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Glasgow Museum of Modern Art. Originally William Cunninghame's house, built from the proceeds of slavery. Photo: @Flickr

Why we can’t just ‘move on’ from the legacy of slavery

Envisage inhabiting a world where the history and heritage of your ancestors has been obliterated. Now further imagine living in a society that perceives the darkness of your skin as an indicator of social class, deviance, and even intelligence. For millions of Africans and Afro-Caribbean people, this is a part of living reality.

Despite its eventual disbandment, the British Empire is still lauded by many a proud, and some may argue ill-informed, Englishman. “What an achievement,” “We conquered one-third of the World,” “Rule Britannia,” I can still hear the taunts of my former school friends even today. Although there seems to be ubiquitous acknowledgment of the tremendous feat achieved by such a small nation—and let me not undermine the accomplishment—little remorse, recognition or even empathy is given to ancestors whose blood and sweat built this ‘great nation’ and the despicably inhumane way it was built.

It was but three weeks ago David Cameron attempted to take an emollient approach to the topic of slave reparations whilst visiting Jamaica, stating a need to “move on” from the “painful legacy and continue to build for the future.”

Yet, the refusal to confront Britain’s substantial role in what was a barbaric and heavily industrialized slave regime and subsequent plan to invest £25 million on a prison to deport Jamaican prisoners to has had many a political commentator describe it as a “slap in the face.”

Undoubtedly, Britain profited vastly from the use of slave labour, the extent to which many historians have failed to fully calculate. Nevertheless, it was this influx of money which helped power the Industrial Revolution propelling Britain to the precipice of the world, creating a super power status it has failed to reach since the end of the empire. It is even estimated up to 20 per cent of Britain’s current GDP can be traced back to slavery.

Off the backs of slaves British imperialism proliferated and thrived, yet the narrative surrounding slavery has been distorted to emphasise Britain’s role in the abolition of slavery. With distinctly less emphasis on the £16.5 – 18 billion (in today’s money) which was paid to the slave owners across the land in compensation. The emancipated slaves received nothing but apprenticeship, colonialism and a second-class citizenship along with a prolonged fight for the right to be seen as equal, a fight that continues to this day.

Many of the countries established as slave nations and colonies continue to be blighted by vast social issues and lack of economical development, a continued legacy of slavery. Take Jamaica, it’s economy has been stagnant for the last 30 years with GDP increasing on average only 1 per cent a year, poverty has increased to 20 per cent and unemployment is above 12 per cent. These trends are reciprocated across the Caribbean with an undeniable link to the fallout from their slavery experience.

But what is more harrowing is not simply the economic or physical deprivation of these countries, it’s the position and appearance of black people within the Western world.

We live in a society whereby the colour of your skin is a predictor of the degree of success you can expect to achieve, where the colour of your skin is a predictor of what job prospects attainable, where the colour of your skin dictates where you can and cannot go, where you will and will not be accepted. This is the most disturbing consequence from slavery.

We are presented as living in a multicultural egalitarian society, yet at almost every stage in life Black citizens are disadvantaged, 30 per cent of Black Caribbeans and 50 per cent of Black Africans are living in low income housing. It is estimated 50 per cent of black children aged seven are living in poverty, with Black Caribbeans three times more likely to be excluded from school than any other group. Black people are six times more likely to be sectioned and six times more likely to be stopped and searched  whilst five times more likely to be imprisoned in England and Wales.

With more young black men from in prison than attending Russell Group institutions. An inter-generational transmission of trauma has occurred whereby, blackness is still equated to being a second-class citizen. In our society you are more likely to be stopped by the police, more likely to be turned away from a club, you are not taught anything about your history other than your people were slaves. And whilst our relatives across the world struggle from the fiscal and physical effects of slavery this is just the practical manifestation of the damage caused. The deep-rooted psychological eradication of what it is to be black has occurred and needs to be addressed, with the British establishment taking responsibility with compunction.

In today’s society, the topic of reparations is met with vitriol from various members of both the left and right. Nothing more emphasizes this than Parliament’s current public policy of refusing to recognize the atrocities committed throughout the 17th to 19th centuries. Yet the argument surrounding reparations occurs within a reductionist paradigm whereby monetary compensation dominates the rhetoric, demeaning the argument.

Reparations as defined in the dictionary is the “the action of making amends for a wrong one has done.” Financial compensation is a factor, however, not the most important measure of this, no matter how parsimonious our government is. In order to make amends there firstly needs to be the admittance of some wrongdoing, this is the most pivotal stride the British Government could make. Debt cancellation, investment in infrastructure, better trade links and increased education will further aid countries still struggling to develop.

Tags: british empire, David Cameron, Jamaica, Racism, reparations, slavery

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