David Cameron travelled to Jamaica earlier this month with an agenda to discuss trade. His talking points however, were quickly pushed aside by Jamaican calls for reparations. Citing Britain’s principal role in the slave trade, the Prime Minister, Portia Simpson Miller aligned herself with the MP’s urging Cameron to address the topic in a Parliamentary session. He briefly touched on the issue to confirm that Britain would neither be issuing reparations, nor an official apology. While recognizing the devastating impacts slavery has had, he made it clear that his interests in Jamaica lie exclusively in the future.
Cameron instead preferred to focus on investment plans for various infrastructure projects, most notably the construction of a £25 million prison to house Jamaican prisoners currently being held in the UK. The UK is currently unable to transfer prisoners to Jamaica due to human rights reports designating Jamaican prisons as suffering from ‘overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and a lack of sufficient medical care’. While improving prison conditions is a necessary step, the Prison Reform Trust argues that it would be more sustainable to instead invest in ‘the endemic socio-economic problems that send Jamaicans to jail in the first place.’ ‘If a choice could be made, it might be better to spend overseas aid on supporting Jamaica to get to grips with poverty, drug addiction, and drug-related offending,’ stated Juliet Lyon, Director of the Trust.
Cameron’s additional announcement of a £300 million aid package to fund roads, bridges, and ports, certainly demonstrates his commitment to the future. However by leaving the past unaddressed, he ignores the underlying source of the problems he seems most interested in addressing.
The past is intimately tied to the future and the effects of the slave trade reach far beyond the 19th century. It is evident that Jamaica continues to suffer from a history of enslavement. Centuries of economic exploitation left a modern Caribbean to rebuild on unstable foundations; and Jamaica has since struggled with low rates of growth and a high public debt.
Professor Verene Shepard from the University of the West Indies has published studies further identifying slavery as the source of several contemporary issues across the Caribbean. Shepard argues that public health concerns such as high rates of diabetes and hypertension stem from the salty diets forced on enslaved ancestors. Her studies also highlight that 80 percent of the population was functionally illiterate at the time of Jamaican independence from Britain in 1962, and male literacy today remains far below the international average.
On the other hand, the UK economy flourished during the slave trade and after its abolition, slave owners were compensated for their losses, including the equivalent of £3 million to relatives of David Cameron. This past has clearly shaped both the UK and Jamaica’s present. The history of the slave trade is clearly entrenched in Jamaica’s present and reparations are a crucial step in combatting this post-colonial reality.
Projections of how to quantify such reparations vary. Operation Black Vote is one organization that has attempted to draft a formula to calculate reparations to Jamaica which details ‘factors such as the compensation slave owners got on emancipation, inflation and interest, the ‘cost’ of emotional and generational damage, and the economic impact of racism, can all be added to the equation’. Alternative proposals have included a call to forgive Jamaican public debt. Jamaica has identified education, infrastructure and the repaying the public debt as areas where funds would be directed to combat the lasting impacts the slave trade has had.
The first step in navigating such complexities is an acknowledgement that it is a worthwhile project. In his parliamentary address however, Cameron did not address any such options; ‘I do hope that, as friends who have gone through so much together since those darkest of times, we can move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future.’ Given the continued legacy of slavery in so much of the Caribbean, the only way to truly move on would be for the UK to return to Jamaica the resources historically taken.