Racism and slavery, like a horse and carriage?


Racism and slavery, like a horse and carriage?


Sunday, July 05, 2020

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Racism cannot be removed from a bigot's mind, especially when the worst bigots are asymptomatic. What can be done is not tolerate it.

The practice of racism was brought to national and international attention by the recent George Floyd incident in the US that sparked demonstrations in protest demanding change as the answer to racial discrimination. All well-thinking Jamaicans support actions in the USA for change as the answer to racism because Jamaicans know the atrocities inflicted on human beings during the period of British rule, with racial discrimination leaving consequences that must now be undone as a just cause for reparation.

Four centuries ago the head of State for one of the leading nations that practised racism when trafficking in people from Africa, Queen Elizabeth I, had condemned the practice before Britain was involved, as reported by Thomas Clarkson notes 1785:

“The first importation of slaves from Africa, by our countrymen, was in the reign of Elizabeth, in the year 1562. The Queen was greatly concerned about these events: She [Elizabeth I] seems to have been aware of the evils to which its continuance might lead, or that, if it were sanctioned, the most unjustifiable means might be made use of to procure the persons of the natives of Africa.

“Summoning Captain John Hawkins, to brief her regarding his voyage to Africa, the Queen: expressed her concern, lest any of the Africans should be carried off without their free consent, declaring that: 'It would be detestable, and call down the vengeance of heaven upon the undertakers.' “

Disregarding Her Majesty's directive, Hawkins commenced centuries of British slave trade.

The devil's parody

Thereafter there was the most horrifying show of man's inhumanity to man, in three stages, that a devil would resent.

First, there was the kidnapping of people from Africa; the physical and emotional trauma from being forcibly seized in your homeland, taken from family and village, mercilessly bound with other victims and carried away to hell holes to await the next ship for their final confinement. These were white strangers holding black people in captivity in circumstances that could make any normal person lose his/her mind.

Next stage was the dehumanising experience on slave ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The cargo on-board was human beings, squeezed together in close confinement as bulk load below deck in numbers as many as space will allow for maximum profit. How long did the journey last? What were the health and hygiene practices below deck where the cargo was kept? What sustenance was provided to preserve life? The answers can be the reason some preferred suicide; and if they survived, there was always the risk of being thrown overboard to save the ship from any hazard of a sea journey, as was done for saving the Zong off the coast of Black River in 1781.

The final stage for the madding journey was on the plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean with the well-known cruelties of enslavement and the denial of their humanity. On arrival in the British West Indies (now Caribbean Community) their destination was the cane fields, in slavery, while their captors sang, “Britons never, never shall be slaves” or from the Empire song “Land of hope and glory, mother of the free”.

To whose benefit?

When we talk for reparation an issue to be considered is to what extent some of the victims in the slave trade were sold by other Africans to the white trader for filthy lucre. The business of the time was mega wealth at any price for an operation where the white planters and the black enslaved people worked together in a partnership for the best profit where one side could not do it alone. History shows how they were unequally yoked; putting them at odds with one another. When considering reparation, in the milieu of unbridled capitalism a question to be answered is whether the head of State for the West Indian colonies also shared in the revenue from slavery?

Was slavery entirely about racism?

On the plantations, the white partner had his fundamental rights and freedoms protected; the black partner was property of the planter like any other animal on the farm, as industrial equipment. The planter received financial benefit from the joint enterprise; the enslaved people worked for free.

Being at odds with one another is the euphemism for what took place in Jamaica with a majority black population. This was a country always in turmoil with the struggle by the people from Africa against colonial rule by the white people from Britain. Many died in the revolt and more died from the reprisal that followed. We cannot close our eyes to the abuses of the people from Africa, nor turn our backs on the heroes and hundreds more who sacrificed with their lives to get us where we are today. The important question is: Was racism the reason or cause for the combat between planter and slave?

A plausible test is where you see your daughter or sister with a man from the plantation, how would you know whether he should be accepted as coming from the great house or rejected coming from the cane field? The difference is important for maintaining the social integrity of the island. It just happened that the black people from Africa were assigned to the cane fields while the white people were in the great house. That made the difference when nature was exploited for the colour of skin to determine who was free and who was enslaved. The planters used that label to the fullest extent to instil a belief of superiority for the master and inferiority for the enslaved individuals. This is the insanity that demands reparation for all the people. We still mindlessly abuse each other and allow the weak to remain in depravation without full freedom and equal opportunity for education and self-development.

Sad to say, it will be a long road for the victims of racial discrimination to travel in order to unlearn the lessons from mental slavery. The recent statement from King's House unravelling the governor general's dilemma over the hidden message of racial discrimination in his emblem of honour is an act for reparation. How much further should we go toppling statues, destroying images, or dispelling other forms of honour now regarded as relics of colonialism in order to achieve reparation? How far is enough, or too far for the National Council on Reparation to go?

Frank Phipps, QC, is a member of the National Council on Reparation. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or frank.phipps@yahoo.com.

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