During a visit to Jamaica earlier this week, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron poured cold water on calls from Britain’s former Caribbean colonies –– the independent countries which today make up the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) –– for reparations to compensate for slavery that generated considerable wealth for the former European imperialist power.
In an address to the Jamaican Parliament after Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller raised the issue, Mr Cameron told legislators: “I do hope that, as friends who have gone through so much together since those dark times, we can move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future.”
The comment sparked headshakes from the audience.
That Britain profited handsomely from imported African slave labour is not in dispute, even by the British themselves. Slave labour was the engine of the colonial plantation economy producing agriculture-based products, most notably sugar, which at the time were in great demand in Europe, fetched high prices and generated considerable wealth for plantation owners which, in many cases, has been passed to succeeding generations.
“. . . The wealth and riches which flowed from sugar and slavery played an essential role in Britain’s rise to global pre-eminence,” writes British author, historian and opposition Labour Party parliamentarian Tristram Hunte in a book entitled Ten Cities That Made An Empire. “. . . The staggering returns from the West Indies colonies funded the acceleration of the British Empire, the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and the expansion of the Royal Navy.”
Slavery has defined the modern Caribbean society and economy. Predominantly black populations which are mostly working class and poor, are the descendants of African slaves. White minorities who retain significant control of regional economic life, are in many instances the descendants of former plantation and slave owners. Uneven patterns of trade favouring the metropolis, and the continuing dependence of Caribbean economies on foreign resources for their development are other obvious legacies of the colonial era.
Considering the lingering effects on the region, plus the fact that when slavery was abolished in the early 19th century after being in existence for some 300 years, it was the slave owners who were compensated by Britain while the slaves were sent away empty-handed, CARICOM set up a commission two years ago to make
a case for reparations. The chairman is Sir Hilary Beckles, eminent historian and vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies (UWI).
In an open letter published in the Jamaican Press and Barbados TODAY to coincide with Mr Cameron’s visit, Sir Hilary stated the region’s case: “We ask not for handouts or any such acts of indecent submission. We merely ask that you acknowledge responsibility for your share of this situation and move to contribute in a joint programme of rehabilitation and renewal.”
On the strength of the evidence, the English-speaking Caribbean countries do have a legitimate case for reparations from Britain to correct an historical injustice. However, they can only achieve this desired outcome through negotiation; but Britain quite clearly is unwilling to entertain the issue, going by Mr Cameron’s response, which reflects a long-standing position taken by Whitehall. The region needs, therefore, to determine how it will get around this major roadblock.
It is quite obvious that Britain believes that current generations should not be held accountable for an issue which, though morally wrong, was perfectly legal at the time. There is another equally relevant side to slavery which, for whatever reason, is generally overlooked in Caribbean discussion. It relates to the complicity of Africans who operated inland, captured fellow Africans and brought them to the coast where they were handed over to the British for the transatlantic journey into Caribbean slavery. Africans, therefore, are equally as guilty for this crime against humanity.
This point was raised by British newspaper columnist Julia Hartley-Brewer who posed the question: “So are the Caribbean states planning to demand compensation from those West African countries for their part in this evil trade too? It would seem not.”
The Telegraph writer says the “biggest difficulty” in the slavery compensation issue is being “able to judge the past based on our values in the present”.
The battle lines are clearly drawn and only time will determine what will come out of this regional campaign which is also targeting other former European slave-owning countries, including France, Spain, The Netherlands, Portugal, Norway, Sweden and Denmark “to address the living legacies of these crimes”. Without a doubt, a long, uphill journey lies ahead.