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
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.”
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.
Ani, Marimba (1988). Let The Circle Be Unbroken: The Implications of African Spirituality in the Diaspora. New York: Nkonimfo Publications.
Benezet, Anthony (1767). Some Historical Account of Guinea, Cirencester: The
Echo Library (ed. 2005).
Coco, Lémy Lémane (2005).
Regards sur l’esclavage dans les colonies françaises, Paris : Menaibuc.
Crawford, Jewel/ Nobles, Wade W./ DeGruy Leary, Joy (2003). “Reparations and Health Care for African Americans”, in: Raymond A. Winbush (ed.): Should America pay? Slavery and the raging debate on reparations, New York : Amistad.
Diop-Maes, Louise Marie (1996). Afrique Noire. Démographie, Sol et Histoire, Paris : Présence Africaine/ Khepera.
International Law Commission (1996). Report of the International Law
Commission on the Works of Its Forty-Eighth Session, U.N. GAOR, 51st Sess., Supplement No. 10 (A/51/10).
Ki-Zerbo, Joseph (1978). Histoire de l’Afrique Noire, Paris : Hatier.
Lemkin, Raphael (1944). Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. Laws Of Occupation,
Analysis Of Government, Proposals For Redress, Washington: Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace, Division of International Law.
Schabas, William A. (2000). Genocide in International Law, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Thompson, Alvin O. (2006). Flight to Freedom. African Runaways and Maroon
in the Americas, Kingston: University of the West Indies Press.
UN General Assembly, Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime
of Genocide, resolution adopted by the General Assembly, 9 December 1948, 260
A (III), Art. II.
Wittmann, Nora (2012). International Legal Responsibility and Reparations for Transatlantic Slavery (dissertation), Vienna: University of Vienna.
Wittmann, Nora (2013). Slavery Reparations Time Is Now. Exposing Lies,
Claiming Justice for Global Survival. An International Legal Assessment, Vienna: Power of the TrInIty Publishers.