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Should Britain pay Jamaica billions in reparations for slavery that ended 200 years ago? Here are some reasons why it should

At the risk of opening a very expensive Pandora’s box, there are some compelling arguments as to why the UK needs to open its cheque book on this issue. Morally, it’s the only option.

Christopher Columbus claimed Jamaica for Spain after first landing there in 1494, before Britain later seized it and filled the country with African slaves. Now some officials there are preparing paperwork to send to the Queen, asking for reparations. Britain should honour the damage of its forefathers.

If someone wrongs us, the means of restitution is money. Whether that is a fine levied by the state or a prosecution via the courts, cash is one tangible method to atone for transgressions.

So it’s correct that Jamaica is asking Great Britain to open its wallet for the slavery we imposed on the island. 

The figure of £7.6 billion is being suggested by Jamaican politician Mike Hendry. It corresponds to the compensation given to slave owners who’d used them to earn fortunes, when the practice was abolished in 1834.

He said: “I am asking for the same amount of money to be paid to the slaves that was paid to the slave owners.” 

Some will feel it’s unfair to hark back hundreds of years and hold today’s Britons responsible for the actions of their forebears.

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But the British impact on Jamaica is undeniable and permanent. A few years after the English (as Britain had not yet been formed) seized the island from the Spanish in 1655, it had a population of 4,500 whites and 1,500 blacks.

By the time slavery was stopped, they were 15,000 whites, 5,000 free blacks, 40,000 free mixed race and 311,070 slaves. 

All in all, around 600,000 slaves were shipped there from Africa. Most of Jamaica’s three million people exist because their ancestors were transported there by the British.

These slaves worked in horrendous conditions mainly on sugar cane plantations, from 4am until sunset. Scholars have reported that slaves were burnt, strangled or tortured if they did not follow orders. 

The wealth they created was used by British barons to create businesses, construct grand buildings and found institutions back home. Many Brits today go to universities or work for firms that have direct links to Jamaican slaves or to the sugar trade.

That is not their fault. However, it is the nation’s collective responsibility.

Jamaica finally gained independence in 1962, but the Queen remains as head of state, and it’s also part of the Commonwealth.

In 2019, Jamaica’s GDP was $15.8 billion , whereas the UK’s was $2.8 trillion. A British person has a life expectancy of 81, which is part of a constant upward trajectory, whereas in Jamaica it is 74 and the same since 1995. The poverty rates are similar, though, around 19%. Conversely, the homicide rates per 100k show a wide disparity: in Jamaica it’s 43.85 and, in the UK, 1.2. 

It’s clear one nation has benefited from the connection more than the other. Britain was able to propel itself forward in part thanks to the spoils of its colonial and slave empire.

Was everything they left behind toxic? 

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No it wasn’t, and Jamaica likely has some things that have worked to its benefit, but that follows the same logic as the metaphor about rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

You can’t alter the makeup and course of a country, then walk away and pretend you’re not liable.

To be frank, the sum talked about seems reasonable as currently Britain is negotiating a Brexit bill of £41 billion, of which it has already made a down payment, with more scheduled for this year.

The British government would need to be myopic to not see how, if they are honouring one liability, then the other is even more pressing.

Of course, the probable course of action will be for Boris Johnson to attempt to wriggle out of any Jamaican settlement.

One of the reasons is that, following Brexit and the Covid pandemic, the exchequer is hardly flush and is in a fluster about having to pay £3 billion more to state pensioners. 

So having to agree to slavery reparations that will have no positive impact on UK voters would will be a tough deal to sell.

The other problem is opening the colonial Pandora’s Box. As, in place of Jamaica, think of Bermuda, Bahamas, Zimbabwe, Kenya and many others. All the other places where enslavement took place will want the same restitution, and why shouldn’t they?

Britain can’t claim this is history and happened before anyone in power now was on the scene.

Life isn’t fair but occupying nations and shipping innocent people around the globe as property wasn’t either, so it has to be dealt with.

It’s a blessing that Jamaica is preparing to hand over its legal case, as Britain can be proactive.

The net is closing in on all the colonial powers like France, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium – they are all on the hook.

Britain should seize this chance to get on the right side of history.

The sum of £7.6 billion isn’t an insurmountable sum to be paid in instalments. As a comparison, £11 billion of British arms were sold in 2019 alone, principally driven by warmongers Saudi Arabia. 

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The funds can be found and arrangements can be made.

Is there scope to offer free university tuition to Jamaican students or cheap deals on UK exports?

Some eagled-eyed observers have said that any aid previously given should be subtracted from the amount, but that completely misses the point.

Offering financial assistance to a struggling country is a humanitarian decision.

Restitution for slavery and its knock-on effects is a criminal matter, as today it would result in the organisers seeing the inside of a jail cell for many decades.

It’s time for Britain to get its head out of the sand.

Jamaica has made the first move and the ball is in Johnson’s and The Queen’s court.

Both of them should meet with a delegation from Kingston and pay what is asked.

It won’t atone for Britain’s shocking history, but it will demonstrate contriteness and help to repair some of the damage.

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