During this Inter-American Week for People of African Descent, and on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination with its theme, ‘voices for action against racism’, The Centre for Reparation Research at The University of the West Indies (The UWI) uses the occasion of the visit of Britain’s Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, to Jamaica, to support the call for Britain and the royal family to engage in a reparatory justice conversation with the people of this island, starting with an apology, for the forced relocation of approximately 1.5 million Africans to Jamaica and their chattel enslavement, and ending with a development package to address the state of under-development that is a legacy of centuries of colonialism.
It is now well-known that England, then Great Britain, occupied Jamaica for 307 years, during which their enslavers and administrators committed a multitude of atrocities and human rights abuses, especially against the Indigenous Peoples and Africans/persons of African descent. British citizens were among those who forcefully relocated Africans to the island and subjected them to chattel enslavement; and enslavers introduced and presided over a system, supported by codified racist laws, which treated our ancestors as mere property, for their financial gain, and subjected the enslaved to acts of brutality, including the rape and mutilation of enslaved women.
Among those who benefitted from the trans-Atlantic trade in enslaved Africans and chattel slavery not only to Jamaica but to the entire Caribbean, were members of the royal family.
Indeed, according to Brooke Newman: “…it’s no secret that the history of the British royal family is intertwined with slavery. The slave-trading initiatives endorsed by the English monarchy began with Queen Elizabeth I’s enthusiastic support [after initial hesitation] of John Hawkins’ slaving expeditions in the 1560s. In three separate voyages backed by government officials, London merchants, and the queen, Hawkins raided African settlements on the West African coast and seized hundreds of enslaved captives from Portuguese ships. In defiance of Portugal’s dominance over the European slave trade in Africans, Hawkins sold his ‘cargo’ of African captives in the Spanish Caribbean. After his profitable second voyage, the queen honoured Hawkins with a coat of arms and crest featuring a nude African bound with rope.” Newman and others also tell us that during the reign of King Charles II, from 1660 to 1685, the Crown and members of the royal family invested heavily in the trade in enslaved Africans. Seeking to bolster the wealth and power of the restored monarchy Charles granted a charter to the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa, a private joint-stock company, less than six months after ascending the throne.
The charter gave the Royal Adventurers a 1,000-year monopoly over trade, land, and adjacent islands along the west coast of Africa stretching from what was then known as Cape Blanco (Western Sahara) in the north to the Cape of Good Hope in the south. The king lent the company a number of royal ships, including a vessel called the Blackamoor, and reserved for himself the right to two-thirds of the value of any gold mines discovered. Controlling English trade with West Africa—in gold, hides, ivory, redwood, and, ultimately, slaves—offered the prospect of a revenue stream that would enable the Crown to gain financial independence from Parliament.
Brooke Newman writes further: “From its founding, the royal adventurers benefited from royal connections and the Crown’s political and financial backing. More than half of the original beneficiaries of the first charter were peers or members of the royal family, including the king himself. The company’s intimacy with the royal family proved particularly attractive to investors seeking to profit from a trading monopoly with West Africa and the sale and exploitation of African men, women, and children. In 1663, the Royal Adventurers received a new charter explicitly granting the company an exclusive right among English traders to purchase enslaved captives on the West African coast and transport them to the English colonies in the Americas. Sponsored by the king’s inner circle and politicians and courtiers expecting to use the African trade for personal profit, the fledgling company set out to deliver thousands of African captives to the English Caribbean.”
When our ancestors refused to collaborate with the inhumane colonial regime and launched wars of resistance and respect, they were punished brutally. When the centuries of Black struggle ended in Emancipation, compensation was paid to the enslavers and not to the enslaved, leaving them struggling to actualize their freedom. The compensation money paid to Jamaican and other enslavers in the Region was not invested in the Caribbean, but in Europe, leaving the island/region to sink further into poverty. Cruel acts against Africans continued into the post-slavery period as injustices were the order of the day, leading Paul Bogle and the brave army of resisters in Jamaica, for example, to launch an attack on the apartheid-like system of the 19th century. The colonial Governor Edward Eyre allowed a reign of terror to be visited on the brave men and women of St Thomas-in-the east and other eastern parishes; but resistance continued in Jamaica and across the Caribbean to destabilize the British colonial system, improve labour conditions, secure the franchise and self-government and achieve independence – which was not accompanied by a respectable development package.
Now, 60 years after independence, in the case of Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago, we say it’s time to right the wrongs of the past; because despite this history, and despite approaches to Britain by the CARICOM Reparations Commission, no full, formal apology (as opposed to statements of regret), has yet been issued to the people of the Caribbean for the crimes committed against our ancestors and no positive action has been taken or satisfactory response given to the request to engage in a reparatory justice conversation. The continued silence of the Royal family and the British State on the issue of reparation is an indictment of their role in enslavement, colonialism, and the continued legacies of slavery so evident in the Region. It is reparation time now.
According to Sir Ellis Clarke, the first President and the first and last Governor-General of Trinidad and Tobago, “An administering power is not entitled to extract for centuries all that can be got out of a colony and when that has been done to relieve itself of its obligations by the conferment of a formal but meaningless…. political independence. Justice requires that reparation be made to the country that has suffered the ravages of colonialism before that country is expected to face up to the problems and difficulties that will inevitably beset it upon independence.”