For 300 years, more than 4 million men, women and children were imported as property to the Caribbean islands to live out their lives as free labor on plantations.
They were delivered from Africa on slave ships, packed like cargo for weeks. Hundreds of thousands died en route.
For centuries, these plantations were the backbone of the Caribbean economy. So when slavery was abolished in the the early 1800s, many European plantations crumbled and their owners left.
Now, according to CARICOM, the 15-member union of Caribbean countries, that dark history is hurting the modern competitiveness of the islands.
Sir Hilary Beckles is chairman of the CARICOM reparations commission. He says justice for the Caribbean islands can be served only in the form of transitional aid.
"What are the 10 major legacies that European colonization have left behind? Issues of illiteracy. Issues of ill health. Issues of poor infrastructure. Issues of backward agricultural economies. And it goes on," said Beckles.
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Paying for the past
“What I say to Europe is this: On the one hand, we take responsibility for our future, but on the other hand, you have to take some responsibility to partner with us in rebuilding these societies.”
— Sir Hilary Beckles, chairman of CARICOM's reparations commission
Reparations is a personal issue for Beckles. His great-great-grandparents were slaves on a British plantation in Barbados.
The U.K. is one of the countries from which CARICOM is seeking compensation, along with France and the Netherlands.
"Effectively, what we are saying to the governments of Europe is 'OK, after 300 years, you have left these islands in a pretty bad state. You’ve left them with terrible developmental challenges, and we believe you have a responsibility to return to the Caribbean and participate in the rebuilding of the Caribbean," said Beckles.
His main argument is that there is a huge wealth gap between CARICOM nations and their European counterparts in gross domestic product.
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The reparations demands are outlined in a 10-point plan and include a formal apology, assistance to people wanting to relocate back to countries in Africa and a partial cancellation of national debt.
In response, the U.K. Foreign Office said: "Slavery was and is abhorrent. The United Kingdom unreservedly condemns slavery and is committed to eliminating it.
"We should concentrate on identifying ways forward with a focus on the shared global challenges that face our countries in the 21st century."
Beckles defended CARICOM's motive for sending Europe an invoice, insisting: "I know there’s a perception that this has to do with the extraction of revenues out of the European economies for the Caribbean world. It is not so simple. It’s a part of it. But there are also psychological issues. There’s also moral issues. And deeply diplomatic issues. So it’s complex and multi-layered."
CARICOM plans to submit its call for reparations to European governments by June 30.
Can money heal wounds of the past?
Do modern countries have a moral obligation to pay for their ancestors' atrocities?
Are reparations counterproductive in regional healing processes?
We consulted a panel of experts for the Inside Story.