KINGSTON –– David Cameron has ruled out making reparations for Britain’s role in the historic slave trade and urged Caribbean countries to “move on”.
The prime minister acknowledged that “these wounds run very deep” during his visit to Jamaica, where he faced calls to apologize from campaigners. He said Britain’s role in wiping slavery “off the face of our planet” should be remembered.
Jamaica’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller said she had raised the issue in talks.
Addressing MPs in Jamaica’s Parliament, Cameron said slavery was “abhorrent in all its forms”.
He added: “I do hope that, as friends who have gone through so much together since those darkest of times, we can move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future.”
Cameron also announced £25 million in British aid for a new Jamaican prison and a £300m development package for the Caribbean which will provide grants for infrastructure projects, including roads and bridges.
He said his visit –– the first by a British prime minister in 14 years –– was to “reinvigorate” ties between the countries, and that he wanted to concentrate on future relations rather than centuries-old issues.
Simpson Miller said while she was “aware of the obvious sensitivities”, Jamaica was “involved in a process under the auspices of the Caribbean Community [CARICOM] to engage the UK on the matter”.
During Cameron’s speech, a small group of protesters with placards that read Reparations Now gathered outside Parliament.
The issue of former slave-owning nations compensating former colonies is a contentious one in the Caribbean, where national commissions have calculated the sums could run into trillions of dollars.
One suggestion has been that the money could be provided in the form of debt relief.
Simpson Miller told the United Nations in 2013 there should be “an international discussion in a non-confrontational manner” and its Parliament had passed a motion backing reparations.
One Jamaican MP, Mike Henry, threatened to boycott Cameron’s speech at the country’s Parliament if he did not engage on the issue.
For more than 200 years Britain was at the heart of a lucrative transatlantic trade in millions of enslaved Africans.
According to ship records it is estimated about 12.5 million people were transported as slaves from Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean –– to work in often brutal conditions on plantations –– from the 16th century until the trade was banned in 1807.
In 1833, Britain emancipated its enslaved people and raised the equivalent of £17 billion in compensation money to be paid to 46,000 of Britain’s slave owners for “loss of human property”. University College London has compiled a database of those compensated.
Among those listed is General Sir James Duff, who it is claimed is a first cousin six times removed of David Cameron. He was awarded compensation worth about £3 million in today’s terms.
Others who received compensation include the ancestors of novelists George Orwell and Graham Greene, as well as distant relatives of Arts Council chairman Sir Peter Bazalgette and celebrity chef Ainsley Harriott.
Campaigners also called on Cameron to make a personal apology, saying one of his own ancestors was paid compensation for the loss of his slaves in 1834.
Bert Samuels, a member of Jamaica’s National Commission On Reparations, told Television Jamaica “he needs to atone, to apologize personally and on behalf of his country”.
Sir Hilary Beckles, chairman of CARICOM’s Reparations Commission, wrote in an open letter in the Jamaica Observer that Britain must “play its part in cleaning
up this monumental mess of Empire”.