On June 12 this year, the birthday honours list was published with the highest orders of merit this country can bestow to the courageous and successful. However, a mere glance at the list throws us back to an uncomfortable chapter in our nation’s history. This is because the titles of the awards are still based on the moribund concepts of imperialism, with titles such as ‘Commander of the British Empire’. The reason this should make us feel uncomfortable is not for the ridiculously grandiose way we treat our upper class, but rather for the brazen failure to have any shame whatsoever for the heinous crimes committed in the name of Empire.
The history of one of these atrocities is currently overshadowing our Prime Minister’s tour of Jamaica. Like the surrounding islands that were former colonies, it is demanding reparations for the atrocities of slavery. The Prime Minister declared at a conference in Jamaica last Thursday that both countries should “move on” from the history of slavery, yet this failure to consider a reparations program, or even provide an apology for the past, has served to infuriate many Jamaicans. Despite the UK Government rejecting the notion, the Caribbean Coummunity Conference (CARICOM) has already set up a committee to look into a possible claim headed by Sir Hillary Beckles, and their case seems to be a strong one.
The most prominent example of British crime is in the sugar plantations, where thousands of black slaves owned by British sugar barons perished. The deplorable conditions of the plantations were such that, for the slaves that survived the crossing from Africa, life expectancy was estimated to be a mere seven years. Such was the inhumanity with which they were treated.
Meanwhile, these British individuals were making an inordinate amount of money by stripping the island of its resources: so much so that during the US War of Independence, the defence of Jamaica was given priority over that of the 13 American colonies, such was the extent of slave profitability. The extent to which the UK profited from slavery is enormous, with much of the infrastructure still in use today, for example: ports, docks, and roads being constructed with money made from the slave trade.
Moreover, by the 19th century, around a fifth of the British establishment owed their wealth, at least in part, to slavery. Port cities such as Liverpool and Bristol flourished on the backs of the trade, whilst institutions such as Barclays Bank were formed by slave merchants.
In short, the strength of the British economy was formed on the backs of these exploited slaves. When this is contrasted with the high levels of deprivation that Jamaica still suffers, with crumbling infrastructure and 20 per cent of its population in poverty, the need for reparations is clear. When Britain left Jamaica in the 1960s, around 80 per cent of Jamaicans were functionally illiterate. For nearly a century, the policies of British governments reduced the lives of Jamaicans to that of beasts: degraded, exploited, and tortured.
In the occupation of a foreign country, our nation systematically raped and burned its way to profit, to satisfy the staggering greed and the sickening debauchery of the British establishment.
There is no doubt that Jamaica would be in a far better position than it is today had it not been for these unspeakable crimes, and it is astounding that there is not already a program of reparations underway.
The British people are, at their best, progressive, kind, and compassionate. It is therefore time for us to admit the truth of the past and apologise to the people of Jamaica. Along with that, full reparations should be paid to alleviate the suffering that we have helped to create. Then, and only then Mr Cameron, can we move on, and close the book on the chilling chapter that was the British slave trade.
Image Credit: Magalita Biancocanto