Big Debate: Should Britain pay reparations for its role in the Atlantic slave trade?

(Left to right) Prime Minister David Cameron, Speaker Michael Peart and President of Senate Floyd Mo

(Left to right) Prime Minister David Cameron, Speaker Michael Peart and President of Senate Floyd Morris during a joint sitting of parliament at the Houses of Parliament in Kingston, Jamaica recently Photo: PA/Stefan Rousseau - Credit: PA WIRE

This week we ask what Britain’s response should be to Jamaicans who believe reparations should be paid for the Atlantic slave trade.

Festus Akinbusoye and Rachel Collinson

Festus Akinbusoye and Rachel Collinson - Credit: Archant

During David Cameron’s recent visit to Jamaica, one issue in particular caused a great deal of controversy – reparations for the Atlantic slave trade. Jamaica’s prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller, raised the issue with Mr Cameron of compensation from the British government for the descendants of slaves. So we asked Festus Akinbusoye, 2015’s Conservative candidate for West Ham and Rachel Collinson, the head of the borough’s Green Party: Should Britain pay reparations for its role in the Atlantic slave trade?

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Rachel Collinson, Chair of Newham Green Party

Let me tell you a story. Let’s say you live somewhere called Madeupton. Your family is prosperous, with your own farm and a comfy house. You live happily in peace.

But one day, a king from a neighbouring land storms in, chains everybody up at gunpoint, burns your village and takes you to a country far away: Unfair Isle. You’re beaten, starved and forced to work for the landowners.

A hundred years later your great grandchild, Freeda, escapes. She is overjoyed! But that turns to fear as she realises the only way to survive is to beg. There’s no way she can get back to Madeupton. But even if she did, your family’s property has now been taken over by others.

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The landowners offer to pay her just enough money to survive by working on their land in Unfair Isle. The only thing she can do is say yes.

She dies in poverty.

Now, do you think Freeda’s children should get the family’s land back?

David Cameron would say no. The current owners have nothing to do with the vicious king. Why should they pay?

In that sense, it doesn’t seem fair. But Freeda’s children and all who have come after her – they are still paying, while we – the new landowners in Madeupton – reap the benefits. And that’s even worse.

So what do we do? We cannot just throw money at the problem. But we do need to say sorry, and look for the best way to help descendants of slaves recover.

The Green Party thinks that we should:

- Give equal voting rights in the World Bank and the IMF to countries like Jamaica.

- Ensure that major profits of companies to go to the countries which provide their wealth.

- Stop supporting corrupt and oppressive leadership in some countries.

- Pay our share to the Climate Fund.

- Teach history that reflects the realities of the past and values other cultures.

Festus Akinbusoye, West Ham Conservatives

As a British citizen born in Africa who also grew up with a knowledge of the shocking atrocity that was the slave trade, I vividly recall being taken by my father to the port from where slave ships sailed from Nigeria and the animalistic shackles with which human beings were chained before embarking on such perilous journies to the Caribbean and then possibly to Britain.

It nevertheless struck me with incredulity when I read that the British Prime Minister was being asked to have this country pay billions in reparations to Jamaica during his trade visit of the Caribbean recently.

I was very delighted to see his forthrightness in saying Britain will not be paying any reparations while also acknowledging the barbarity of such a brutal commodification of human beings.

I was also glad that he highlighted the equally important reality of current day human slavery and Britain’s role in tackling the scourge of international human trafficking.

That present day Brits are being required to pay for the evils of generations long since dead and in asking distant cousins, six times removed from a slave owning ancestor to atone for such acts would be the same as setting up my great, great, great grand children to be responsible for any odious crime I may commit during my lifetime.

(Just to be clear, I have no plans of committing any crime! At all.)

Britain is one of the few countries in the world that contributes 0.7 per cent of its GDP in development aid and we have also contributed many billions of pounds in the past.

We should now focus on addressing the problems of today, while never forgetting the actions of the past.

I believe it’s time we look at more practical ways of approaching the slavery legacy.

Reparations is not one of them.