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Cameron, reparation and Jamaica’s self-respect

By October 8, 2015August 24th, 2018No Comments

By Raulston NEMBHARD

In attempting to reassert Britain’s geopolitical interests in the region, British Prime Minister David Cameron made a stop in Jamaica last week. He was given the customary warm welcome which we afford visiting heads of State, but it could not have been long before he discovered that within the warmth was lurking a cold determination on the part of many Jamaicans to once again ask Britain to account for its role in the harrowing and genocidal experience of slavery. He was treated with courtesy, but he was left with no illusions about where concerned Jamaicans stand on reparation.

I believe that the prime minister underestimated or did not quite understand how strongly the country feels about the legacy of slavery. If he did, he would not have been so insensitive as to suggest that it is time for us to move on. He is on record as not feeling the same regarding the Jewish Holocaust. In a speech given at the 25th anniversary of the Holocaust Educational Fund in Britain, Cameron repeatedly spoke of the need to preserve the memory of the Holocaust so that present and future generations would never repeat the atrocities of the past. He said: “We need to work harder than ever to preserve the memory of the Holocaust from generation to generation. And…we need to continue to learn and apply the lessons of the Holocaust to our society at home and abroad.”

It is instructive that the prime minister could be so dismissive in making distinctions between atrocities that can be preserved and those that can be forgotten with a mere shrug of the shoulders. In his world view, it makes no sense for black descendants of slaves in the Caribbean and elsewhere to continue to dredge up the past; just forget about it and move on. This is either a cruel, naïve assumption on the part of someone who is supposed to be educated, or a blatant and equally cruel denial of a past that cannot be easily forgotten unless reckoned with. The latter, when seen in the context of the continued denigration of the black experience in the world, is damnable.

Not only did the prime minister insult us by telling us to move on, but he added insult to injury by offering to help us build a prison to house those guilty of crime in his own country. If Cameron did not know before of the raging debate on reparation for Britain’s atrocities in the slave trade, he was apparently not properly briefed by his representatives in Jamaica. He has either misread how Jamaicans feel about this matter or he is just simply contemptuous of Jamaican sensitivity to it.

He failed to see that his offer of a prison would further cement the incarceration narrative in the minds of Jamaicans. But if he did not care about this, then this would not matter. He would have fulfilled part of his election promise to Britons to reduce the prison population of foreign nationals. Instead of offering reparation, he offered further incarceration; instead of freedom, further bondage; instead of liberation, a further shackling of the Jamaican mind and body.

The creation of a £300-million fund is an attempt by the British to expiate the sins of the past. Did you notice how much the prime minister stressed that this was a grant and not a loan; that it was a gift from the British people to the Caribbean region? We should not be fooled by this. His emphasis was a mere attempt to neutralise the argument around reparation. As the argument, it would run, “We are giving you a great deal of money, so shut your mouths and move on for there will be no more to get.”

In countries that are starved of capital and desperately need money, the gift of even £25,000 may seem a very attractive proposition. Jamaica’s share of the pie could amount to a lot of money in our context, given the sliding dollar. We are hungry, and the British know it. Furthermore, when it comes to gifts like these, we have shown self-contempt over the years and will grovel for every scrap of meat that is thrown our way. This is the sorry pass that we have reached. It is pathetic that our Government would be so willing to sign a memorandum of understanding that will reinforce the narrative of that self-contempt instead of holding out, for example, for the building of schools (instruments of liberation) as the Leader of the Opposition so wisely proffered.

The blame for this contempt — even though he may not recognise it as contempt — is not Cameron’s but the leadership in the Jamaican Government which does not seem to know better. Contempt for former colonies by the metropolitan powers is standard fare. Psychologically, they have never really recognised the independence of these colonies or that they have an equal voice at any table — unless of course they have the status of a Canada or a US. But self-contempt is ultimately home-grown. Jamaicans who are seeking to deconstruct the paradigm of the plantation must resist this process of self-denigration which, unfortunately, has become too deeply embedded in our tribal psyche.

Having said all this, we have to be practical and recognise that sadly prisons are necessary constructs in the landscape of any free society. We cannot get away from them. There are citizens who will have to be housed in them, however temporarily, for the greater good of society and of their own. We need a modern prison in Jamaica for what we have are really sewer holes. I do not believe there is anything wrong between an industrialised state like Britain, Canada or America making an arrangement with the Jamaican authorities to repatriate Jamaican prisoners who, for example, have two years of their sentences remaining. As I have argued in the past, this would serve the purpose of rehabilitation and reintegration into the Jamaican society. These prisoners will be sent back here anyway at the end of their sentence. It is better to have a more formalised system of having them reintegrated into the society, rather than dropping them off at any of our airports only for them to disappear into a woodwork of crime later on.

The question to be considered is cost and who would pay it. It is a matter that must be worked through carefully and should enjoy full discussion by the Jamaican people.

Like Nicodemus in the night, the PNP was trying to sneak this prison arrangement by us but it blew up in their faces as it should. But we should not allow governmental incompetence or British contempt and insensitivity to obscure and prevent what could be something good for the country.

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or


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