There is no question at all of whether the UK is guilty of having once been involved in the slave trade, this is not in doubt. According to UNESCO an estimate 25-30 million Africans, men, women and children, were forcibly taken from Africa and brought into slavery by European powers which included the UK (or England before the union), France, Netherlands, Spain and Portugal. With a few exceptions these slaves were brought into what was known as the Triangle trade. Ships would depart from their home country to purchase slaves from Africa, then they would sell these slaves in one of the colonies (generally in the Caribbean or North America) to work on the plantations. In return these slave ships would return to port carrying goods and luxuries from the colonies such as coffee, tea, sugar and tobacco. Since the original inhabitants of the Caribbean, the Caribs and Arawaks, were largely wiped out by slavery or disease, the maintenance of this trade for many years created colonies that were overwhelmingly populated by slaves or the descendants of them.
On a recent visit to Jamaica the UK Prime Minister David Cameron was openly called on by the Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller for the UK to give compensation to the descendants of slaves. An official from No 10 said in response the following:
“This is a longstanding concern of theirs and there is a longstanding UK position, true of successive governments in the UK, that we don’t think reparations are the right approach. The PM’s point will be he wants to focus on the future. We are talking about issues that are centuries old and taken under a different government when he was not even born. He wants to look at the future and how can the UK play a part now in stronger growing economies in the Caribbean”
Portia Simpson Miller knows full well that this position is “longstanding” since she openly invited the UK into “non-confrontational” talks about this issue at the UN in 2013. However the passage of time remark does have some relevance. After all can the sins of the grandparents, or in this case great-great grandparents, fairly be visited upon the child? This author feels there is not a straight “yes” or “no” answer to this. The inconvenient truth of course a significant section of the population of the Caribbean, bar a few exceptions, would not be there in the first place if it was not for the slave trade. But at the same time the slave owners from that particular trade are long dead. However many of their families were compensated while the slaves and their families were largely left to their own devices. There is undoubtedly an injustice in this, akin to an arsonist being compensated for starting a fire, but at the same time such compensation offers may have made the end of slavery more likely. This of course in itself does not mean that both parties could not have been compensated.
When the issue of slavery compensation is discussed many western observers turn their nose up at what they see as an appalling display of victimhood. However what the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) have asked for is not as straight forward as simply a very large dole bill. The 10 point CARICOM plan covers the following: Full Formal Apology, repatriation, indigenous peoples development programme, cultural institutions, public health crisis, illiteracy eradication, African knowledge programme, psychological rehabilitation, technology transfer and debt cancellation.
This author would consent to an apology if it was made clear that it was made on behalf of the UK state, which should remain responsible for present and past crimes. To answer the question of whether is repatriation to African countries is practical or desirable it may be worth having surveys been carried out in certain Caribbean countries to determine who wishes to go. African countries would have to be consulted as well, since they may not necessarily welcome new arrivals or be able to assimilate them. The state of the economies and public health in certain African countries may also need to be carefully scrutinised, otherwise repatriation may do more harm than good. Since the few remaining indigenous people of the Caribbean are a lot worse off than the black slave descendants this author would be in favour of urgently readdressing the dire situation of this minority. This author believes that the issue of cultural institutions should be at least looked into, since it doesn’t necessarily make sense to have most museums discussing slavery thousands of miles away in London.
The public health issue does need serious looking in to, possibly by the UK’s Department for International Development, but this problem is also linked to the poverty of many Caribbean states. It is also a biological fact that people of African descent are more likely to get certain conditions such as heart problems and blood pressure issues (specifically cited by CARICOM in their 10 points), just as Caucasian people have other vulnerabilities. Tackling illiteracy should definitely be a new development focus for the UK, since in the long term it would improve the education of Caribbean residents and therefore their employment prospects. The African knowledge programme can in many ways work in tandem with the cultural institutions point. However this author feels that the involvement of African countries with regards to tackling this issue may be just as important, if not more so, of the UK’s involvement. This author is much less convinced of the need to act on the subject of psychological rehabilitation. Speaking frankly this author feels that the experiences of today are much more likely to psychologically scar slave descendants than what their deceased relatives went through. This author feels that technology transfer projects are well worth considering and could even include UK universities to minimise an overly statist solution. On the subject of debt cancellation this author is emphatically in favour. As the late Tony Benn MP once said “how can one be free when you are enslaved by debt”.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage is not right about much, but he is right that the UK has for too long ignored the Caribbean. In principle talking about something does not in itself mean a commitment to anything, by this logic this author can see nothing wrong in simply talking to CARICOM about slavery reparations. This author feels there is a constructive role the UK can play in tackling this issue, but is still mindful about promoting victimhood. When considering the question of reparations in the wider sense there are no shortage of the victims of history. Jews for instance have been persecuted for thousands of years and only some of them got compensation from Germany for the Holocaust. And yet Germany’s leaders hide nothing about the Holocaust or the responsibility of the German state for it’s perpetration. David Cameron is right to say that we should look to the future, but he is wrong to ignore how slavery has done much to determine how the countries in the Caribbean have developed in the long term. Without slavery many of those islands would be sparsely populated. African countries also have a role to play, since African kings previously sold their countrymen into bondage. Most importantly the UK and the Caribbean need to appreciate the awful truth that slavery is not dead yet. This author’s home city of Bristol which was once a major slave trading city is now a human trafficking hotspot. The fight against slavery must continue.