Britain remembers its past but wants others to forget theirs
Each November, “Remembrance Day” in the United Kingdom honours the heroic efforts, achievements and sacrifices that were made in past wars. Remembrance Sunday is also marked by events such as memorial services, church services and parades. A national commemoration takes place at Whitehall in Central London.
From my perspective, having watched the ceremony in London in the past, the most moving part is the calling of the names of the fallen, interspersed with personal stories. According to Sir Stuart Peach, Chief of the Defence staff, speaking at this year's commemorative event: “Today we mark and remember over a million British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in both world wars. So it is about remembering the sacrifice they made so that we can enjoy the freedom and liberty that we have today.”
Remembrance Day is not the only evidence that Britain respects its past and employs a diverse range of strategies to ensure that its citizens and their supporters never forget — as could be seen in the line-up of dignitaries from the Commonwealth who joined Britain in remembering its past.
For example, in 2015, then Prime Minister David Cameron announced that a major new memorial would be built in London to honour the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, even as, in the same year, he told Jamaicans to forget about slavery and move on.
Countless reminders of the past reside in the National and County Archives; in the British Museum and in monuments and statues to those the UK deems iconic and important historical figures, the contested Henry Dundas (Edinburgh) and Horatio Nelson (Trafalgar Square) included.
Within this context, 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 on 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 and even to make amends for human rights abuses committed by the British state.
His statement, “I think it's not important looking back in history”, could not have been more ill-timed, published on November 13 when Jamaicans reverently peered into a past made painful by the British — 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 amid a growing movement, including among the “British people with Jamaican heritage” he mentioned in his Gleaner interview, are not surprising; neither is that he made this insulting statement in the Caribbean, right among the people who no doubt showed him respect and hospitality.
He followed 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: “Do I think that we are in a position where we can financially offer compensation for an event two, three, four hundred years ago? No, I don't.”
He went on further: “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 British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Equally predictable is his statement that for the Caricom nations to press a claim for reparation would be “a mistake of massive proportions”. Of course, in my view, the mistake would be for Britain to ignore the growing support in the Caribbean and other countries for the need for reparatory justice.
Inspired and moved by the efforts of enslaved Africans, Rastafari, and grassroots individuals and organisations in Jamaica and its diaspora in Britain, a wide cross-section of newer voices have now joined the movement: academics, lawyers, members of the media, pastors and politicians. In an historic move in July 2013, Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community established a Caricom Reparation Commission, endorsed a Ten-Point Action Plan for Reparatory Justice and mandated each Caricom state to establish a national body to work with the CRC — a move already taken by Jamaica in 2009.
In January 2015, the Jamaica House of Representatives passed a unanimous resolution at the motion introduced by the MP Michael Lester Henry, which stated that Jamaica was entitled to receive reparation from Britain, including the repayment of the modern equivalent of the sum paid to the planters at the time of emancipation, and called upon the Government to pursue the claim.
In 2016, the chairman of the Caricom Prime Ministerial Sub-committee on Reparation, Freundel Stuart of Barbados, acting on behalf of the other members of the PMSC and heads of Caricom, and ultimately the people of the Caribbean, dispatched an historic letter relating to reparatory justice for indigenous genocide and African enslavement in the Caribbean to several heads of European governments.
The letter set out the evidentiary basis for the Caribbean reparatory justice movement and the reasons such countries were singled out for claims of redress. Among other reasons, the claim letter stated that “there is a case to answer for reparatory justice by those states that forcibly relocated Africans to the Caribbean for centuries, practised chattel enslavement of Africans and are responsible for the genocide of native communities”.
The letter also suggested, as a first step to resolve the matter, a diplomatic approach — a meeting, in 2016, with European heads. It is a request that has been ignored.
Cameron, in his response of April 2016, reminded Caricom of Britain's longstanding position that “the British Government does not believe that reparations are the answer”.
But the people of the Caribbean and its diaspora beg to differ.
Of course, Britain's posture is not new. History has shown that Britain has not always lived up to its responsibilities. For example, Britain was anxious, as Gordon K. Lewis reminds us in The Growth of the Modern WI, to use federation as a means of discarding its then unwanted responsibilities as a colonial power. In his words, 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 Government's United Nations 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.
“Anything less than that” Sir Ellis concluded, “would constitute something less than the genuine article; it would be trying to fob off West Indians with independence on the cheap.”
He went on to suggest that Britain was not facing up to its moral and financial obligations.
But the movement for reparatory justice is gathering speed on all fronts: Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. Indeed, a team from the Jamaica National Council on Reparation is now in Britain, consulting with advocates and other stakeholders about unification strategies. The University of the West Indies recently established a Centre for Reparation Research; and the interest in forming institutional links with the CRR has come in from far and wide, including from Habib University in Karachi, Pakistan.
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”.
Building bridges of mutual understanding and relations between Britain and one of her former colonies is fine, minister; but only justice has the potential to heal the wounds, repair the crime and create the reconciliation of which you speak.
• Verene A. Shepherd is the Director of the Centre for Reparation Research at the University of the West Indies