight continuity with what was done to

Marcus Garvey, with the repression at Coral Gardens, Pinnacle, and

Rasta City/Tivoli Gardens and with the hegemonic representations of these

attacks, through the media and in general.

The way that Haiti, shining star and symbol of the refusal of Africans to be

enslaved and give up their identity, is both sabotaged physically and

represented in the mainstream media as the prototype of chaos, misery,

catastrophe and incapacity also fall within that line of misrepresenting and

violently destroying African socitieties.

This policy that enslaver states maintained against Maroons and

freedom-takers clearly aimed at exterminating these groups as such and at the

same time pursued to turn the rest of captured Africans into “slaves” while

violently striping them of their African identity. Thus, this policy testifies of the

intent to destroy Africans, as a group, as such, as well as particular groups of

Africans, the Maroons, as such.

“Even when Africans had found their freedom through various behaviours

such as willingness to betray slave revolts [or] willingness to have sexual relations

with overlords, (…) [f]reedom could be revoked any time the White authorities felt

that the freed persons constituted a burden on White society, (…) or

engaged in activities that the authoritarian State considered inimical to its

interests. In 1731 the Jamaican legislature passed a law imposing loss of

freedom on any free Black or free Coloured person who refused to serve in

the militia against runaways. In 1754 the Viceroy of Mexico proclaimed that any

freed Black person caught fraternizing with Maroons would lose his freedom.

In 1769 Laurent Macé, a free Black of Haiti, convicted of giving shelter

to two Maroons, was reduced once again to slavery, as was his wife, another free

Black, in accordance with a colonial law of 1705. A French degree of 1802

reiterated the earlier law that free Blacks caught harbouring runaways could lose

their freedom, and that the same would happen to their families. Viewed from

this standpoint, at no time were freed persons really free while living within

White slave society.”

The actions that European states and private slavers consistently took and

condoned over centuries in the colonies and on the African continent could,

with utmost certainty, not have had any other outcome than the destruction of

many African groups and African society as such. Numerous African communities

and states were wiped out through the violence of transatlantic enslavement.

This clearly fulfils the intent requirement for genocide.

To cite again Hans Sloane, he reported of Jamaica that slaves were

permanently underfed to the extent that they perished.

“[T]heir owners, from a desire of making the greatest gain by the labour of their

slaves, lay heavy burdens on them, and yet feed and cloth them very sparingly,

and some scarce feed and cloth them at all. (…) In Jamaica, if six in ten of the

new imported Negroes survive the seasoning, it is looked upon as a

gaining purchase. And in most of the other plantations, if the Negroes

live eight or nine years, their labour is reckoned a sufficient

compensation for their cost. (…) It is a dreadful consideration, as a late

author remarks, that out of the stock of eighty thousand negroes in Barbados,

there die every year five thousand more than are born in that island; which

failure is probably in the same proportion in other islands. In effect, this

people is under a necessity of being entirely renewed every sixteen years.”

(emphasis added)

Such policy, which was systematic throughout transatlantic slavery, shows that

the destruction of Africans as a group, or of part of that group, was not only

accepted but was calculated with cold and utilitarian logic. Many also died

because they fell into the boiling sugar cane or came between the millstones.

The occurrence of such accidents was expediated by the fact that the

enslaved generally only got about three to four hours of sleep a day. It is

generally agreed among historians that field slaves on sugar plantations in

the Americas lived only between five and ten years from when they were

forced to begin to labor.

To be able to maintain barbarous transatlantic slavery over more than

400 years, it was necessary to destroy Africans as a group and particular

groups of Africans, thus meeting the legal requirement of intending the

“whole or partial destruction of a protected group”. It simply would not have

been possible to maintain this cycle of violence without assaults directed at

African group identities and the existence of groups of Africans as such.

From that time to this, much has changed and much has remained the same. The

theme of this conference has an explicit focus on the Coral Gardens Massacre

and African Redemption, yet it is important also to acknowledge that more

recently, in May 2010, when the Jamaican state forces launched their assault on

Tivoli Gardens, they took one special target on an area within that

community commonly known as “Rasta City”. Rasta City was just a corner

where the youths of the community would hang out and get exposed to a positive

livity and to cultural education. As one bredrin who is from that community told

me, there was a profound Rastafari – Afrikan conscious orientation there. After

Rasta City was established, many within the community but even from without

turned to Rastafari. Though that space was instituted by Chris Royal, a son

of Jim Brown and brother of Dudus, Chris Royal did not embrace the political

tribalism as his late father or siblings, but seeked to unite the divided

around a consciousness of being Afrikan. Rasta City was set up as a way of

affirming a vision of a united Afrikan consciousness, and was painted in

Rasta and African liberation colors with murals of Haile Selassie I, Marcus Garvey

and Prince Emmanuel. It physically featured uplifting utterances by

these personalities. In the 2010 massacre, Rasta City was heavily targeted. Al

l the murals were painted out, banners torn down and burned.

The RastafarI movement is in some regards successor or descendant of the

Maroons and also to the repression that the Maroons encountered. Not only

that in song, many RastafarI artists identify with the Maroons and the struggle

and big up their leaders such as Nanny. Fundamentally and as the Maroons

ancestors, bredren and sistren are upholding, defending their Africaness, their

identity against the slave master and their colonial and neo-colonial puppet

schemes against all odds. And for this exactly same reason that the Maroons

got the worst of persecution then, RastafarI bredren and sistren got and get the

worst of persecution and harassment up to this day, be it in Pinnacle, Coral

Gardens or Rasta City/Tivoli Gardens. Because they still refuse the alienated

identity that is necessary to allow for a smooth sell-out of bauxite to

foreign multinationals, leaving the land polluted and contaminated, the

alienated identity that is necessary for the continued rape of Africa and her

resources that will only stop when her scattered children will re-unite. In

Martinique, still under French occupation, RastafarI children with locks are

refused entrance to schools unless they cut their hair, while the French

state is continuing to kill the people with pesticides, making Martinique

and Guadeloupe world leaders for some kinds of cancers. RastafarI still, even after

500 years of genocidal assault on their African identity, reclaim and proudly

display their Africaness, and that’s part of why they are bothering and

encountering so much harassment.

Concluding, I would like to say that it is important that people appreciate what

has been stated within the context of the global African reparations struggle.

Sticking to international law, reparations are due both for the forced labour and for

the genocide. And both, forced labour and genocide perpetrated against

African people, are still going on today. We must make this explicit to the

peoples of the world at every opportunity we get, and highlight within the legal

line of proof that, what was done to the Maroons, to other African freedom-takers

and in a straight continuity up to today to members of the RastafarI movement,

is an important element of evidence for the claim that transatlantic slavery

and the Maafa were and are genocide.

In that context it is also crucial to highlight that the RastafarI movement has

always carried on, in the straight line from the first ancestors that were enslaved

and deported, the claim for reparation(s), especially but not only in the

form of repatriation. It is very important to expose and highlight the unbroken

line of persecution of Africans from the Maroons to Marcus Garvey to the

destruction of Gong Howell’s Pinnacle to the Coral Gardens Massacre to the

recent physical destruction and medial slandering of Rasta City,

persecution perpetrated because of RastafarIs’ holding on to African identity.

It must be stressed that this conduct meets the legal requirements of genocide.

Not of a genocide that is purely of the past, but is continuing.

According to international law, a continuing violation of international law

makes possible the direct application of present-day international law, including

the jurisdiction of today’s institutions of international jurisprudence such as

the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court, and, since

we are dealing with genocide, puts all states into a legal obligation to take

efforts to bring that global illegal situation to an end.

In view of this, it also seems important to ground the call for reparations for the

Coral Gardens massacre, as voiced by the RastafarI movement today and

directed against the Jamaican state, within the bigger framework of the global

African reparations struggle. It is no enough to claim reparations for the Coral

Gardens massacre from the Jamaican state that is still part of the Commonwealth

with Elizabeth II, today’s personification of the enslaver state, as its head.

The fundamental question of to which addressee, or addresses, the Coral

Gardens reparations claim or claims should be directed, has to be reasoned

upon in depth. Of course, the survivors of the massacre who are still amongst us

today, must be supported in bringing their concrete individual claims for

reparations before the Jamaican state authorities; that is their legal right

and demanded by justice. Yet besides that, sight must not be lost from

directing a large, structural, ground-breaking reparations claim, inclusive of for

the Coral Gardens massacre as another, designative, systematic and more

recent episode in the genocide against African people, instigated and set up

by the European slaver-states. And that claim must be directed against the British

state and against all other European and European-dominated states that

illegally, criminally and violently continue to uphold global apartheid,

anchored in transatlantic slavery.

Keeping with international law, both the overall claim and punctual claims

for reparations for the Maafa, firmly entrenched with transatlantic slavery,

must be addressed at all levels necessary and appropriate and to all responsible

agents and institutions. Coral Gardens and other survivors must get

individual reparations for the hurt and damage that was done to them. But we

must never loose sight of the global African reparations claim. Until it will be

settled, and be it by taking reparations, instances of discrimination,

harassment, murder, genocide of African people, especially those who

continue to uphold and defend their African identity and Africa’s land and

resources, will continue to be perpetrated.


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