Prime Minister David Cameron has been reminded of his family’s links to slavery as he faces calls for Britain to pay Jamaica millions of pounds in reparations ahead of his first official visit to Kingston on Tuesday.
Academics and politicians in Jamaica have demanded the PM issue an apology for the hundreds of years during which Britain enslaved and “extracted wealth” from the island’s people.
In an open letter to Cameron published in the Jamaica Observer, historian Sir Hilary Beckles reminded the PM that his ancestral family benefited from slavery on the island through General Sir James Duff, Cameron’s cousin six times removed.
Downing Street has dismissed Jamaica’s call for reparations on the grounds slavery took place under a different government, hundreds of years ago.
In a cutting letter to the PM, Beckles reminded Cameron of his family’s own involvement in Jamaican slavery.
“You are a grandson of the Jamaican soil who has been privileged and enriched by your forebears’ sins of the enslavement of our ancestors … You are, Sir, a prized product of this land and the bonanza benefits reaped by your family and inherited by you continue to bind us together like birds of a feather,” he wrote.
“I speak, Sir, of the legacies of slavery that continue to derail, undermine and haunt our best efforts at sustainable economic development and the psychological and cultural rehabilitation of our people from the ravishes of the crimes against humanity committed by your British State and its citizens in the form of chattel slavery and native genocide,” he went on to say.
Buckles wrote that while Jamaica fueled Britain’s economic growth at a crucial time in its history, helping it to “become great.” He called on the UK to reciprocate as part of an effort in “cleaning up this monumental mess of Empire.”
“We ask not for handouts or any such acts of indecent submission. We merely ask that you acknowledge responsibility for your share of this situation and move to contribute in a joint program of rehabilitation and renewal,” he added.
Cameron will visit Jamaica and Grenada this week as part of a mission to “reinvigorate” the UK’s relationship with the island nations amid fears they are building closer ties with China and Venezuela.
Britain’s imperial legacy is set to overshadow Cameron’s trade trip, during which he will address Jamaica’s parliament, with Mike Henry MP calling on fellow parliamentarians to turn their back on the PM if reparations are not on the agenda.
Professor Verene Shepherd, chair of the National Commission on Reparation, told the Jamaica Gleaner that nothing short of an unambiguous apology from Cameron would do.
Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller called for discussions on the issue at the UN in 2013 and the parliament has approved a motion for the country to seek reparations from Britain.
The UK’s position that reparations are not the “right approach” has remained consistent.
“This is a longstanding concern of theirs and there is a longstanding UK position, true of successive governments in the UK, that we don’t think reparations are the right approach,” a Downing Street spokeswoman said.
“The PM’s point will be he wants to focus on the future. We are talking about issues that are centuries old and taken under a different government when he was not even born. He wants to look at the future and how can the UK play a part now in stronger growing economies in the Caribbean.”
“Britain has long historical ties with these countries,” she added.
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