Ahmed Reid | Britain’s Long Arc Of Injustice

The recent revelation that the British Government deported hundreds of Caribbean nationals, many of whom migrated to the UK under the Nationality Act of 1948 as citizens of the Commonwealth, and were granted indefinite leave to remain, is, in the words of British MP David Lammy, “inhumane and cruel”. It is inhumane and cruel because the 492 Caribbean nationals who migrated on the Empire Windrush, and the thousands who travelled subsequently, went to aid Britain’s post-World War II development.

Many would have braved the unforgiving British winter working on the London Underground, the National Rail, building bridges, roads and other sectors that had been destroyed by German bombers. Through their labour, and their taxes, they helped to re-establish Britain as a global economic power.

Yet, despite all this, changes in UK law between 2012 and 2014 demanded that they prove that they had the right to remain in Britain. For the thousands who could not, they were denied access to life-saving welfare services such as the National Health Service (NHS). They lost their housing and the right work. In short, they were denied their human dignity. It was particularly painful to watch grown men and women who have worked hard to give their families a dignified existence, and who have escaped the poverty trap that British colonialism imposed on the people of Caribbean, being subjected to such degrading and dehumanising treatment.

Nothing New

But why should we be surprised by this? What happened to the Windrush Generation is nothing new. It is part and parcel of the long arc of injustice towards Caribbean nationals and their African ancestors. Evidence must suffice.

Before Windrush, Britain was involved in the kidnapping, trafficking, and exploitation of more than 15 million African men, women, and children. This state-sanctioned capitalist venture resulted in the deaths of more than two million Africans crossing the Atlantic. Millions more died while on the journey to the African coast. Millions of Africans were physically and socially displaced, and millions carried psychological scars of abuse and racial terrorism to the Americas.

Exploitation, dehumanisation, brutalisation and, ultimately, death, was the reality of the plantation experience in the Caribbean.

To counter this, enslaved people fought the racist superstructure created by colonial Britain. Tacky, Nanny, Quamina, Bussa, Sam Sharpe, Col. Gardiner and the thousands of unsung freedom fighters paid the ultimate sacrifice in their quest to create a Caribbean civilisation based on equity, justice, and opportunities for all. And at every stage of their enslavement, enslaved people met the full and uncompromising force of the world’s most powerful military and slave-trading nation.

It was the late prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams, who argued in Capitalism and Slavery (1944), that it was the exploitation of black bodies that provided the impetus for Britain’s industrial advancement. There is copious evidence linking Britain’s rise as an industrial superpower to the exploitation of enslaved Africans and the creation of an Atlantic trading system that channelled mind-numbing wealth to their society. The benefits of this system of trade and exploitation to the wider British society are significant. Vast amounts of wealth generated from enslavement were invested and reinvested in railroads, ship building, insurance, the financial sector, the arts, the physical landscape, shopkeeping, and just about every conceivable facet of British society.

Chance To Make Amends

In 1833, the British Parliament had the opportunity to make amends to the enslaved peoples throughout the Caribbean. However, enslavers (more than 100 of whom were members of the House of Commons) argued that the freeing of enslaved people by British legislation was a violation of their property rights, and they demanded compensation. Subsequently, enslavers received £20 million sterling, or £17 billion in today’s money, from the British government as compensation for the loss of their ‘property’.

Another sweetener given to British enslavers was the granting of Apprenticeship (where the period of enforced labour was extended for a fixed term of six years and estimated to cost a further £27 million sterling).

This money was reinvested throughout Britain and the empire. Such legacies are traceable to families and institutions in Britain today. Among those who have benefited are the ancestors of the former UK prime minister, David Cameron; former minister Douglas Hogg; authors Graham Greene and George Orwell; and poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Other prominent names that feature in the records include scions of one of the nation’s oldest banking families, the Barings, and the second Earl of Harewood, Henry Lascelles, an ancestor of the Queen of England’s cousin.

The 1833 act that should have emancipated enslaved people further solidified the racist interpretation of Africans and their descendants as ‘property’. No accompanying legislation was passed in 1833 to compensate the 850,000 enslaved people who suffered the trauma, humiliation, and brutalisation associated with their enslavement. Many had high hopes and expectations of freedom. They had imagined a society that would grant their children and grandchildren opportunities they were denied.

Instead, the enslaved people walked off the plantations and into a future of racial apartheid and further brutalisation at the hands of British colonial authorities. The society that enslaved people had envisioned and sacrificed their lives for was antithetical to the British colonial reality of exploitation, dehumanisation and marginalisation. Emancipation never came in 1834, or in 1838 for that matter. Paul Bogle and the hundreds of men and women murdered by Governor Eyre in Morant Bay in 1865 were fighting for true emancipation of the Jamaican people.

Aggie Bernard, St William Grant, and Caribbean nationals who were brutalised, imprisoned and murdered in the 1930s for daring to ask for a livable wage, and for better living and working conditions, were fighting for true emancipation. At every turn, the oppressive and exploitative colonial machinery thwarted their efforts.

Dawn Of Independence

At the dawn of Jamaica’s Independence in 1962, Norman Manley highlighted colonialism’s debilitating legacies and the challenges such legacies posed in the realisation of a truly free, independent, productive, and prosperous Jamaica. Manley, unlike many of us today, realised how the past continues to shape the present. He cautioned us at the 24th annual conference of the PNP, on September16, 1962: “… We must never forget that we start with all the legacies of 300 years of colonial rule … . We have tried hard in this country to overcome them, but they are not yet overcome.”

The legacies and realities that Manley confronted and, indeed, had to contend with reflected the failure of the British, who, after more than 300 years of exploiting African bodies, and hundreds of millions, if not billions, in wealth transfer, to create a society where the descendants of enslaved Africans could fully realise their hopes and expectations. Instead, post-Independence Caribbean leaders inherited weak and broken institutions, a 70 per cent illiteracy rate, and poor health outcomes. These posed development challenges that Caribbean countries have struggled to overcome. Fifty-six years later, we are still dealing with these legacies.

Then on February 9 came the revelation from Her Majesty’s Treasury that the British government had finally repaid the loan of £20 million that it had borrowed to compensate the socially and connected enslavers. But it was the revelation that taxpayers in Britain, including hundreds of thousands of Caribbean nationals whose ancestors were enslaved and exploited by British enslavers and whose labour helped to build modern Britain, helped to repay the loan that was most shocking. And it is not far-fetched to think that the Windrush Generation, through their taxes, contributed to the repayment of this loan, which led to the enrichment of persons now living in Britain today.

The UK government has apologised for the harm done to the Windrush Generation. In issuing such an apology or apologies (I have counted two so far, one from PM Theresa May, and the other from then Home Secretary Amber Rudd), the UK government accepted responsibility, committed to non-repetition and pledged to repair the harm done by way of compensation.

Many in our society have rightly called for an apology and for compensation for the Windrush Generation. Let us now add our voices to those calling for an apology and for reparation for the harm done to Caribbean people.

– Ahmed Reid, of the City University of New York, is visiting professor at the Centre for Reparation Research at the UWI.

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