Submitted by Mohammed Degia
On August 1, 1838, enslaved people across the British Caribbean gained their freedom. Contrary to what is often peddled about the singular role of abolitionists in ending transatlantic slavery, there were two main reasons for abolition- economic and rebellions. The British did not in some great moralistic and ethical wave bestow freedom upon the enslaved. The system was altered because slavery had become an economic liability. Furthermore, the planters lived with the constant fear of slaves rebelling and of another Haiti transpiring. In the end, it was better to agree to free the enslaved than to live with this fear or worse to experience a rebellion. I discuss all of this in more detail in a piece I wrote in 2007 which was the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade by Britain.
As we commemorate the emancipation of our Caribbean forefathers, remember that the British in abolishing slavery also provided a large compensation package for the slave owners. The sum of money amounted to £20 million (£15 billion today) or about 40% of the national budget. The formerly enslaved of course received nothing. What is even more perverse is that the loan taken out at that time by the British government to fund the compensation package was not paid off until 2015. Thus, the British taxpayer was until recently, through payments to the holders of the slavery bonds, still contributing to the beneficiaries of slavery. This is the same British government and society that dismisses the descendants of the enslaved condescendingly, lecturing to them that they should move on and stop living in the past. This is the same British government and society that refuses to consider the just demands of Caribbean people for reparations. The same British government that argues absurdly that the slave trade and slavery were not illegal at the time and so they are not obliged to provide compensation for the heinous role they played in one of the worst crimes against humanity. For these people though, it is not a historical matter to be left behind when until February 2015 they were still reaping the benefits of the slavery abolition loan. The height of dishonesty, arrogance and hypocrisy.
In addition, as we celebrate August 1, we must be mindful that 180 years after abolition and 56 years after the decolonisation period in the British Caribbean commenced with Jamaica’s independence on August 6, 1962, we have a long way to go in the quest for true freedom. The legacy of colonialism and slavery endures in our tiny island states. Most of us continue to experience significant socio-economic challenges. Race and class considerations remain central factors in how our societies function. For example, in Barbados, the justice system still operates in two forms- one for the rich and white and nowadays Indian and one for blacks particularly those that are not rich. Just under a year ago, I penned a long article about the harsh realities of race in Barbados beyond the symbolism of its Emancipation statue. Last week, two prominent white Barbadian businessmen were charged with drug offences and anyone following the saga would have seen first-hand the playing out of the politics of race and class that I wrote about.
The Caribbean has much work to do. We need to examine in earnest these mental chains that impede us. An honest, brutal conversation about our past, how it looms large over us and how we must proceed is essential. Our intellectual giants started the process. It is necessary for us to build on it and propel it to the next level. It is also imperative that we do this together as a region. We are one people with a shared history of colonialism, slavery and exploitation. People to people relationships that transcend artificial borders have always been a central feature of our Caribbean reality. In addition, in a world of large and medium powers, we have no choice as small islands but to integrate. Our politicians with their egos and selfish interests have frustrated the institutionalisation of our deep ties. We the people must take the lead.