Friday, October 9, 2015

UK doesn't owe us reparations

Last week as British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Jamaica intellectuals in the Caribbean seized the opportunity to indulge in their two great pastimes; blaming colonialism for  our problems and calling for reparations for slavery.

One such person was UWI’s Vice-Chancellor, Sir Hilary Beckles who penned an open letter to Mr. Cameron in the Jamaica Gleaner, and which received widespread regional attention. Possibly making it the most read thing anyone working at UWI has ever published.

In his letter, Sir Hilary called on Mr. Cameron to recognize the need for reparations saying that the legacy of slavery continues, “to derail, undermine and haunt our best efforts at sustainable economic development and the psychological and cultural rehabilitation of our people from the ravishes of the crimes against humanity committed by your British state.”  Though presumably, Sir Hilary is fine with the legacy of being able to accept Knighthoods from the Queen.

Of course no attempt at scolding our former colonial overloads would be complete without a racial guilt trip. In his letter Sir Hilary describes Mr. Cameron as having been “enriched by your forebears' sins of the enslavement of our ancestors.” This is a jab at the fact that Mr. Cameron’s first cousin six times removed, once owned slaves.

If morally indicting Mr. Cameron for the sins of a distant cousin who lived in the 1700s is acceptable, then we may as well also indict him for killing Jesus. I’m sure we can find a cousin of his who was there.

The idea that the British people should feel perpetual collective guilt for the Trans Atlantic slave trade, something, which happened over 100 years ago, is ridiculous. As well, the idea that the Caribbean is poor because Britain is rich, the zero sum game fallacy Caribbean intellectuals like Sir Hilary love to perpetuate is equally ridiculous and needs to stop.

This isn’t to excuse Britain’s involvement with the slave trade, an unquestionable human atrocity that needs to be remembered forever.  Nor is it to forget the inequalities and injustices of British colonial rule in the Caribbean. But Sir Hilary and others in the reparations brigade should perhaps consider a few things before demanding the Queen cut them a cheque.

Firstly, during the height of the British slave trade most Britons lived in dire poverty. In the mid 1700’s half of people in Britain relied on subsistence farming. Profits from slavery may have enriched elites and helped build Oxford libraries and stately homes for the privileged few but it did little for ordinary Britons.

It was the steam engine giving birth to the Industrial revolution and the many social and political reforms that came with it that gave rise to modern Briton as we know it today. Certainly Britain’s colonies played a pivotal role in the industrial revolution, but the idea that there was a finite amount of wealth that was stolen from colonies in the Caribbean and transplanted to Britain is just false. 

Sir Hilary and Caribbean governments should ask why it is that countries like Singapore and South Korea with little or no resources; have gone from being provincial backwaters into economic giants in the same time independent Caribbean countries like Jamaica were rejecting the idea of free market economics.

The second thing to consider is the question of the morality in thinking financial reparations somehow equalizes the injustice of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The reparations brigade point to the fact that Britain compensated slave owners in what would be billions of pounds in today’s money.  It’s only right that former slaves be compensated as well they say.

This would make sense if reparations could be paid directly to former slaves themselves. But for Caribbean Governments a century later to feel entitled to reparations appears to smack of the same moral failing of slave owners; that human beings can be property to be claimed and with a debt to be owed in case you break them.

The real insidious nature of the reparations brigade though is the way in which it wants us to see ourselves. To them we are perpetual victims forever wounded by the injustices of slavery and colonialism. Instead of being in control of our destinies we are forever chained to the past, and the best we can hope for is for our former masters to see the light and unshackle us.  This goes against the very nature, spirit and beliefs of the Independence movement.

During his visit Mr. Cameron was widely derided by local and foreign commentators when he dared to suggest that it was time for Britain and the Caribbean to both “move on” from the past. Sir Hilary may not like it, but Mr. Cameron was absolutely right. 

1 comment:

NomisTT said...

Even if it was justified to give reparations, their simply is no power to force the British to give them. Cut your losses and move on.