Jamaica has renewed calls for Britain — ahead of the visit of British Prime Minister David Cameron to the country on Tuesday — to pay billions of pounds in reparations for slavery.
But Downing Street has responded, saying it does not believe that financial compensation or apologies for slavery are the best way to address the issue.
In an open letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron, published in the Jamaica Observer ahead of Cameron’s first official visit to the country on Tuesday, Sir Hilary Beckles, vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies, who chairs the Caricom Reparations Commission, has renewed demands that the U.K. agree to talks on how to pay reparations and issue unreserved apology for the centuries of slavery during which Britain “extracted wealth” for the island and its people.
Caricom is the organization of 14 Caribbean countries demanding reparations from Britain, France, and Holland.
Beckles called on the U.K. to acknowledge its historical responsibility, reminding Cameron that his family, through General Sir James Duff, was involved in slavery in the 1700s and benefited from it, having owned slaves in Jamaica.
Historians have revealed that General Sir James Duff was awarded the equivalent of the present day value of £3 million after he was forced to forfeit 202 slaves when the British government abolished slavery in 1833.
Many have pointed to the irony of paying slave owners the equivalent of the present day value of £2 billion in compensation while nothing was paid to the slaves whose labor was used without compensation.
In his open letter to Cameron, Beckles wrote, “You are a grandson of the Jamaican soil who has been privileged and enriched by your forebears’ sins of the enslavement of our ancestors… You are, Sir, a prized product of this land and the bonanza benefits reaped by your family and inherited by you continue to bind us together like birds of a feather…”
He continued, “I speak, Sir, of the legacies of slavery that continue to derail, undermine and haunt our best efforts at sustainable economic development and the psychological and cultural rehabilitation of our people from the ravishes of the crimes against humanity committed by your British State and its citizens in the form of chattel slavery and native genocide.”
According to Beckles, wealth produced using Jamaican slave labor contributed immensely to Britain’s economic growth and helped it to attain superpower status. He said it was thus appropriate to demand that the U.K. do something to correct the wrongs of the past.
“We ask not for handouts or any such acts of indecent submission,” he wrote. “We merely ask that you acknowledge responsibility for your share of this situation and move to contribute in a joint program of rehabilitation and renewal.”
“The continuing suffering of our people, Sir, is as much your nation’s duty to alleviate as it is ours to resolve in steadfast acts of self-responsibility,” he added.
The open letter to Cameron comes ahead of his visit to Jamaica on Tuesday. He is also scheduled to visit Grenada.
Beckles is not the only prominent Jamaican who has recently made the call that Britain should pay reparations for slavery. The Jamaica Gleaner reported that Professor Verene Shepherd, who chairs the country’s National Commission on Reparation, said that nothing less than an unreserved apology would be accepted from Cameron.
“What Britain has been doing is issuing statements of regret,” he said. “A statement of regret is not an apology. An apology takes responsibility for the crime against humanity which slavery and the slave trade was. It would commit to repair the damage and it would also commit to non-repetition.”
The Jamaican parliament has also recently approved a motion that the country should seek compensation from Britain.
In 2013, the prime minister of the small island country, Portia Simpson Miller, also contributed to the growing clamor for reparations, recommending that the issue be presented for discussion at the UN. But she emphasized that the discussion need not be confrontational.
The official aim of Prime Minster Cameron’s visit to Jamaica is to renew trade ties between the countries. There are concerns that Jamaica and Grenada have recently been strengthening trade ties with China and Venezuela.
But it appears that the growing clamor for reparations will divert attention from the ostensible aim of the British government to revive economic ties with Jamaica. Already, a Jamaican MP, Mike Henry, has asked his colleagues to boycott Cameron’s address to the parliament if he ignores calls to include the issue of reparations in the agenda of his visit.
Miller said that if Cameron does not yield to calls to include reparations in the agenda of his visit, he would “not attend any functions involving the visiting prime minister, and I will cry shame on those who do, considering that there was not a dissenting voice in the debate in parliament.”
The British government has rejected the call for reparations, saying it does not believe it is the “right approach” to the issue.
A spokesperson for Downing Street said, “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,” the spokesperson continued. “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.”
[Image: Getty; Wikimedia]