180 years after slavery, UK must pay
From his bungalow on the side of a hill in western Jamaica, Willie Thompson surveys the same lush valley that one of his great-great-grandmothers was forced to harvest for sugarcane more than 180 years ago. “I am an African descendant,” he said, whippet-thin and grizzled at the age of 78. “She came here with the chains on her feet, on a slave trade ship.”
Thompson knows that when Parliament voted in 1833 to abolish slavery in Britain’s colonies, Earl Grey’s government was made to pay compensation worth almost £2 billion in today’s money. And, after an exhausting day spent scratching out a living by farming yams, he wonders what might have been if Nana Bracket and her comrades, rather than the ancestor of David Cameron who owned them, had received the equivalent of £415 000 of it today.
“The English made a lot of money back then. A lot of money,” he said, with a sigh almost long enough to reach Dudley, West Midlands, where he worked as a labourer in the 1960s before returning home. “I think it is fair for we to get a bit of compensation for what all our people been through.”
A coalition of 14 Caribbean states, including Jamaica, agrees with Thompson and is now mounting the first united campaign for reparations from Britain over its role in the Atlantic slave trade.
List of demands
The group is ready to sue in the courts and has hired Leigh Day, the London law firm that last year won £20 million for Kenyans tortured by the British during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s. This month it will unveil a list of 10 demands for Britain, France and the Netherlands, including funds likely to total billions, an apology, and assurances that slavery will never be repeated.
Professor Verene Shepherd, the chairman of Jamaica’s reparations committee, said British colonisers had “disfigured the Caribbean” and that their descendants must now pay to repair the damage.
“If you commit a crime against humanity, you are bound to make amends,” Prof Shepherd said. “The planters were given compensation, but not one cent went to the freed Jamaicans.”
From the mid-18th century, British merchants shipped more than three million people from West Africa to the Americas, taking the lead in a slave trade pioneered by the Dutch and Portuguese.
About £4 trillion was extracted from the region in unpaid labour alone, according to researchers at the University of Birmingham, and the vast profits went to financing the construction of modern Britain.
The Grange sugar estate that later became Thompson’s village was a golden goose for its part-owner General Sir James Duff, MP for Banffshire and Cameron’s first cousin six times removed. Some 202 people, who had been bought like livestock for up to £300, remained in bondage there by the time of abolition, forced to rise at dawn and work days of back-breaking labour for the privilege. These days, 344 people share the tumbledown shacks of Grange, formed from the old estate in the 1920s. The village does not appear on Google Maps.
Since Tony Blair’s 2007 statement of “deep sorrow and regret” for the “unbearable suffering” caused by the slave trade, when he seemed to carefully stop short of an apology, the UK government has done little. William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, described the trade as “brutal, mercenary and inhumane from its beginning to its end” in his 2008 biography of William Wilberforce, the great abolitionist MP. He pointed to The Zong massacre of 1781, in which the captain of a Liverpool-owned ship that ran out of drinking water threw at least 132 slaves overboard, in an attempt to claim insurance for lost cargo.
Mark Simmonds, Hague’s minister with responsibility for the Caribbean, said during a visit to Jamaica in November that “slavery was abhorrent”, but dismissed all talk of reparations. “Do I think that we are in a position where we can financially offer compensation for an event two, three, four hundred years ago? No, I don’t,” he said.
Breached natural law
Indeed, some international law experts have dismissed the threat of a pan-Caribbean lawsuit as nonsense, arguing that, regardless of its evils, the slave trade was legal under British law at the time. Yet campaigners — including Lord Gifford, a British hereditary peer and barrister who runs a law firm in Kingston and advises the reparations committee — remain unbowed, saying that the slave trade “breached the natural law that man is free”.
“There is no statute of limitations on a crime against humanity,” Lord Gifford, who defended members of the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six, said. “The claim is soundly based in law.”
Martyn Day, the senior partner at Leigh Day, has said a case could start next year at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
In support, Prof Shepherd and her colleagues argue that slavery is to blame for a litany of modern ills across the Caribbean, extending to epidemics of diabetes and hypertension allegedly rooted in the salty diets that were forced on the ancestors of sufferers.
In 1962, they stress, Britain left an independent Jamaica in which 80 percent of the people were functionally illiterate. Male literacy remains more than four points below the international average.
They even claim the trade was “genocidal” and that, while more than a million people were imported from Africa to Jamaica, at the time of emancipation the enslaved population was just over 300 000.
They have little sympathy for the argument that today’s Britons, especially after being mired for six years in a weak economy, should be forced to pay billions of pounds for the sins of their fathers. “You can’t have it both ways,” said Prof Shepherd. “Your society was developed. You are enjoying a lifestyle because of the blood, sweat and tears of people in the past.”
Lord Gifford called on Cameron to be inspired by his ancestry to “take a lead” on making amends. Yet the Prime Minister is far from the only public figure whose forebears benefited from the trade.
On nearby St Lucia, William Jolliffe, a West Sussex businessman and ancestor of Cameron’s wife, Samantha, made money from the Ballenbouche sugar plantation.
Benedict Cumberbatch, the actor praised for his role in the acclaimed film 12 Years A Slave, previously described playing William Pitt the Younger, the abolitionist prime minister, as a “sort of apology” for his family’s ties to Caribbean slave-ownership. George Orwell and Peter Bazalgette, the chairman of the Arts Council, had similar ties, according to historians at University College London, who estimated that as many as one in five wealthy Victorians depended in part on the slave economy for their fortunes.
In brilliant sunshine at the Hanover museum, Kemar Harvey, a 29-year-old tour guide, showed visitors around the old parish prison, where rebellious slaves were brought for punishment. “How could you possibly put a price on what was done?” they ask.
For Willie Thompson, though, it would be a start. “I don’t say that giving us money would make it all right,” he said. “What’s happened has happened already. But I think it is on the side of justice that we deserve something.” ‑ gulfnews