Enriched by your forebears’ Sins

4B_Ed3David Cameron paid a visit to Jamaica this week and offended his hosts by offering them £25 million to build a prison. A prison in order that he might send Jamaican prisoners held in UK jails back to Jamaica.

Cameron was urged to ‘personally atone’ over his families slavery links as the reparations debate dominated his Jamaican visit. Links between Mr Cameron’s family and slavery have resurfaced recently. A relative of Cameron, General Sir James Duff, was compensated when slavery was abolished. Sir James, who the Prime Minister is related to on his father’s side, was awarded £4,101 when he forfeited 202 slaves on the Grange Sugar Estate in Jamaica, which is equal to more than £3m today.

Sir Hilary Beckles (a Barbadian) an activist historian (PhD Hull) and VC of the UWI Mona Kingston Jamaica sent him a letter as Chairman of the Caricom Heads of Government Reparation Committee. In it he argues vociferously:

‘We ask not for handouts or any such acts of indecent submission. We merely ask that you acknowledge responsibility for your share of this situation and move to contribute in a joint programme 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.’

Beckles has had a remarkable career as a publically engaged academic, as well a prolific author, brilliant academic and university administrator. His academic focus is the economic history of British participation in the Caribbean enslavement industry and the resulting political, economic and cultural benefits that accrued to ‘the mother country”. He is also a prominent academic researcher on West Indies Cricket in the CLR James tradition.

Scotland needs to look at its own history in the Caribbean and begin to accept some responsibility for the inhumanity inflicted while acknowledging the substantial economic benefits acquired as well as the human social intercourse that occurred. (Five out of eight Prime Minister had Scottish ancestors ; two Sir Donald Sangster & Edward Seaga had Scottish grandparents). The Jamaican national flag carries the Saltire in yellow (an adaption by a Scottish kirk minister and friend of the then PM Bustamante).

51K5907YBVL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Douglas J Hamilton in his excellent “Scotland the Caribbean and the Atlantic World 1750-1820” provides substantial details of Scottish engagement in slave-based plantation culture.

Scotland (and the British Government) may also need to examine the conditions under which many thousand Scots were shipped ‘Barbadoed’ to the plantations as indentured prisoners and servants in waves of gross inhumanity. The Jamaican telephone directory can attest to the large numbers of Grants and Campbells currently in Jamaica however there is also the 18th century shipping lists of prisoners filled with highland names from Cromwell’s intervention as well from the post-Culloden period.

Hilary Beckles with our own eminent historian Sir Tom Devine are public academics who continue in the great tradition of the ‘democratic intellect’ bringing vital light into the dark corners of our troubled past.

Here is Sir Hilary Beckles letter to David Cameron, published in the Jamaican Observer.

Dear Honourable Prime Minister,

I join with the resolute and resilient people of Jamaica and their Government in extending to you a warm and glorious welcome to our homeland. We recognise you, Prime Minister, given your family’s long and significant relationship to our country, as an internal stakeholder with historically assigned credentials.

To us, therefore, you are more than a prime minister. You are a grandson of the Jamaican soil who has been privileged and enriched by your forebears’ sins of the enslavement of our ancestors.

As we prepare for you a red carpet befitting your formal status we invite you to cast your eyes upon the colours of our national flag that symbolise the history we share. 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.

Be assured, Prime Minister, that you will find no more generous people on our planet Earth than those who will greet you with golden hearts and civilised consciousness. I urge that you embrace the sincerity of our salutations. It is born and bred in the cauldron of our enslavement by your family and society.

Consider it a golden gift of friendship and not simply the empty expression of protocols relevant to the events you will attend. It is furthermore, an overture to an expectation of a dialogue of reparatory justice that can redefine for us a new intimacy for this long 21st century on which we are embarked.

Your advisors would have informed you that beyond the boundary of the affairs of State, civil society welcomes you without reservation, though with a qualification that bears the burden of our tortured past within the historically textured present. I speak of outstanding and unresolved matters that are relevant to our sense of mutual respect as equal nations dedicated to the cause of furthering humanity’s finest imagined destiny.

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.

In this regard, I urge you to be aware that the issue of reparatory justice for these crimes is now before our respective nations, and the wider world. It is not an issue that can be further ignored, remain under the rug, or placed on back burners, as your minister who recently visited us so aptly described your agenda for Jamaica and the Caribbean.

It will generate the greatest global political movement of our time unless respected and resolved by you, the leader of the State that extracted more wealth from our enslavement than any other.

The Jamaican economy, more than any other, at a critical moment in your nation’s economic development, fuelled its sustainable growth. Britain, as a result, became great and Jamaica has remained the poorer. Jamaica now calls upon Britain to reciprocate, not in the context of crime and compulsion, but in friendly, mutually respected dialogue.

It is an offer of opportunity written not in the blood of our enslaved ancestors, but in the imagination of their offspring and progeny who have survived the holocaust and are looking to the future for salvation.

As a man, a humane man, with responsibility for the humanity of your nation, we call upon you to rise to this moment as you realise and internalise that without the wealth made by your enslaving ancestors, right here in our Jamaica, we would not be enchained together, today, called upon to treat with this shared past.

Successive governments in this land, a place still groaning under the weight of this injustice, have done well during the 53 years of sovereignty, but the burden of the inherited mess from slavery and colonialism has overwhelmed many of our best efforts. 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.

We ask not for handouts or any such acts of indecent submission. We merely ask that you acknowledge responsibility for your share of this situation and move to contribute in a joint programme 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.

In the four corners of Kingston there are already whispers that your strategy will be to seek a way to weaken Jamaica’s commitment to Caribbean reparations in a singular act of gift-granting designed to divide and rule and to subvert the regional discourse and movement.

You, Sir, are a Briton, not a Greek, and we have no reason therefore to fear what you bear. But we do ask that you recall the Caribbean region was once your nation’s unified field for taxation, theatre for warfare, and space for the implementation of trade law and policy. Seeing the region as one is therefore in your diplomatic DNA, and this we urge that you remember.

Finally, Sir, I write from the perspective of an academic bred in Britain and reared in the University of the West Indies, an institution your nation planted in Kingston in 1948 with a small but significant grant. It would honour us to show you what we the people have reaped from this single seed.

We have created a flourishing federal farm that now cultivates the minds of millions, a symbol of our collective determination to take seriously our self-responsibility and to place our dignity as an emerging nation before any other consideration. From this singular seed we have grown one of the finest universities in the world crafted by our hands and inspired by our dreams.

This story, Sir, can guide your reflection as to who we are and what we expect of you. We urge you then, in this light, to indicate your nation’s willingness to work towards a reparatory justice programme for the Caribbean, with a view to allowing us to come together in order to come to closure, put this terrible past behind us, and to leave it to us to continue the making of our future.

Kindest regards,

Hilary Beckles

Chairman, Caricom Reparations Commission

Comments (11)

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  1. dunderheid says:

    The problem with reparations for me is not the principle necessarily but the practicality. Any value that a UK or independent Scotland could come up with that would pass muster with its electorate would never be enough to undo the harm our ancestors caused. And would we stop at Jamaica? The British Empire (in which Scots enthusiastically participated as the article so commendably highlights) left a baleful legacy around the world…to make even token reparations for it all would impoverish us for generations

  2. Broadbield says:

    For me the problem is the principle – I’m in no way responsible for the sins of my great, great, great grandfathers. And why stop there? What about the aftermath of Culloden, or Cromwell’s brutality in Ireland, or the Viking depredations….

    Better to concentrate on the on-going exploitation by multi-nationals extracting wealth from developing countries (and not paying taxes) and hiding it in offshore tax-havens and the billionaire class doing the same and all facilitated right now by financial centres like the City of London and New York. The USA is rich enough to sort out it’s own problems of injustice, if it had the will.

    “The Greatest Invention: Tax and the Campaign for a Just Society” recently published, gives all the sorry details. Sorting this out would do a lot for reducing inequality.

  3. Gordon Adam says:

    Completely agree with this. There’s an argument that we can’t be held personally responsible for what happened (which is of course true in a literal sense – your ancestors’ crimes aren’t your own) but symbolically, as we have benefited from what took place, I think it would be a good gesture if nothing else to take ownership of it.

    I’d like to see, as in so many other examples, Scotland taking a lead on this: openly accepting our own active part in it and (by implication) encouraging the UK government to follow suit.

  4. Ewan McCormack says:

    In travels I’ve seen the brutality the british, French, Spanish and others, including the US have exacted upon countries who didn’t have the technology to fight back.

    It’s not just white on black, it’s white on white, black on black and black on white and every shade in-between.

    Yes Scots had a disgusting role, one we should feel deeply ashamed of, but ask your self why? Generally we were being picked upon by our larger neighbour, imagine when the larger neighbour said, I want to be your pal now, lets go and pick on that guy over there, we’ll rob him too and get him to work for us for nothing!

    What a relief, you’d be up for it, grateful you weren’t to be picked on and you were securing a piece of the action.

    Roll forwards all these years, does what was done to Jamaicans still impact their lives today? You bet it does, and the main perpetrators, it still impacts them. They became lords off the backs of slaves and they have held that position ever since. Look at longitudinal surveys of York over a 150 years, the surnames of those in court in 1850 are the same as today. Look at hereditary peers in the house of lords, same names as those 300 + years ago. Social mobility at the extremes is illusory.

    But people are fickle, I have heard comments about refusal to take Iraqi refugees based on belief they should be back on their own feet now. How kind and considerate!?

    I’d suggest that those still living in luxury off the backs of the slave trade and empire, be made to make contributions to countries scared by imperial powers, cameron would be a good start!

    When is Scotland going to get an apology from the british government for the Highland Clearances? The Highlands and Islands still languishing on a third of the population it once had!

  5. platinum says:

    I’m descended from serf miners. Until about 1800 in Scotland miners and other mine workers were literally owned by the mine owners, passing from father to son, long after serfdom in general was abolished This is probably a testament to how appalingly awful conditions were that they couldn’t otherwise get enough people to do the job during the coal-powered Industrial Revolution.

    The same landed aristocracy that owned the mines, exploited my ancestors and grew extraordinarily weathly due to my ancestors’ labour are the same people who own the land today, who vote Tory and exploit the poor today. If anyone should apologise it’s them, not me, and I don’t want my government apologising to anyone on my behalf either.

  6. willie says:

    The Tories would have slavery back.

    If anyone thinks this is an exaggeration just thinks of how the Tories are rolling back workers rights.

    Axing the social welfare safety net, introducing charges that the lowest paid workers will have to pay to pursue rights from an Employment Tribunal, making it illegal to strike unless over 50% vote to strike subject to 40% of the entire membership voting to strike, raising the pension age, sanctioning the unemployed for the least escuse, forcing folks into fuel poverty and foodbanks, zero hours contracts.

    Yes, outing the ‘ great ‘ back into Britain, the policy of economic apartheid is the reality of 21st Century slavery.

  7. willie says:

    And there’s Northern Ireland where only some years back the Westminster Government declared it had no strategic or economic interest in the province.

    Prime Minister Cameron now declared this week that he resutely opposes a United Ireland on the grounds that ‘ we are Better Together ‘

    Not exacyly the comments of a democrat when this lump of excrement can declare its not what the Northern Irish think is best but what he – Cameron the Brit thinks is best.

    No doubt a touch of ‘ humanitarian bombing ” from the RAF on their way back from Syria would help the Irish understand Better – indeed Better all Together.

  8. Cassandra says:

    It seems that for some reason we should apologise for the actions of the past. In particular those slave traders who made a fortune out of the tobacco/slave trade of the 18th and 19th Centuries.

    Was the Glasgow slave trade the only one to have ever existed and therefor an apology to history for this anomaly must be made? No, slavery has been part of mankind’s history from the beginning. The ancient civilisations which we all admire so much were built upon slavery; Egyptian, Assyrian, Mesopotanian, Greek, Roman, Arab. And of course no slave trade could have existed without the very willing help of the African tribes themselves. Are they going to apologise for supplying the slaves to the traders?They see the idea as ridiculous: to them it was merely business.

    Apologising for a historical event by parties who had no part of that event makes no sense. It is merely pandering to someone’s own misplaced guilt trip. And who makes the apology and to whom?

    After all it was David Livingstone who inspired abolitionists of the slave trade. As he reportedly said: “And if my disclosures regarding the terrible slavery should lead to the suppression of the East Coast slave trade, I shall regard that as a greater matter by far than the discovery of all the Nile sources together.” He was also instrumental in persuading the Arabs to desist in this vile trade which they had participated in for hundred of years.
    All this suggests to me that we are wallowing in 21st century Western liberalism guilt.

  9. Blair paterson says:

    How many scots owned slaves many scots were not much better slaves themselves only a very few rich scots owned slaves so please don’t tar us all with the same brush

  10. Brian MacLeod says:

    When you talk about Scots and slavery, just remember that many of us, particularly Highlanders were sold into slavery in the West Indies. We were victims too.

  11. John McCrosson says:

    In addition to concurring with previous comments, I wish to add that the idea of collective responsibility can only be predicated on universal suffrage, which did not exist in Scotland during slavery. The vast majority of family bloodlines in Scotland were not enfranchised at that time and cannot, therefore, be held morally or legally responsible; nor did they benefit directly (and not by much even indirectly, if at all) from the wealth generated both from the morally indefensible slave trade and from the subsequent compensation paid to slave owners upon slave emancipation.

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