On a recent visit to Jamaica, British Prime Minister David Cameron made headlines when he eschewed the subject of reparations for the former British colony once called the “Brightest Jewel in the British Crown.” Over the course of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, millions of pounds were pumped out of Jamaica’s prosperous sugar plantations powered by the blood and sweat of African and native-born slaves. By 1800, a little over 337,000 slaves worked the plantations, storefronts, and homes of the island. The legacy of chattel slavery remains today, many years after full emancipation in Jamaica in 1838, reflected in the fact that 19 percent of Jamaicans live in poverty or the stunning difference in terms of life expectancy (73 years old in Jamaica, 81 in the United Kingdom). When called to address the United Kingdom’s historic responsibility for this legacy, Cameron urged Jamaica to “move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future.”
As a historian of slavery in Colombia and the Americas, I had heard a similar argument—move on, or forgive (and forget)—before. In fact, it was wielded by former slaveholders in the days immediately after the abolition of slavery. In a letter written in mid-January 1852, just a few days after the final abolition of slavery in Colombia, the former President of Colombia and slaveholder Joaquín Mosquera lamented the “earthquake” caused by the abolition of slavery that destroyed his rich gold mines. Amidst these ruins, he nevertheless gathered together his former slaves and “presented them with the necessity of forgetting the customs and ideas of slavery, and to act as if I were a stranger that they had just met for the first time, and that we would treat each other as man to man[…]” Standing before his ex-slaves, Mosquera was asking them to “move on,” to literally “forget” centuries of enslavement and to recast themselves as strangers in a so-called “free” land. To “move on” in the silence, to forget—this is the logic of slavery, that slaves are nothing more than inalienable property, thereby with no claim to memory or reparative justice.
One particular group of individuals certainly “moved on” quite well after slavery: the former slaveholding class (and their descendants). After the abolition of chattel slavery in the British colonies in 1833, the British government paid 20 million pounds—today about 16.5 billion pounds—to nearly 3,000 families to compensate them for their “lost” property. As documented in the impressive “Legacies of British Slave-ownership” project based at the University College London, many slaveholders were discovered in the family trees of powerful and wealthy Britons including the Prime Minister. Records show that one of Cameron’s distant relatives, an army officer and MP in Scotland in the eighteenth century named General Sir James Duff, received 4,101 pounds (nearly 3 million pounds today) in compensation for the 202 slaves he lost on the Grange Sugar Estate in Jamaica. Of course, this kind of legacy is not in the slightest way related to the fact that the Cameron estate boasts millions—not at all!
The Colombian state also compensated the country’s thousands of slaveholders after final abolition in 1852. Across Colombia, masters poured into their local government offices to apply for vales de manumisión, or promissory notes that entitled them to compensation from the state for their human property losses. According to several scholars, nearly two million pesos were eventually awarded to the former owners who went from ruling over slaves to unfree wage laborers on increasingly larger parcels of land. And, much like the Camerons, it’s no surprise today that the country’s most connected and powerful politicians, businessmen, and other figures bear the surnames of the previous centuries’ slaveholders—the Mosqueras, Valencias, Arboledas, and many others. Earlier this past year, one of these descendants, the Colombian Senator Paloma Valencia, even proposed creating a quasi-apartheid system in her hometown department of Cauca (where the Valencias once ruled over many slaves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). Meanwhile, Haiti—which became the first independent black republic in 1804 after the Haitian Revolution—was forced to pay 90 million francs to compensate the former owners in exchange for French diplomatic recognition. Once the richest island in the Caribbean, Haiti is currently the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
How to right this historic wrong? Since the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century, a wide range of individuals and entities have called for reparations in various forms—whether in terms of financial compensation or other measures. Back in 1999, the African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission called upon Western governments to pay $777 trillion to Africa. More recently, in 2013, the Caribbean Heads of Governments formed the Caricom (Caribbean Community) Reparations Commission. In the wake of Cameron’s visit, the chair of this Commission and prolific historian of slavery Sir Hilary Beckles stated that “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 programme of rehabilitation and renewal.”
In Jamaica, Cameron made his answer to reparations loud and clear: “move on,” accompanied by funds to build “infrastructure” including a 25 million-pound prison in Kingston that would house 300 Jamaican prisoners currently serving time in the U.K. With the historic relationship between black slavery and incarceration in the West, the extraordinary irony of this proposition runs far and deep. This quite literal “moving on”—transporting 300 Jamaican inmates ‘back home’ to a British-built prison—just as much fulfills the logic of slavery.
Yesenia Barragan is a PhD Candidate in Latin American History at Columbia University, where she is completing a dissertation on freedom and the abolition of slavery on the Pacific Coast of Colombia.