Caribbean slavery still stings despite British PM saying 'move on'

Caribbean residents think Britain should not only apologise, but make reparations for its role in slave trade.

British Prime Minister David Cameron.  Picture:AFP

KINGSTON JAMAICA- After a long time wondering, Verene Shepherd took a DNA test last year and finally learned that her mother's family came from Cameroon in West Africa.

"How did Cameroonians reach over here? They never came over here voluntarily," said Shepherd, a Jamaican who heads the country's National Commission on Reparations.

Her ancestors were likely among the millions of Africans brought to the Caribbean to work on plantations, so she was disappointed when British Prime Minister David Cameron this week said he would like to "move on" instead of apologising.

"I think he missed an opportunity ... we still need for someone to own up to the wrong," said Shepherd, a professor of social history at the University of West Indies.

Shepherd is one of many Caribbean residents who think Britain should not only apologise but make reparations for its role in the transatlantic slave trade. Jamaica declared independence from Britain in 1962.

Many of the social and economic ills plaguing the region trace back to slavery and could be addressed by reparations, advocates say.

Last year, the 15-member Caribbean Community and Common Market, or Caricom, unanimously called for reparations.

Caricom is seeking formal apologies from governments that engaged in slave trade, debt cancellation and a repatriation scheme as well as programs in such areas as health, education, and culture.

This week, Jamaica's Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller said she raised the issue with Cameron as he visited.

"I acknowledge that those wounds run very deep indeed, but I do hope that as friends who have gone through so much together since those darkest of times, we can move on from this hateful legacy," Cameron told the Jamaican Parliament on Wednesday.

An official from his office told British media that Britain's position is that reparations are not the way to go.

"He wants to look at the future and how can the UK play a part now in stronger growing economies in the Caribbean," the official was quoted in the Guardian newspaper.

Shepherd said a 360 million pound aid package Cameron announced seemed to address some demands made by Caricom, addressing infrastructure and health problems.


But reparations advocates argue many aspects of Caribbean life from education to land rights are a consequence of slavery.

Ronald Thwaites, Jamaica's Minister of Education, says slavery caused the break-up of the African family, which has repercussions still today.

"The lack of effective mothering and fathering among more than half of our school children can, in fact, be traced backwards," Thwaites said.

Mike Henry, a Jamaican MP who said he boycotted Cameron's speech in parliament because reparations were not on the table, said the prevalence of settler communities in Jamaica, where people live on

land they do not own, stems from the slavery era when land titles were held by absentee landlords in England.

The popularity of skin bleaching and continuing preferences for lighter skin, sometimes called "colorism" or "pigmentocracy", are legacies of the trade that denigrated black people, according to Shepherd.

"There's a rootlessness that's felt by people," she said. "It's not right for people to grow up not understanding their ancestry."


One argument for reparations is the fact that Britain paid slave owners 20 million pounds for loss of their property when slavery was abolished in 1833.

"Britain was very pro-reparations when it came to giving the money over to planters at the end of slavery," said Andrea Stuart, author of "Sugar in the Blood." "It's just when it comes to giving it to black people that it seems to offend them."

Her book maps out her family tree of slaves and slave owners, one of whom was compensated what would be about 400,000 pounds today for freeing his slaves.

Cameron has a personal connection to the issue as well.

Research by British journalists and the University College of London revealed in 2013 that one of his distant relatives was paid about 4,000 pounds, some 400,000 pounds today, for the loss of his 202 slaves on a sugar plantation in Jamaica.

"The bonanza benefits reaped by your family and inherited by you continue to bind us together like birds of a feather," said Hilary Beckles, who chairs Caricom's Reparations Commission, in an open letter published in the Jamaica Observer.