David Cameron has called for Jamaica to ‘move on’ from the legacy of slavery, in a speech made to the country’s parliament this week.
In light of Jamaica’s request for slavery reparations from Britain, which would be invested in ‘sustainable economic development’ and ‘cultural rehabilitation’, the Prime Minister entirely undermined the lasting effects of the slave trade and colonisation on Britain’s former empire, with Downing Street saying that neither compensation nor an apology would be the ‘right approach’.
Given that only last year he affirmed that the UK should never forget the horrors of the Holocaust, his eagerness for Jamaica to simply forgive and forget slavery, in a thinly-veiled bid to dictate British-Caribbean economic relations, was manipulative and patronising.
Cameron made sure to highlight Britain’s own pioneering role in the abolition of the slave trade, without mentioning its just as prominent role in the ‘atrocities’ themselves. He also failed to acknowledge one of the biggest pay-outs in British history – today’s equivalent of £17 billion – which went to slave owners following the end of slavery – as compensation for their human ‘loss of property’. This money was then invested into this country’s infrastructure and railways, and the wealth was passed down through generations of British families; modern Britain itself is built upon the legacy of slavery.
How can David Cameron call upon the country subjugated by the British Empire for hundreds of years to ‘move on’, especially when his own nation is, to this day, reaping the benefits of the horrific exploitation? If he truly sought an equal ‘friendship’ between the UK and the Caribbean, would he decline to apologise, and decide that reparations were not an appropriate step?
Cameron’s refusal to make a formal apology and enter into talks demonstrates a fundamental lack of respect. His swiftness in dismissing Jamaica’s painful past – as if the past in no way affects the future – was unacceptable, stubborn, and incredibly insensitive. He has clearly failed (or refused) to realise the ever-present shadow that has been left by the colonial era. As Sir Hilary Beckles, Chair of Caricom’s Reparations Commission, described in an open letter, the legacy of slavery is present in a psychological and cultural frame across the Caribbean.
The Jamaican economy, more than any other, at a critical moment in your nation’s economic development, fuelled its sustainable growth… the burden of the inherited mess from slavery and colonialism has overwhelmed many of our best efforts [at rehabilitation]. You owe it to us as you return here to communicate a commitment to reparatory justice that will enable your nation to play its part in cleaning up this monumental mess of Empire.
What David Cameron does not understand is that, regardless of funding for a prison or a new infrastructure package, Jamaica cannot move forward completely until the effects of slavery have been properly acknowledged by the perpetrators. The slave trade was one of the most appalling periods in history, therefore a proposal for strengthened relations in the future is insulting when one of the nations has refused to apologise for the past.
Doubtless the issue of reparations has put a spanner in the works for David Cameron on a trip that was supposed to lay down plans for the future. While Britain has thrived off of slavery’s economic legacy for centuries, Jamaica has suffered, and his speech to the Jamaican parliament was horribly ignorant of that. If Cameron wishes to maintain healthy relations with the Caribbean he must be willing to make amends.