Jamaican PM Portia Simpson Miller (left) and David Cameron (right) engage in discussion
Yesterday when David Cameron landed in Jamaica on a formal visit, the first British prime minister to do so in fourteen years, it was clear that he was there for a reason.
That reason soon became apparent as Cameron laid down plans to spend £25 million of aid money on building a prison on the island to house Jamaican criminals currently residing in British prisons, a move calculated to save the British taxpayer money.
A new prison was far from the most pressing issue however for the Jamaican politicians and general public who received the British prime minister. The Jamaican prime minister Portia Simpson Miller, along with a group of protesters outside the meeting, raised the contentious matter of reparations for the atrocity that was slavery.
Whilst Mr Cameron acknowledged that slavery was “abhorrent in all its forms” and that its “wounds run very deep,” he refused to engage in talks about reparations instead moving the conversation to future plans for cooperation and growth between Jamaica and Britain, including a plan for a £300 million funded programme which would see improvements to physical infrastructure across the Caribbean.
Whilst investment in roads and bridges is all very well, it misses the point entirely for those seeking reparations for slavery. Reparations are a highly complicated matter, not least in terms of how much is to be paid and in what forms. That said, the British government managed to work it out when it was a matter of paying British slave-owners compensation (for the loss of their “property”) to the tune of £17 billion following the abolition of slavery in 1833.
Cameron, verging on condescension with some of his ill-chosen comments, spoke as someone completely ignorant of the real horrors of slavery in Jamaica and blind to the extent of its damaging legacy today on the island.
Cameron expressed his wish that “as friends who have gone through so much together since those darkest of times, we can move on.” Of course it is much easier for Mr Cameron and, by extension, Britain to “move on” from slavery than it is for Jamaicans and so this remark no doubt rubbed those expecting reparations the wrong way.
Telling his Jamaican audience that “Britain is proud to have eventually led the way in [slavery’s] abolition,” the British prime minister managed to cast Britain’s part in slavery in a positive, heroic light.
Adding salt to the wound, it has been revealed that on Mr Cameron’s distant cousins, General Sir James Duff, was one of the thousands of British slave owners. Mr Duff not only owned 202 slaves but received a staggering pay out when he had to free those slaves following the abolition of slavery; it is estimated that he received compensation amounting to the equivalent of approximately £3million in today’s currency.
And so, whilst David Cameron may leave Jamaica feeling confident and accomplished it is unlikely that many Jamaicans will feel the same and whilst the matter of reparations may have been swept under the carpet for now, it is certain it will be brought to the fore again.