Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Reparations from Britain to Jamaica, justice, righteousness and responsibility

Today the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, arrives in Jamaica for a short visit, where he will hold talks about trade, and lay wreaths in honour of the war dead.

In 2013 the Jamaican government approved a motion to call for reparations from the British government following the affects of slavery, empire and massacres. There is some doubt that this will be part of the conversations he has on this visit. It's important that the issue is raised, and given proper time and discussion.

There will be many who say that the past is the past, that saying sorry is meaningless now, and that any reparations are really the Jamaican govt trying to extract some extra finance from what remains of the once great empire.

To think this way is to deny certain realities.

The legacy of slavery in the UK is seen in the industrial advantage that was won, and still to a large extent remains today. Slavery meant great wealth was then reinvested in other industries which in turn thrived, and continue to generate income and wealth today.

The legacy of slavery in the UK is seen today in the way our history books have largely avoided this evil part of our past, choosing to gloss over the realities of history, and instead focus on those we think ended slavery (we quite rightly know William Wilberforce's history, but how many heard at school about Nanny of the Maroons, or of the Rt Hon. Sam Sharpe, or Paul Bogle?)

The legacy of slavery in the UK is seen in rich port cities like Bristol and Liverpool, with their grand buildings and infrastructure built with the conspicuous wealth of those involved in the slavery-powered business of sugar and tobacco.

The legacy of slavery in the UK is seen in the way British influence around the world far exceeds the size and resources of our island. This was not some fluke, or some stroke of economic or military brilliance, this is a global reach that was established, fuelled and maintained by slavery.

And every single day the legacy of slavery is seen and felt in the UK and internationally as racist attitudes and actions doggedly continue to blight our communities. The only way that slavery can be justified in the oppressor's mind is through making the enslaved person "other" and less than human. Those attitudes and mindsets seem to persist, like a generational curse. I find myself asking if our nation's actions had been towards another European country whether we'd so quickly dismiss the notion of reparations, or indeed whether the global community would continue to turn a blind eye.

For generations wealth was extracted from Jamaica. Whilst other nations we reinvesting wealth and profit in infrastructure Jamaica saw hers getting taken to the UK and other parts of the empire. And when slavery finally ended, it was the slave-owners who were financially compensated for their loss, with no payments made to enslaved persons for the years and lives taken in gruelling labour in the cruellest of conditions.

The grand houses of Jamaica are those built by slave owners (some of which were built by slaves on their "sabbath" so they didn't have their daily work interrupted...), often these now crumbling reminders of a bitter history stand in the starkest of contrasts to the simple houses most Jamaicans call home.

The legacy of slavery in Jamaica then is a very present reality. How does a nation make up for centuries of wealth being extracted? How does it build and provide when those industries other nations have were never developed to be based in that nation and plough back profit into the nation?

And how can two nations walk in partnership, when one has so grievously abused the other, and the legacy of that abuse continues?

It's not a matter of "dredging up the past", but rather dealing with the present. For the UK, the stain of our past lingers, and we have dealt unjustly with Jamaica. It is the responsibility of the generation that is aware of the injustice to fix it. For us in the UK, it;s a matter of righteousness. We cannot lecture the world about how to govern their affairs when we ourselves have left unfinished the matter of once and for all dealing with slavery.

David Cameron must listen with an open heart and mind to the call for reparations, and have the courage to do what is right.

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