As David Cameron prepares to address the Jamaican parliament, the prime minister is under pressure to atone for the historic crime of slavery – including his own ancestors in the 18th century. Jamaica and 14 other countries are asking Britain to pay compensation for slavery. Should Britain do so?
Why have reparations for slavery become an issue now?
David Cameron’s visit to Jamaica threatens to become overshadowed by calls for Britain to issue a full apology for the slave trade and to pay billions of pounds in reparations.
The issue of slavery was raised in the UK prime minister’s meeting with his Jamaican counterpart, Portia Simpson Miller. Jamaican MPs are also planning a protest in parliament later on Wednesday, when Cameron is due to make a speech. They are planning to turn their back on him if he fails to address the issue.
What is Cameron being asked to do?
Sir Hilary Beckles, chair of the Caricom Reparations Commission, called on Cameron to start talks on making amends for slavery. In an open letter in the Jamaica Observer, he wrote: “We ask not for handouts or any such acts of indecent submission. We merely ask that you acknowledge responsibility for your share of this situation and move to contribute in a joint programme of rehabilitation and renewal.” Beckles also raised Cameron’s family ties to the slave trade. He wrote: “You are, Sir, a prized product of this land and the bonanza benefits reaped by your family and inherited by you continue to bind us together like birds of a feather.”
Were Cameron’s ancestors involved in slavery?
Research has revealed there were slave owners in Cameron’s family background,but it would be stretching it to describe them as his “ancestors”. Cameron’s first cousin six times removed was Gen Sir James Duff, an army officer, MP, and slave-owner who was awarded compensation after slavery was abolished in 1807. Duff, a son of one of Cameron’s great-grand uncles, was awarded £4,100 – the equivalent of more than £3m today – to compensate him for the 202 slaves he forfeited on a sugar plantation in Jamaica.
Does Cameron have any other family ties to slavery?
The prime minister’s wife, Samantha, is descended from the 19th-century businessman William Jolliffe, who received £4,000 in compensation for 164 slaves after owning an estate in St Lucia.
How else can Britain make amends for slavery?
Cameron is under pressure to issue a full apology for slavery. Prof Verene Shepherd, chair of the National Commission on Reparation, told the Jamaica Gleaner that nothing short of an unambiguous apology from Cameron would do. A UN international decade for people of African descent, which began this year, calls on those “that have not yet expressed remorse or presented apologies to find some way to contribute to the restoration of the dignity of victims”. It suggests memorial sites in countries that have profited from slavery. Fernne Brennan, the author of a forthcoming book on reparations and a senior lecturer at the law school at Essex University, suggested other gestures including teaching children more about the slave trade and commissioning a hymn acknowledging Britain’s involvement in slavery.
Why hasn’t Britain already apologised for slavery?
In 2006, Tony Blair expressed his “deep sorrow” for slavery, but stopped short of admitting historical guilt. The British government’s reluctance to fully apologise is believed to stem from a fear that doing so could make it financially liable.
How much should Britain pay in reparations?
After the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, the British government agreed to pay £20m in compensation to 46,000 slave-owners. The equivalent sum today would be £2bn according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator. The Caricom Reparations Commission has not put a figure on Britain’s reparations bill. Instead, it issued a 10-point plan that includes debt write-offs for Caribbean governments and contributions to public health and education spending. In 2004, the Rastafarian Nation in Jamaica said European countries once involved in the slave trade, especially Britain, should pay $129bn (£72.5bn) to resettle 500,000 Jamaican Rastafarians in Africa.
How has Britain responded to calls for reparation?
In his meeting with the Jamaican prime minister, Cameron ruled out paying reparations reaffirming a long-standing rejection of the idea by the British government. Instead of focusing on the past, Downing Street said he wanted to improve future relations with Jamaica by announcing funding for infrastructure projects and a new prison.