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Let the reparations debate begin

Sunday, January 19, 2014    

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Dear Editor,

I read with great and profound interest your editorial on reparations which, in Jamaica's case, I have been pursuing for my total political life; having it debated in Parliament on more than one occasion, and having had Parliament put a hold on my request for a vote until the National Reparations Committee had made its report.

I am now aware and have been advised by the chair of the National Reparations Committee, Professor Verene Shepherd, that the report has now been handed to the minister of youth & culture, the Honourable Lisa Hanna, MP. I have further confirmed that the report has been taken to Cabinet and should be laid in Parliament in January.

I have been promised by the leader of Government Business that we can begin the debate on my private member's motion. That being so, bearing in mind the present positions of the leaders of both parties on this subject, it is my firm belief that Parliament can and will make the needed political decision on the way to proceed. (It is now prime time to let the public debate begin, not on the quantum of claim, but the use of the proceeds.)

Thus, your editorial was timely, but unlike your deductions, the historical and cultural approach by Jamaica has never been to blame all our ills on slavery. It has certainly never been mine.

Indeed, the main and early proponents of reparations, namely Rastafari, have rejected this by their cry for it to be in the form of repatriation (which was approved by our Parliament of the '60s).

They have stoutly rejected that it be addressed in any form other than the deep moral and historical fact that it was an abuse of human rights and in their approach demanded that they and all black people should be returned to Africa (not to mother England).

It has certainly been more the different intellectual approaches that have broadened the areas of social, cultural and economic impact on Jamaica with most, if not all our leaders using your argument as a crutch for their failure to lead, and failing to recognise that ignoring and neglecting our history, and replacing it with only Eurocentric history, denies us of our identity and the strength to seek this claim. Which claim, by the way, is for all Jamaica -- be 'ye' one ilk or the other.

For my part, in my book (Many Rivers to Cross - LMH Publishing Ltd, 2013) I have (firstly) narrowly focused on the British chattel slavery in the Caribbean and the indisputable historical fact that it was Great Britain's Parliament that abolished slavery in 1833 and responded to a political lobby on behalf of the Caribbean plantation owners [based on the argument].

That it was Britain that legitimised chattel slavery for economic and political reasons and it was Britain that sold the the slaves to Caribbean planters and then said to the planters that the slaves must be freed but gave the newly freed class no rights of their own (freed slaves were not allowed to own titled land).

For this, the slave owners demanded compensation from the British Government for each slave owned at the time of abolition. This was agreed to by the then British Government, was assessed and a value of £20 million was put on the lost chattel slave labour. This amount was paid to the slave owners.

I have argued this case for all my life, that the country of the slave descendants is entitled to receive the same amount of money, but at today's value (estimated by the committee to be £7.5 trillion for the Caribbean), that was paid to the slave owners. [need] I remind us that three of our National Heroes were murdered and martyred for this fight.

I have further requested that it be paid to the Government of Jamaica, for the people of Jamaica.

The matter, which is also now being taken up by Caricom, brings the other five Caribbean countries into the claim; with a requirement for them to make a political decision also.

When such a political decision is made, it then opens the door for Jamaica and the other Caribbean countries to take the matter to the International Court of Justice to pursue other reparation claims against all the countries that were involved in the slave trade for other forms of abuses, be they genocide, rape, murder and the host of human rights abuses under slavery.

I am not sure what the ultimate real monetary value of the freed chattel slaves would be, but the report coming out of the National Reparations Committee talks of Jamaica's share being £2.2 trillion. Perhaps it is the audacity of the claim and/or the magnitude of this part of our reparations claim why, astonishingly to me, I should be asked by so many sectors of our society; Can they pay? Will they pay?

Based on my own firm beliefs in this non-political call, the questions should be:

* How will we coalesce around this matter as a conscience approach?

* How will we accept payment?

* How will it be used to transform our society?

* What must we the people put in place by even a referendum as to what we must use it for?

* It will certainly eliminate all our debt; what then?

* Would the people want it to be used to grant a tax holiday for, say, 20 years to all citizens and/investors while the Government prioritises education, land ownership and health and infrastructure?

One thing I know I will fight for is a sum to be set aside to facilitate repatriation or re-emigration to Africa, and I could go on, but I save the rest for this most important debate, out of which should come many answers to some of my questions, not the least of which is what the economists will think and the sociologists propose.

I have addressed the editorial from the singular prospective of chattel slavery and immoral injustice of compensating the slave owners without consideration for the newly freed chattel turned humans. Other points in the editorial will be addressed as the debate unfurls.

Let the debate begin!

Mike Henry, CD

Member of parliament — Central Clarendon

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