British Prime Minister David Cameron had some stiff upper-lip advice for Jamaicans while on an official visit this week to the Caribbean state. He was urged to make a formal apology for Britain’s historic role in the transatlantic slave trade and to consider monetary reparations for the descendants of African slaves, who account for the vast majority of Jamaica’s population.
However, Cameron said neither an official British apology nor reparations were forthcoming, and instead he told the islanders to «move on».
Cameron, who earlier this month garnered media headlines over a muckraking unauthorised biography, entitled 'Call Me Dave', told Jamaicans that the history of the slave trade was one of «deep wounds» and «abhorrent» practice.
But he advised that the former British colony should «move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future». In short, the Etonian old boy and Conservative prime minister of the United Kingdom was saying, «Don’t call me Dave».
A Downing Street spokesman added: «There is a longstanding UK position, true of successive governments in the UK, that we don’t think reparations are the right approach».
Cameron’s haughty attitude towards centuries of barbaric British slave trading provoked a storm of anger among Jamaican parliamentarians and campaigners.
Andrew Holness, the Jamaican leader of the opposition, told the parliament in Kingston that there «must be ways of repairing what is universally agreed to be the wrongs of the past».
Respected Jamaican academic Hilary Beckles, who chairs a reparations commission, wrote an open letter in local media addressed to Cameron, demanding: «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».
It was also pointed out that David Cameron is the descendant of a British slave owner who once held a lucrative sugar estate on the Caribbean island. In 1833, Sir James Duff, a distant cousin of Cameron on his father’s side, was compensated by the British government for the loss of «slave property» when London finally abolished slavery in Jamaica. The compensation paid to Cameron’s relative would be equivalent to £3 million ($5m) in today’s money.
According to the BBC, all together about 46,000 British slave owners were compensated by the London government during the 1800s. The total «reparations» doled out by the British Treasury for the loss of human chattel would amount to £17 billion today.
Yet the people of Jamaica and several other former British slave colonies in the so-called West Indies never received a penny in atonement. Last year, the governments of the Caribbean galvanised to press Britain and other European states involved in the transatlantic slave trade to come up with an appropriate monetary compensation figure.
Other European countries that engaged in more than two centuries of slave trade from Africa to the Americas include Portugal, Spain, France and the Netherlands. The total reparations could run into trillions of dollars.
Britain has previously issued an apology for its role in the slavery in which up to 12 million people were shipped from West Africa to the American colonies. As many people again died during the horrific Atlantic crossings, which have been described as»an African holocaust».
In 1999, the English port city of Liverpool made a formal apology to the descendants of slavery. In 2007, British Prime Minister Tony Blair also made a verbal atonement.
Current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, in reaction to Cameron’s balking on the matter this week, said he would make an apology on the issue if he was elected prime minister. Corbyn also indicated that he would broach the issue of financial reparations if he is elected to 10 Downing Street.
Observers reckon that Cameron’s real motive for dodging the issue of offering an apology during his visit to Jamaica is to avoid setting a precedent for subsequent compensation claims by the Caribbean former colonies. If Cameron were to say «sorry» then that opens the way to legal claims over what would be a British admission of culpability.
There is also a wider aspect to official British insouciance on the history of slavery. It typifies how established rulers and powers-that-be, particularly in the West, claim the prerogative of selective historical amnesia. When revisiting the past involves a thorough accounting of crimes and violations, then the established powers decide, unilaterally, that the subject is closed if it should probe their culpability.
That same arrogant attitude of selective amnesia is on display over the seemingly unrelated matter of the current Syrian crisis. Russia’s recent military support and intervention on behalf of the Syrian government to combat terrorism has been roundly rebuked by Washington, London and Paris for allegedly «exacerbating the conflict». Yet, stupendously, these same powers choose to ignore the historical background over the last four years of their culpability in fomenting the present Syrian crisis.
Again, the connecting issue here is how certain powers pick and choose on matter of history to suit their self-serving narrative.
So, Britain’s premier «Dave» feels entitled to tell the Caribbean descendants of British slavery to «get it over it» and to «move on». How convenient for the British establishment of monarchy, industry and City of London banks, who collectively built their present-day wealth on the backs of millions of African slaves.
Cameron did announce one British financial initiative while in Jamaica – £25 million for the building of a new prison on the Caribbean island. Reportedly, there are some 600 Jamaican nationals currently locked up in British jails. The Conservative government is planning to ship these inmates back to Jamaica. Hence the £25 million «package» from the British Treasury to sweeten that proposal of repatriating prisoners and offloading its problem of overcrowded British slammers.
By the way, on the scurrilous biography of Cameron’s days of «debauchery» while at Eton and Oxford University, the author – Lord Ashcroft a disgruntled Tory toff – makes the claim that young Dave indulged in a bizarre initiation ceremony as a student to join one of the elitist clubs. The ritual allegedly involved inserting a part of his anatomy into the mouth of a dead pig’s head.
Cameron’s arrogant attitude over Britain’s slave trade in Jamaica suggests that that the British prime minister’s penchant for shafting things has still not gone away.