A brown-skinned, blue-blooded response to demands for Britain to pay its Black Debt…Time for CARICOM to up the Reparations ante!
by Earl Bousquet
Last Saturday morning I watched and listened to a video recording of Britain’s High Commissioner to Jamaica, Asif Ahmad, laying out, as best he could, Her Majesty’s Governments official positions on issues relating to slavery, reparations, the global reverberations from the Black Lives Matter protests, actions against offensive statues, renaming of institutions and places named after promoters and defenders of slavery and racism during colonialism and the myriad of issues put to him during the discussion on ‘Challenging the symbols of oppression’.
The discussion was spurred by the Jamaica government’s decision to ‘suspend’ use of a medal awarded by Her Majesty to loyal British subjects for splendid services rendered to the Crown, because it was belatedly discovered, in the wake of the George Floyd death, that this particular medal bears a symbol of a white angel standing over a black devil.
High Commissioner Ahmad is partly of Pakistani origin, which helped color his dissertations in the eyes of many watching in Jamaica and listening to a blue-blooded brown-skinned Englishman explaining Her Majestys Government’s positions on CARICOM nations joint call for Reparations from Britain and the European Union (EU) member-states involved for centuries of Slavery and Native Genocide in the Caribbean.
As I watched, my mind drifted to those times often recorded in history when the house slaves could always be depended upon to best explain to fellow slaves why ‘Massa is good’ and ‘Slavery is better’.
I’d heard declarations of Britain’s positions on slavery and reparations before, but never like this from a representative of the brown and black British minority, the descendants, heirs and successors of Indian and African immigrants to Britain.
He spoke in Jamaica, where Britain left 60% of its loyal colonial island subjects illiterate at independence, where African descendants are in the vast majority and the government and opposition are both in support of pursuing reparations.
I’d heard worse from the mouths of those whose minds and hands actually drove and drive the policies that High Commissioner Ahmad so dutifully espoused.
When British PM David Cameron visited Jamaica in 2015 to ask CARICOM leaders to ‘forget the past and let’s move on’ with 350 million devalued pounds worth of peanuts on the table to be shared between 14 countries as adequate compensation for over 400 years of slavery and native genocide, he knew — more than anyone else — that his slave-owning ancestral family not only owned over 500 slaves in Jamaica, but had also benefitted immensely from the 20 million pounds (worth over 300 billion pounds sterling today) that they were compensated over time for loss of their slaves and property. He knew too that the British government had only finished paying that hefty amount in 2015, the same year he visited Kingston and requested that it use part of its share of the peanuts to build prisons to house Jamaican immigrants his Conservative Party was most likely, with the benefit of hindsight, already planning to ‘send back home’ through mass deportation of the Windrush generation.
When PM Theresa May replaced David Cameron with a promise to deliver on the Brexit that her party had opposed in the national referendum and lost by a razor-thin but large dividing margin, her very first announcement was that she would assign 30 million pounds to the fight against ‘Modern Slavery’. Mrs May showed no interest in Britain’s role in and responsibility for the atrocities associated with the original Atlantic Slave Trade, acknowledged as the Greatest Crime Against Humanity, during which at least 30 million Africans were shipped through the infamous Middle Passage to Europes West Indian (Caribbean) colonies. But it didn’t take long to see that her declaration was no more than just that. Modern slavery lived on happily in the UK while Prime Minister May held on firmly to the British position that it would not apologize or atone, in any way, for its role as an architect of and benefactor from the criminal transatlantic slave trade, as both the original and final ports of call in the so-called Great Triangle.
Just as Mrs May ousted Cameron over Brexit, she too was outfoxed by Boris Johnson, whose position on slavery and colonialism was spelt out decades ago when he covered the European Union as a journalist and held that Britain should never have left Africa. His response in office today to the Black Lives Matter protests across the UK and targeting of statues of racist and colonial figures has reinforced that the current British PM, like his two predecessors, also maintains that Britain should simply not apologize for slavery, lest it legally bind itself to paying for its past sins of commission and omission.
All three PMs — Cameron, May and Johnson — were in office after the CARICOM nations in July 2013 established the Commission (CRC) and immediately requested dialogue with Britain and the EU regarding reparations for slavery and native genocide. Seven years later, London and Brussels have simply refused to even formally reply, far less agree, to the joint request of the leaders of 14 former mainly British, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and Scandinavian colonies that are now sovereign states and members of the United Nations (UN) and the British Commonwealth.
The faithful deliverer of Downing Street’s message in Jamaica was no different from that consistently sent out by Britain since 2013 in response to issues like slavery and reparations and in defense of symbols of the Empire.
It’s all in keeping with Britain’s strategy over time to maintain its position as a leading European nation with the wealth it gained from slavery and the industrial revolution that followed its involvement in the capture and export of over 12 million African slaves, over three million of whom were shipped on British vessels, insured by the likes of Lloyds of London, Barclays Bank, HSBC and others still very much alive today.
The abolition of slavery did not in any way affect Britain’s plans for expansion beyond the royal realm. In the 19th Century, Queen Victoria expanded Britain’s influence across Europe by marrying her nine children into other European royal families in Germany, Russia, Spain and other parts of the continent, some eventually ending-up fighting on opposing sides after she died, during the First World War.
Several decades later when Britains African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) colonies started gaining independence, London created the British Commonwealth, with Queen Elizabeth II as the eternal head, to keep the new sovereign states within the Royal realm.
The nations seeking reparations for slavery and native genocide are only asking for Britain to act in like manner as when it paid slave owners for the losses after abolition; and which France happily extorted from Haiti by way of reparations for loss of French planters’ properties and slaves as a result of the 1804 Revolution, which debt Haiti only finished paying in 1947.
The nations seeking reparations belong to the Commonwealth, which Britain still feels it should always be in full control of, as revealed in the fiasco involving a Conservative administration backing Labour Baroness Patricia Scotland as Commonwealth Secretary General, until the Tories accused her of biting the hands that fed her. And the efforts to ensure Prince Philip succeeds his mother as the Head of the Commonwealth is more proof that London insists on being both in the driver’s seat at Marlborough House and driving from the back seat at Buckingham Palace, Whitehall and Downing Street.
It is through the Commonwealth that Britain most seeks to collectively influence the governments of the black and brown people of African, Indian and Asian descent in its former colonies. The French got their former African colonies to sign themselves into eternal colonial debt by agreeing to forever lodge all their post-independence central bank funds in Paris, from which France earns annual interest amounting to billions of dollars. The British, on the other hand, insisted that Commonwealth countries’ parliaments must pay allegiance in parliament every year to Her Majesty as the ultimate Head of State; and that the Queen’s head, with the Royal Crown, must be featured on one side of their national currency of these sovereign nations, whether coins or dollars.
Caribbean, African and Pacific member-states of the Commonwealth have not yet started thinking or acting seriously in the direction of rescuing it from its status as a club of former colonies still led by Her Majesty, but the muddied waters over Baroness Scotland have strengthened those wanting to lessen the British influence in and over the Commonwealth vis-a-vis those who think it will be too much to lose Britain’s major contributions to the grouping, which London had no qualms threatening to withdraw under PM Johnson.
The deflective responses offered by High Commissioner Ahmad were and are reflective, to the bone, of the quintessential British position: that while it has no problem saying its sorry for slavery, it will neither apologize, nor atone.
And other halls of justice It masks the hypocrisy of those public British institutions and giant private firms that have only now decided to admit they benefitted from slavery and are offering crumbs to selected black, brown and minority groups, as if that will erase their sins and atone for their past.
Those being asked to apologize and atone are running out of arguments, as the world continues to awaken to the realities of their past and present. Unable to erase history, they have complained of ‘the sheer cost’ of what’s being demanded, but the ease with which they found the necessary money in the UK and USA to throw after the COVID 19 pandemic has exposed that it’s nothing about their inability to pay the wages of their sins.
Servants of masters, whether black, brown or other, are simply that: servants of masters, whether at the palace or in the public service. Public Servants implement government policy and diplomats have to sell those policies the best they can. But as CRC Chairman Sir Hilary Beckles so aptly noted, the events since George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests have made it impossible now to sweep or hide the reparations movement under any carpet, as the genie is out of the bottle and the cat is fully out of the bag.
The message from Her Majesty’s loyal spokesman in Kingston has been hears across CARICOM and attracted due responses.
It is now for CARICOM nations to up the ante – to continue to press the reparations button, for the leaders to meet and recommit to the cause and press harder for London and Brussels to come to the table or face the world’s courts and other halls of justice — and for more to be done to preserve and improve the teaching of history and a better understanding and appreciation across the region and the diaspora of the Caribbean’s African lineage and heritage.
The reparations movement in the Caribbean and the USA have grown in the past seven years and the CRC must now move to ensure it is purposefully globalized in accordance with the positive developments that have come in the age of COVID 19 in 2020 and after the Black Lives Matter protests touched and moved the rest of the world; and the Commonwealth member-states must resist the continuing efforts to keep it as a royal club of loyal former colonies forever led by whoever wears the crown and sits on the throne at Buckingham Palace.
A good place to start will be for CARICOM to press for a Marshal Plan approach to Reparations from Britain (and France too in Saint Lucia’s case) through implementation of the broad outlines in the blueprint offered by Sir W. Arthur Lewis over 80 years ago, as originally and repeatedly called for earlier this year by CRC Chairman Sir Hilary Beckles and supported last week by Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley.