On September 30, 2015, British Prime Minister, David Cameron, arrived in Jamaica’s capital Kingston for a State Visit. He addressed a Joint Sitting of Parliament, and in a speech of sheer daring and barefacedness, Mr. Cameron suggested that “Jamaica should move on from its painful legacy of slavery,”. It is worthy of note that David Cameron, in 2014, called on Britons to “never forget the Holocaust”. These remarks therefore, if not racist, are most assuredly, an insult upon the collective integrity of the Jamaican people, who had already suffered great injury from British slavery, plunder, violence and colonization.
This exhibition of British arrogance, reminiscent of plantation slavery where Afro-Caribbean blacks were treated as chattel, was not to go unanswered. In a carefully written and eloquent response, former Jamaican Prime Minister, PJ Patterson, gave Cameron a refresher lesson on history from the perspective of the enslaved, and, with meticulous argumentation, defended the honour of the Jamaican people, and the spirit of the ancestors whom fought to be freed from British slavery. In an Open Letter to David Cameron, he outlined why slavery cannot and shall not be forgotten. This Open Letter will go down in history as one of the most poignant commentaries on slavery from a contemporary Caribbean political emissary, and one of PJ Patterson’s finest moments in leadership.
EXCERPTS of “Open Letter to UK Prime Minister David Cameron from Jamaica’s Former Prime Minister, PJ Patterson:
“The most noble intentions were jarred by portions of your address which asserted that “slavery was a long time ago, in the historical past and as friends we can move on together to build for the future”. Mere acknowledgement of its horror will not suffice. It was and still is a most heinous crime against humanity – a stain which cannot be removed by the passage of time.
Those who perished in the Middle Passage and the fatal victims on the sugar plantation were the victims of genocide. This is a crime in accordance with International Law.
The attempt to trivialize and diminish the significance of 300 years of British enslavement of Africans and the trade in their bodies reflect the continued ethnic targeting of our ancestors and their progeny for discriminatory treatment in both the annals of history and in the present.
The 180 years of slavery in Jamaica remain fresh in living memory. There are people alive in Jamaica today whose great grandparents were a part of the slavery system and the memory of slavery still lingers in these households and communities.
To speak of slavery as something from the Middle Ages is insufficient. For our communities, its legacies are still present in their memory and emotions. To reject this living experience is to repudiate the very meaning and existence of these people’s lives.
How can we simply forget and move on to the future? If there is no explicit admission of guilt now, when will be the proper time?
You argue that Britain abolished the slave system and the credit for this resonates in the British Parliament today and show British compassion and diplomacy.
Where is the prior confession that Britain fashioned, legalized, perpetuated and prospered from the slave trade?
Indeed the facts speak to a different explanation. In Jamaica, the enslaved led by Sam Sharpe tried to abolish slavery themselves three years before Parliament acted. The British army destroyed these freedom fighters and executed their leaders.
This attempt to destroy the seed of freedom and justice in Jamaica continued for another hundred years. In 1865, the peasants sought to occupy Crown lands in order to survive widespread hunger. The British Government sent in the army and massacred those people, executing Paul Bogle, George William Gordon and other Leaders.
Furthermore, the British Act of Emancipation reflected that the enslaved people of Jamaica were not human but property. The 800,000 Africans in the Caribbean and elsewhere were valued at £47 million. The government agreed to compensate the slave owners £20million, and passed an Emancipation Act in which the enslaved had to work free for another four to six years in order to work off the £27million promised slave owners. It was they who paid for their eventual freedom.
The enslaved paid more than 50 percent of the cost of their market value in compensation to slave owners. This is what your Emancipation Act did. The enslaved got nothing by way of compensation. The Act of Emancipation was self-serving, and was designed to support British national commercial interests alone.
You have refused to apologize. Yet your Government has apologized to everyone else for horrid crimes. Are we not worthy of an apology or less deserving?
Mere acknowledgement of the crime is insufficient. The international community and international law call for formal apologies when crimes against humanity are committed. The UN has deemed slave trading and slavery as crimes against humanity. The refusal to apologise is a refusal to take responsibility for the crime. In a law abiding world, this is not acceptable.
Recently, you urged your own nation to keep the memory of the Jewish experience alive in memorials and education curricula. We urge you to do the same for the black experience with remains before us all. It is precisely because we all want to move on that the reparatory justice movement is alive and growing. We all want to move on, but with justice and equality.
Contrary to your view, the Caribbean people will never emerge completely from the “long, dark shadow” of slavery until there is full confession of guilt by those who committed this evil atrocity.
The ‘resilience and spirit” of its people is no ground to impair the solemnity of a privileged Parliamentary occasion and allow the memory of our ancestors to be offended once again.
The Caribbean people have long been looking to the future, This is what we do in our development visions, but these legacies are like millstones around our necks. We look to reparatory justice as the beginning of shaping a new future. We invite Britain to engage in removing this blot on human civilization so that together we can create a new and secure future”.