King Charles’s comment that the “time has come” to acknowledge the enduring impact of slavery has been welcomed by the prime minister of Barbados as she spoke in London on Tuesday about the need for reparations.
Mia Mottley said Barbados was owed $4.9tn (£3.9tn) by slave-owning nations, noting that conversations over how this debt should be repaid would “be difficult and will take time”.
“We’re not expecting that the reparatory damages will be paid in a year, or two, or five because the extraction of wealth and the damages took place over centuries. But we are demanding that we be seen and that we are heard,” she said.
Mottley met David Cameron earlier on Tuesday but would not give details of the foreign secretary’s thoughts on the UK’s slavery-related debt.
“I’m not going to get into the details of our conversation but suffice to say I think the foreign secretary will take his lead from his majesty,” she said.
During a speech at the London School of Economics’ International Inequalities Institute, she repeatedly commended King Charles’s apparent willingness to confront slavery. Her belief in the king’s openness to discussion stems from a speech he gave in June 2022 at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda.
The king spoke of his “personal sorrow at the suffering of so many”, and how he continues to “deepen [his] understanding of slavery’s enduring impact”. He added: “To forge a common future, that benefits all our citizens, we too must find new ways to acknowledge our past … This is a conversation whose time has come.” The speech made no reference to financial reparations.
Since becoming prime minister in 2018, Mottley has become a powerful voice globally on the legacy of colonialism and has helped transform the call for reparations into a mainstream political issue.
Citing calculations made in a report by the Brattle Group, which factors in the wealth and GDP amassed by countries that enslaved African people, she set out that the UK owes $24tn in reparations to 14 countries affected by transatlantic slavery, Spain owes $17.1tn, France owes $9.2tn and the Netherlands owes $4.86tn.
“These numbers, if taken out of context, can appear to be staggering. But in relation to the total wealth accumulated over a period of time, the numbers are actually minuscule,” said Mottley.
Addressing the historical legacy of slavery would allow the global community to “move on in strength rather than languishing in the shadows of a disgraceful history”, she said.
Mottley said the call for reparations had gained urgency in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
“For the first time the world recognised that we could no longer ignore the trauma of four centuries of enslavement and barbarism and of denying people their humanity,” she added. “I want to salute the king for having the courage to understand that this is a conversation whose time has come.”
She was more reserved about some recent pledges to pay reparations made by institutions in the UK, which she noted had sometimes “ignored the agency of black people, were not done after conversation and not done after negotiation”.
She questioned whether the £100m fund announced earlier this year by the Church of England to address historical slave trade links was adequate. “I want to thank the Church of England for agreeing to pay £100m. The only difficulty is that there was no conversation and the difficulty remains that this may not in any way come to closing the gap,” she said.
Rishi Sunak has rejected suggestions that the UK should pay reparations for its role in slavery, stating that “trying to unpick our history is not the right way forward and is not something we will focus our energies on”. Cameron in a 2015 trip to Jamaica acknowledged that slavery was “abhorrent in all its forms” but said he hoped “we can move on from this painful legacy”.