‘Moral obligation’: Antigua seeking reparations from Harvard University

Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Alphonso Browne speaks during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, at UN headquarters.
Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Alphonso Browne speaks during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, at UN headquarters. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

The small Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda wants reparations from Harvard University.

Prime Minister Gaston Browne recently wrote a letter to the institution’s president seeking compensation because its famed law school was founded with the wealth of a sugar plantation owner who enslaved Antiguans.

READ MORE: Children in Halifax create book on Atlantic slave trade reparations

“We’re not asking for a cheque of hundreds of millions of dollars,” he told Global News Radio’s Michael Downey on Friday. “What we are saying here is that they were given some level of financial support by an Antiguan slave owner who obviously exploited thousands of Antiguans and Barbudans (and) utilized his wealth to subsequently bequeath that wealth for the establishment of the Harvard law school.”

Because of that, Harvard has a “moral obligation” to help build the capacity of the recently opened University of the West Indies campus in Antigua, he said.

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Harvard’s law school opened in 1817 as a result of a posthumous contribution from Isaac Royall Jr.

In his will, Royall bequeathed up to 1,000 acres of land to Harvard. It was eventually sold and the proceeds established the university’s first law professorship, according to the Royall House.

“The reputation that Harvard enjoys internationally is intertwined with the dark legacy of Royall’s Antigua slaves who died in oppression, uncompensated for their lives in slavery and their death in cruelty,” Browne stated in the letter dated Oct. 30.

Browne said he sent the letter after similar requests went unanswered. No dollar figure was attached — in fact, the contribution doesn’t necessarily have to be cash, Browne said, referencing scholarships and sharing expertise.

“Reparation from Harvard would compensate for its development on the backs of our people,” he stated in the letter. “Reparation is not aid; it is not a gift; it is compensation to correct the injustices of the past and restore equity. Harvard should be in the forefront of this effort.”

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U.S. Congress committee debating slavery reparations
U.S. Congress committee debating slavery reparations

The Miami Herald reports that Harvard President Lawrence Bacow responded by saying the school is “determined to take additional steps to explore this institution’s historical relationship with slavery and the challenging moral questions that arise when confronting past injustices and their legacies.”

In a letter, Bacow referenced how Harvard has stopped using elements of the Royall family crest and set up a memorial acknowledging the role of slavery in the establishment of the law school.

That, Browne said, is not enough.

“They have to go further. So, what we are asking for here is a meaningful engagement so that we could benefit.”

The movement to address the role of slavery in the establishment of post-secondary institutions is gaining steam.

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This year, students at Georgetown University established a reparations fund. Princeton Theological Seminary, a New Jersey private college, has put aside nearly US$28 million for scholarships and fellowships to benefit the descents of those who were enslaved and other underrepresented groups.

READ MORE: UNB law faculty mulls name change after students raise concerns about namesake


Closer to home, the University of New Brunswick is considering changing the name of its law school because of its founder’s ties to slavery.

The islands of Antigua and Barbuda are located southeast of St. Kitts and Nevis. The former British colony has a population of around 100,000 people.

Through a long history of slavery and colonialism, wealth that was generated in the country — and elsewhere in the Caribbean — was siphoned off to North America and Europe.

The people remain “vulnerable” to this day, Browne said.

“They left the countries in the Caribbean bereft of any form of wealth, any institutions,” he said. “They left it without schools, without hospitals.”