The claimant's caseSunday, June 27, 2021
Those who scoff at claims for reparation will one day come to realise that the struggle of black people with their white masters on the plantations was a struggle against racism and loss of humanity in chattel slavery after being forcibly abducted from their home in Africa.
The revolts and the rebellions, with loss of life and the spilling of blood in combat, and the bitter tears shed in human misery and degradation were all for restoring their dignity as human beings in freedom and independence. This is the legacy their descendants have; failing to acknowledge this inheritance is to dishonour the memory of their ancestors.
It was not without reason that the Abolition of Slavery Act 1833 was the same year for an Act providing appeals to the Privy Council for redress of wrongs in former British colonies. No one should ignore this legal provision or turn their back on the opportunity to seek reparation for wrongs suffered during enslavement under British colonial rule.
Racism and chattel slavery
How chattel slavery started is explained by Dr Molefi Kete Asante, professor of African American Studies at Temple University, in his presentation for the Slavery Remembrance Day memorial lecture at Liverpool Town Hall, August 21, 2007: “The Barbadian Slave Code of 1661 was the first code establishing the English legal base for slavery in the Caribbean, adopted by the American colony of South Carolina in l696 introducing slavery in British North America… enslaved Africans degraded to chattel giving the enslaver absolute control and absolute ownership… and the condition of their children would also remain that of the enslaved.”
The European colonists and slave traders of the 17th and 18th centuries were sure that there were genetic and biological differences that set whites as superior beings to blacks. Thus, what whites were constructing was something more sinister than ritualistic racial bigotry; they created an oppressive systematic form of dehumanisation of Africans.
Why chattel slavery lasted so long is explained by Edward B Rugemer, The Development of Mastery and Race in the Comprehensive Slave Codes of the Greater Caribbean during the 17th Century ( The William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 70, No 3 (July 2013): “The Barbados laws of 1652 suggest that Europeans were encouraged to treat enslaved Africans with especial severity, and the comprehensive acts of 1661 enhanced the distinctions made between European and African labourers. These distinctions were justified with language that adumbrated racial thinking, specifically the naming of Negroes. And as the political economy of slavery spread into Jamaica and South Carolina, racial language became more sophisticated with the naming of white people. Through a decades-long struggle fraught with blood, terror, sweat, and considerable investment, these English colonial assemblies used the power of the law to forge the habits of mastery and a political economy of racial slavery that would last for 200 years.”
The effect of racial distinction was a division of mankind in two where who should rule and benefit from the division was determined by the colour of their skin, which was enforced by law. Racism in the British colonies in the Caribbean and North America was never finally settled. The war of independence in North America did not change the enslaved condition of black people, neither did the civil war for Emancipation make much difference to their condition. With two centuries of racism it has taken another 160 years of struggle and the war of George Floyd's neck in 2021 to remind the US that black lives matter.
In the Caribbean it was different. Take Jamaica for example, first there was Spain as colonial rulers for 150 years, then came the English in 1655 to continue colonial rule for another 300 years to Independence in 1962, in spite of the earlier abolition of slavery in 1833. In the Caribbean, abolition of slavery did not carry Independence, and neither did Independence carry full freedom, some will argue, where the English monarch remains the constitutional head of the legislative and the executive arms of government and head of the judiciary with a final appeal to Her Majesty in Council.
A grievous injustice
It is well known that the enormous wealth Britain acquired was to a large extent from their plantations in Jamaica. The contribution of the black people by their work and sacrifice to create that wealth was never recognised for compensation; instead, the owners of slaves were paid by the British Government for loss of property on Emancipation. This is a grievous injustice to the enslaved people and their descendants that remains uncorrected.
The persistent poverty behind the zinc fence, the terrorism of taxi drivers (real or fake) and what can only be called a twisted resentment to authority by a lunatic fringe, perceived as fallout from mental and physical slavery, producing the indiscipline and widespread murder stalking the people for some to hark back to the training under colonial rule while the better-offs cower in gated communities. This unsettled condition invites a question: Why has there never been a law to bridge the difference between the haves and the have-nots carried over from slavery as a variant of non-colour-coded racism?
The victims of the present injustice are the black people who were forcibly taken from different parts of Africa and transported in the infamous transatlantic slave trade to the Americas and the Caribbean. These were people who spoke different languages, practised different culture and religion, lived under different justice systems, and had different identifying family names.
On arrival in Jamaica, they were randomly divided and sold, carried to different parts of their new homeland to be integrated with others to work on the plantations as slaves for the settlers from England. Jamaicans have no history prior to the 15th century when they were dropped off; no identity other than colour of skin, and no culture other than what they forged for themselves from the amalgam of the practices of the different people with whom they lived, worked, and died for almost the entire five centuries of colonial rule.
There can be no question about Jamaica's extraordinary success as a developing country starting with nothing. The resilience of the people from Africa and the inventive thinking of succeeding governments, made Jamaica a respected member of the United Nations and other international bodies, accepted as a practising democracy with a stable Government.
This is where institutions for world economic order should recognise how the use of economic, political, cultural or other pressures to control the people of a former dependency can hinder their further development with resultant tenacious poverty held in place by a crippling national debt.
A way for a country to get out of the debt trap without disrupting its stability by internal insurrection is to hand over its economy to one of the three powerful nations on earth — the US with the Black Lives Matter problem, Russia with stale old fashion communism, or the new communist China that seems to be the road they are building in Jamaica. Absent those three, there is the UK that owes Jamaica money for its unjust riches from slavery — enough money that can pay off the national debt with more left over for further development.
There should be no contest over Britain's debt to the people of Jamaica as compensation for the 178 years of unpaid, forced labour. Add to that the mental and physical damage from chattel slavery passed down generations. This is a call to Britain for reparation to restore the dignity of human beings in One Love — living together with peace in every town and every village.
If reparation must be forced out of them, so be it. It is the law that took the people from Africa into chattel slavery, and it is the law that will take them out to restore their freedom — a law passed by the British Parliament to be enforced by the British Monarch to whom the British Government is accountable. The people of Jamaica have access to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council Act for justice. A complaint of chattel slavery carried out in Jamaica under British rule that cannot go through the courts, can, nevertheless, be referred to the Privy Council by Her Majesty under section 4 of the Act for a final decision on compensates. This has to be the enlightened reason for the companion Acts passed in 1833.
In considering how much compensation, what is now claimed should not be less than what was paid as value at Emancipation — a part payment on the total claim for reparation.
No one should turn their back on this legal provision for final justice on reparation to complete the struggle of their forebears and to honour their memory.
Frank Phipps, QC, is a member of Jamaica’s National Council for Reparation. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com.