Britain remembers its past but urges others to forget theirs

Regional Headquarters, Jamaica. November 15, 2017. Director of the Centre for Reparation Research (CRR) at The University of the West Indies (The UWI), Professor Verene Shepherd issues the following statement on the recent remarks by Lord Tariq Ahmad, British Minister of State with responsibility for the Caribbean, Commonwealth and the United Nations, as he concluded a Caribbean tour with a visit to Jamaica late last week.

The recent statement by Lord Tariq Ahmad, British Minister of State with responsibility for the Caribbean, Commonwealth and the United Nations that “it would be better for Jamaica to look ahead and to maximise its potential through robust trade rather than to peer into history”; that his recent visit to the region “is not to look back in history, but to help chart an even richer association between Britain and Jamaica,” represents a contradiction with the British tradition of “peering into history” to honour service and sacrifice (as it did recently on Remembrance Day), and even to make amends for human rights abuses committed by the British State. His statements could not have been more ill-timed, published as they were on November 13 when Jamaicans reverently peered into a past made painful by the British and observed the anniversary of that day in 1865 when the colonial military forces finally stopped the hangings of justice advocates in the Morant Bay War. Apparently, just as the air of Britain was too pure to breathe the air of slavery, but the Caribbean was a suitable place for its brutal implementation, so Britain must never forget the past in the north Atlantic but the south Atlantic must forget the past and move on.

The Minister’s comments on the region’s demand for reparation in the midst of a growing movement, including among the “British people with Jamaican heritage” he mentioned in his Gleaner interview, is not surprising; neither is the fact that he made this insulting statement in the Caribbean, right among the people who no doubt showed him respect and hospitality. He is following a long tradition of British politicians who have been arrogant enough to insult Caribbean people right in their yard by making light of their pain. His predecessor, Mark Simmonds had said in 2013, “…I made our position clear. We believe slavery was abhorrent and modern-day slavery is occurring and we need to work together to eradicate it totally, and that is the United Nations’ position.” His statement was aimed at detaching the modern legacies of chattel slavery and redirecting it to human trafficking and other human rights issues. Of course, Simmonds echoed long-expressed sentiments of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. Former PM Cameron’s response to a 2016 letter sent to him by the Chair of the CARICOM Prime Ministerial Sub-committee on Reparation (PMSC), The Honourable Freundel Stuart of Barbados setting out the evidentiary basis for the Caribbean reparatory justice movement was that “the British Government does not believe that reparations are the answer.”

Of course, Britain’s posture is not new. History has shown that Britain has not always lived up to its responsibilities. Gordon K. Lewis reminds us in The Growth of the Modern WI that Britain “sought withdrawal from the Caribbean area without providing the sort of economic aid to which, on any showing, the colonies were entitled.” Sir Ellis Clarke, who was the Trinidad and Tobago’s Government UN representative to a sub-committee of the Committee on Colonialism in 1964, had made this point in his statement: “An administering power… is not entitled to extract for centuries all that can be got out of a colony and when that has been done to relieve itself of its obligations… Justice requires that reparation be made to the country that has suffered the ravages of colonialism before that country is expected to face up to the problems and difficulties that will inevitably beset it upon independence.” He could well have added in the same way that a devastated Europe was rescued by the Marshall Plan after 1948.

Minister Ahmad might think that “for the CARICOM nations to press a claim for reparation would be a mistake of massive proportions.” But the people of the Caribbean and its Diaspora beg to differ. The mistake would be for the UK to ignore the growing support in the Caribbean and other countries for the need for reparatory justice, including from Habib University in Karachi, Pakistan, where there is interest in forming institutional links with the Centre for Reparation Research at The University of the West Indies. As the late reparation advocate, Dudley Thompson has said, reparation activism will continue because “the debt has not been paid, the accounts have not been settled.”