Published on Friday, December 11, 2009 Email To Friend Print Version
ST CROIX, USVI — In recent weeks, the issue has been raised of disclosure by corporations in the US Virgin Islands that operated during the slavery era. Legislation which would “require existing and new corporations to research their history to determine if any predecessor corporation existed which used forced labor or was involved in the trade of human chattel” was introduced on June 29, 2005 by St Thomas Senator Shawn-Michael Malone but was held in the legislature’s Committee on Government Operations and Consumer Protection for further consideration.
In the continental US, legislation requiring corporations to research and disclose ties to slavery has been enacted in states as conservative as Iowa and Wisconsin, in cities as liberal as San Francisco and Los Angeles, and in states as far north as Illinois and Michigan. However, in the US Virgin Islands, Bill No. 26-0089, which proposes to amend title 13 of the Virgin Islands Code by adding a section for incorporators to disclose slavery ties has remained unaddressed for more than four years.
With respect to the historical institution of slavery in the US Virgin Islands, there are corporations doing business in the territory today that have fundamental ties to the slavery era. As such, many of these entities maintain ownership of historical treasure troves that reference the customs, origins, health, ancestry and the day to day life and struggles of a people who are the grandparents of today’s Virgin Islanders.
To comply with city and state laws, in recent years many corporations large and small, the length and breadth of the United States, have researched corporate records and slavery era findings have been published by Fortune 500 companies like JP Morgan Chase/Bank One, the Bank of America/FleetBoston, R.J Reynolds Tobacco, New York Life, and AIG. In other cases, smaller companies have answered the calls of communities and advocates to deliver such things as the birth and death records and the baptism and communion certificates of enslaved laborers. Insurance claims and bank documents of slave owners have also been detailed in reports these reports. The information has been used educationally and as tools to inform students, youth, and communities regarding the genealogical and ethnic origins of enslaved relatives. Slavery era findings have also been used to memorialize and dignify enslaved relatives and have provided key links for descendants of enslaved African laborers seeking to reestablish ties to ancestral lands, languages, cultures, traditions, and heritage.
It is widely accepted that the Virgin Islands rum industry was established with the use of African slave labour. Noting that Cruzan Rum is founded on a heritage of rum production that dates back to 1760 on Estate Diamond, the St Croix based African-Caribbean Reparations and Resettlement Alliance (ACRRA) last month contacted the owners of Cruzan Rum with an objective to educate Virgin Islanders on a most significant historical era and the impact made by rum production upon humanity in the territory. A letter from ACRRA to Bruce Carbonari, Chairman and CEO of Fortune Brands, Inc. and to Gary Nelthropp, President of Cruzan Viril Ltd., aimed to initiate dialogue on the matter. The letter also requested that historical ties to the institution of slavery and the trade of human beings by Cruzan’s corporate predecessors be disclosed.
However, early this month, ACRRA reportedly learned that the producers of Cruzan Rum maintain a position that does not view slavery as integral to the development of their corporations. In a December 4 letter written to ACRRA’s president Shelley Moorhead, Attorney Mark Roche explained that, although “Estate Diamond was the site of sugar and rum production as early as 1760, Cruzan, as a successor of the Diamond Rum Company, has only existed as a brand or corporate entity since 1934.” Roche, who is the Senior Vice-President, General Counsel and Secretary of Fortune Brands, asserted that “Cruzan never used slave labor in its production of rum.”
In response to Roche’s account of Cruzan’s noninvolvement in slavery, Moorhead stated that Fortune is mistaken. “I feel that Fortune has arrived at their position prematurely,” said ACRRA’s president. Moorhead thinks that “the owners of the world’s number one rum should have consulted with the Nelthropp family on St Croix and with historians and rum experts before declaring from their corporate headquarters in Illinois that slavery was not used in the making of what is today Cruzan Rum.”
While Bill No. 26-0089 is still making its way back to the senate floor, ACRRA remains optimistic that, once the historical facts are presented and the information is shared, the producers of Cruzan Rum and other corporations in the territory will join the list of their corporate peers in the US by accepting the noble and honourable responsibility to address and disclose their historical ties to slavery. The organisation is working through partnerships with scholars and researchers in St Croix and Denmark to document the history of slavery at Estate Diamond and related properties. The report will highlight the corporate use of slave labour in the production of rum in the territory and will aim to set the record straight regarding the contributions made by enslaved Africans to what is today the Virgin Islands rum industry.
For now, ACRRA said it intends to reply to Fortune’s letter and will continue to pursue the issue of slavery era disclosure. The organisation was formed in 2004 to seek repair for slave descendants and to address centuries of slavery in the Caribbean. In 2005, ACRRA led an official USVI delegation to Denmark for reparations talks. The delegation included Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen, Senate President Usie Richards and Sen. Terrence Nelson. Since then, ACRRA and the Danish Institute for Human Rights, a non-government organization, have formed the Joint Virgin Islands/Denmark Reparations Task Force to foster dialogue between the two governments and to educate the public.