As It Happens

Harvard has 'moral obligation' to pay reparations for slavery, says Antigua PM

The prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda says Harvard isn't doing enough to acknowledge its ties to slavery. He is calling on the American university to pay reparations for building itself up on the "blood, sweat and tears" of his people.

Gaston Browne says Harvard was built on the 'blood, sweat and tears' of his people

Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, is calling on Harvard to pay reparations for its ties to slavery. (Diego Azubel/Getty Images)
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Harvard University has long been criticized for its links to slavery. After all, its law school was built with the proceeds of an Antiguan plantation.

But now the American Ivy League school is facing new criticism — not just for its past, but for its current debts.

According to the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Harvard hasn't done enough to compensate his country for that troubling past.

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Gaston Browne about a letter he wrote to the university demanding reparations — saying its treatment of his country is "shocking, if not immoral." Here is part of their conversation.

Prime Minister Brown, what debt does the success of Harvard Law School owe to slavery? 

First of all, the issue of reparations is not one in which we are trying to solicit a gift or some form of aid.

In essence, it is compensation to restore equity and justice. And we believe that based on the historical fact that the Harvard Law School would have benefited from the profits generated from that exploitative system of slavery, that they have a moral obligation to assist us to build capacity.

And I don't think that they have really taken us seriously. In fact, I think they have been very disingenuous with their responses.

Browne says Harvard Law School's success was built on the 'blood, sweat and tears' of enslaved Antiguans. (Chitose Suzuki/The Associated Press)

Can you tell us a bit more about Isaac Royall Jr. This is a man who founded Harvard Law School. What did he do in Antigua and Barbuda?

He obviously was born in the United States. [He] came to Antigua [and] operated a plantation here in which he enslaved our forebearers. [He] made an enormous amount of profits and then repatriated those profits to the United States. [He] acquired hundreds of acres of land, which he subsequently bequeathed to Harvard to establish the law school.

And we all know the conditions under which slaves lived. I mean, they were living in inhumane conditions. There are many who actually died on the plantations. Many of them were actually executed.

You have heard about the uprising in 1736 in which they literally executed 88 of the enslaved people here in Antigua.

Tortured them and executed them.

Absolutely. Tortured and executed them.

So, I mean, they are in the most inhumane circumstances for the last maybe 400 or 500 years in which our forebears were literally treated as less than human. They are literally treated as animals, as chattels.

Now, our issue goes beyond that. The issue is about compensation for their labour and that is where the reparatory claim has been made. What we're saying here is that they worked and they ought to be compensated and they should be paid.

There are some who may argue, OK, our forebears are no longer alive. But guess what? We are the ones who inherited their estate and we are saying that there should be some settlement.

And this is because of the wealth that Isaac Royall Jr. was able to build for himself with his sugar plantation in your country, and you have written to Harvard University stating your case, saying that it's shocking, if not immoral, what happened. And you have asked for this reparation. What has been the response so far from Harvard?

They said that, for example, they removed the shield bearing the name of Isaac Royall and that they had replaced it with a stone to mark the contributions of the enslaved people. But that does not go far enough.

Harvard's president Lawrence Bacow says they are working to recognize the role of slavery in the creation of the law school, and he said there were more steps that they would be taking. I take it that you are not impressed.

I am not.

Remember that we have been trying to engage them now for two years. I had my ambassador Ron Sanders, ambassador to the [Organization of American States] and the United States, write to Harvard, I think, back in 2016. We're now in 2019.

They would have had enough time to study the issue and to engage us. I mean, we think that, at a minimum, they should be extending some form of formal engagement so that we can discuss how we can resolve this issue amicably.

And again, I repeat, we are not asking Harvard to write us a cheque of $20 million. What we're saying here is that having benefited from the wealth of our forebears, they have an obligation now to assist the descendents to build capacity.

We have a university. We feel that we could collaborate with them to help to build a university here so that we can advance the educational achievements of our people so that we can become more competitive.

Is there a dollar figure that you would put on that?

Well, no. I wouldn't want to do that. I mean, clearly there has to be dialogue between the Antigua government and Harvard for us to come to a consensus.

But this is money. This is financial compensation — not just recognition — that you're looking for?

It doesn't necessarily have to be financial compensation.

Even if they had a number of scholarships for Antiguans and Barbudans, it would not cost them anything. And then it helps to deal with this irritant, this long-standing issue.

And let me say here irritant for them, but it's a serious issue for us, in which we're saying that we have to pursue this issue of reparatory justice so that there could be some restoration of equity and justice.

Browne says Harvard has the capacity and moral obligation to restore 'equity and justice' through reparations, scholarships or a sister university. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

In addition to that stone plaque that honours — it says it honours "the enslaved whose labour created wealth that made possible the founding of Harvard Law School" — Harvard has recognized the crest of the school was actually that of the family that ran the plantation and they have now dismissed that. Is there more that you want to see them do in order to recognize the role that slavery played in building the school?

That does not help to restore equity in any way. I mean, it's an acknowledgement. However, they need to go further.

We are a poor, developing country. And if, for example, we didn't have the extraction of all that wealth over the centuries, I'm sure Antigua and Barbuda would have been a wealthier country. Our people would have been wealthier. [We] would have had well-established institutions.

In fact, I could tell you so much. One of reasons why the Caribbean is so vulnerable to hurricanes is because they don't have the type of finances in order to build climate-resilient infrastructure, climate-resilient homes. You know, we've been left literally poor and destitute.

And those who benefited directly from the blood, sweat and tears of our forebears, they have an obligation to assist.


Written by Morgan Passi and John McGill. Interview produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.