Columns

Slavery apology comes to Trench Town

Dr Henley Morgan

Wednesday, August 01, 2012    

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THE inconvenient truth of the evils of the African slave trade will not go away; no more than the horrors of the Jewish holocaust will. Maybe one day, like the Jews, we will cast off the vestiges of slavery and rise confident in our identity as a great and noble race.

Jamaica took another step towards realising the dream last week with the arrival of a group operating under the name, Lifeline Expedition. The group, which is comprised of white Europeans and a few Africans, has visited 16 countries to march and apologise on behalf of their ancestors for the enslavement and death of millions of Africans who were uprooted from their homeland and forcibly transported to work on plantations in the Caribbean and the Americas.

The cynics will deride such an action, calling it a waste of time that stirs up memories of an era long gone and best forgotten. The marchers are strong in their belief that restorative justice is necessary for promoting reconciliation through Christ, which in the end will release the perpetrators from guilt and shame, and begin to heal the emotional and other scars still evident among the descendants of those who were enslaved.

Project leader Joseph Zintseme explained the purpose of the expedition. “Jamaica is a small nation with global influence and a key place as far as the legacy of slavery is concerned. Unspeakable horrors were inflicted upon those who were forcibly transported from Africa to enrich Europeans through forced labour. We believe that many social ills affecting Jamaica today are evidence of that legacy. We want to come alongside Jamaicans at this significant time and through our apology help to repair the damage and help heal the wounds of history. That is why we are coming here.” Members of the group, tied with chains and yoke reminiscent of the common practice during slavery, will march in Black River, Falmouth, Spanish Town, Morant Bay and Trench Town.

The march in Trench Town on Saturday, August 4, starting at 8:30 am at the famous Boys’ Town on Collie Smith Drive, is especially significant. Boys’ Town was founded by Father Hugh Sherlock who penned our National Anthem. Strategically located at Rema between the JLP and PNP enclaves of Tivoli and Arnett Gardens, it is significant for another reason. Boys’ Town is symbolic of the continuing struggle to defeat the demon of political tribalism. For politicians living in denial of past atrocities committed by the state and political parties against the citizens of this country, and citizens genuinely perplexed about the root cause of the spiralling murder rate, this columnist will continue to be a lone voice in the wilderness drawing attention to the great evil of tribal politics and the resulting political garrisons.

If this or a future government of Jamaica is to ever gain the moral authority to move resolutely against the wanton acts of murder which have put us near the top of the murder capitals of the world, it must do like governments elsewhere and apologise for past wrongs committed against innocent civilians. Almost everyone knows about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which is credited with preventing widespread reprisal killings after Nelson Mandela came to the presidency. There are less invasive examples that we may look to for guidance on how to proceed.

During the bicentennial anniversary of the African slave trade in 2007, British Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted to the evils of slavery and Britain’s role in perpetrating the wicked practice. In the United States, the Virginia Assembly voted unanimously to express “profound regret” for the state’s role in the atrocities that were committed against African slaves, who first arrived at Jamestown in 1619, and their descendants.

In a historic parliamentary vote in 2008, lawmakers in Australia unanimously adopted Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s motion apologising to tens of thousands of aborigines for “the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians”. On June 11, 2008, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper rose in the House of Commons to deliver an unqualified official apology to assembled leaders of Canada’s one million First Nation, Inuit and mixed-race people, following an earlier announced restitution of CAD$2 billion in 2005.

Could the same thing happen in Jamaica? Would the prime minister apologise and make restitution to victims of garrison politics? I have a lively imagination and am an eternal optimist, and so I have rehearsed a presentation to be made before the Political Garrison Reparations Committee, should there ever be one.

“Tribal politics, which holds citizens hostage within garrison communities, ranks among the most horrendous of all violations of human rights and the constitutional ideals of our nation. The practice was characterised by atrocities such as forced eviction, destruction of property and livelihood; break-up of families, violence and other insidious practices directed with inhumane and malicious intent toward Jamaicans whose only crime was in being poor. These practices were rooted in undemocratic principles, political bias, abuse of power, and a blatant disregard for the trust of the people and the public good. Thousands have died violently in what have come to be known as the killing fields. Countless others have been dispossessed of opportunities to develop their God-given potential in these man-made zones of economic and social exclusion. The legacy of poverty, ignorance and hopelessness cannot be fully assessed or compensated in monetary terms, but righting this great wrong requires that along with truth telling and an apology, an attempt at restitution be at least made.”

If our government is looking for an action that will make celebration of the 50th year of Independence memorable; that will rekindle the hope of the masses in the promise of the national anthem, motto and pledge; rebuild trust between the governed and the government, and signal to the world seriousness about reconstructing the social and political system, it need look no further than this.

hmorgan@cwjamaica.com

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