During a recent meeting with the Jamaican Parliament, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said that paying reparations to Caribbean islands for Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade is not a good way to “move on.”
“The purpose of my visit is to look to the future,” Cameron said.
Cameron, who initially requested the exclusion of media coverage of his visit because of the mounting pressure to address reparations, skated around the issue when he finally decided to talk to Jamaican reporters.
“My view is that as we look into the past, we should think of all of the aspects of the past, not least the actions that Britain took for many decades to wipe slavery off the high seas and from the face of our planet,” Cameron told reporters.
After the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean in the 1830s, former slave owners were immediately compensated by Britain for their loss of labor. However, the slaves were not compensated for the loss of their culture, brutal punishments, destruction of family units, rape of women and children and the emasculation of hundreds of thousands of Black men. Instead, they were left to fend for themselves. They were expected to “move on” and “look to the future” then, just as Cameron insisted that the Caribbean do now. Freed slaves had to navigate through a society—with no assistance—that still used race as a measure of political and economic power.
The Caribbean has repeatedly called upon Britain to accept responsibility for the ever-present social, economic and political ruin that slavery has left in the islands. In 2013, Jamaica and 13 other Caribbean island nations filed a lawsuit against Britain, France and the Netherlands. The lawsuit has sparked a debate about whether the responsibility of global, historical crimes should be charged to the perpetrators’ descendants. In a recent NPR interview, Selwyn R. Cudjoe, a professor of Africana studies at Wellesley College and a native of Trinidad and Tobago, said it should.
“I think it’s great. I think that there has to be some historical reckoning for wrongs that have been done and for the 700,000 Africans who were enslaved in the Caribbean and the correlated underdevelopment that has taken place because of that,” said Cudjoe.
But Cameron’s visit to Jamaica was not to address the lawsuit, it was to promote the $546 million infrastructure grant that Britain was giving to the Caribbean.
“It will make us the largest donor to the region. It will create jobs and save lives, and you can take it, literally, as a concrete statement of my commitment to the Caribbean,” said Cameron.
Former slave owners, family members of Cameron and his wife, Samantha, according to documents, received the equivalent of billions of dollars in today’s money.
Sir Hilary Beckles, chairman of CARICOM’s Caribbean Reparations Commission, wrote an open letter to the prime minister, which was published in the Jamaica Observer days before the prime minister’s visit. Beckles called him “the leader of the state that extracted more wealth from our enslavement than any other.” Reparation “is not an issue that can be further ignored, remain under the rug or placed on back burners,” wrote Beckles.
“Today we’ve agreed to work together to build a new prison here in Kingston, improving the ability of the Jamaican criminal justice system to deal with crime and also enabling the United Kingdom to return criminals to serve their sentence,” said Cameron. “This, I believe, is in the interest of both of us and is a good example of how we can work together to benefit people here in Jamaica and in Britain, too.”