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Open letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron

Published:Friday | October 16, 2015 | 5:36 PM

Dear Prime Minister Cameron,

We, the members of the academic and administrative staff from the University of Technology, Jamaica listed below, who are mainly members of the University's Think Tank, write this open letter to express our dissatisfaction with aspects of your address to the joint sitting of both houses of the Jamaican Parliament during your visit on September 30, 2015.

Specifically, we find unacceptable your mere acknowledgment of the "horrors of slavery", your assertion that "Britain is proud to have eventually led the way in its abolition", and your encouragement to "move on from this painful legacy" without an apology.

You are, indeed, correct - "these wounds run very deep." As educators and university professionals, we encounter manifestations of these wounds daily among our students who struggle to pay their fees because they lack inherited wealth; or bleach their skin to "tone down" their blackness; or drop out of school because they lack the self-confidence required to fight to succeed; or simply give up trying to fight against the odds because they accept the persistent, generational poverty and inequality in Jamaica as their "lot in life".

Yes, the scars of slavery run very, very deep. After more than 300 years of slavery and colonisation, we still, today, confront its legacy in psychological and other ways that will take a very long time to be redressed.

In this regard, for us, transatlantic slavery does not constitute the "darkest hours of human history", but rather "the darkest CENTURIES of human history" whose indelible marks are deeply woven into the very fabric of our culture, society and economy today. The words of former South African President Thabo Mbeki who spoke of "the haunting tragedy of human beasts of burden", who under apartheid, "worked on the soil ... merely as factors of production, with fewer rights than the machines by their side" are called to mind when one reflects on the horrors of slavery. Like apartheid, it was a human tragedy that we should not allow to pass "as though it never was".

Jewish Holocaust

We find striking your willingness to move on from this history, yet you established a Holocaust Commission to explore what more Britain could do to ensure that the memory of the Jewish Holocaust is kept alive for future generations and to "find ways to ensure that every generation can have the resources . . . needed to learn how the acceptance of hatred, poisonous words and discrimination led to the most horrific violence".

In January this year, when you announced the £50-million contribution of the British government towards the building of a new Holocaust memorial and world-class education centre in London, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg highlighted its significance:

"Learning about the Holocaust is not just a history lesson. It is one of the greatest antidotes we have to anti-Semitism and extremism of all kinds. We simply cannot remember and re-remember these horrors enough. Silence and forgetfulness allows prejudice and hatred to rise again, as we can see from the violence still perpetrated today."

We agree. As educators, we fully understand the tremendous socio-psychological value of such a memorial and educational centre. We, however, are truly saddened by the fact that you and your government cannot see the value of contributing to the establishment of a similar memorial and educational centre in the Caribbean, dedicated to preserving the memory of slavery and educating generations to come about its atrocities, so that they can never be repeated. In fact, such institutions are envisioned in the Ten-point Plan of Action proposed by the CARICOM Reparatory Justice Committee which includes, inter alia, an Indigenous Peoples Development Programme, Cultural Institutions, an African Knowledge Programme and Psychological Rehabilitation.

Now more than ever, the world needs memorials to slavery and educational institutions dedicated to the mission of informing the world of slavery and its effects, and seeking to eradicate all forms of slavery. Today, it is estimated that 20-30 million persons are involved in modern day slavery (human trafficking), the greatest number in human history. It is estimated to be the third-largest international crime industry in the world today. Clearly, the world has not adequately learnt the horrific lessons of the transatlantic slave trade. A trade which brought 5.5 million Africans into the Caribbean over 180 years. In Jamaica, the number grew from 1,400 in 1658 to 40,000 in 1698. A trade which saw one enslaved African dying, out of every three arriving in some islands of the Caribbean. The brutal, hellish conditions of slavery, supported by genocidal policies, ensured that only 800,000 out of the 5.5 million enslaved Africans remained when slavery was abolished in 1838 - a retention/survival rate of 15%. In Jamaica, only 300,000 out of 1.5 million remained at Emancipation.

It is noteworthy that in 1823, two British parliamentarians, Thomas Buxton and Melcombe Regis, recognised the moral obligation of compensating enslaved Africans for these atrocities and presented a bill to your Parliament, calling for an Emancipation Act that compensated the enslaved people. It is quite unconscionable, that the British Parliament in 1833 rejected this bill and saw it fit to instead pay £20 million in compensation to slave owners and compelled the enslaved, using the Emancipation Act, to work off an additional £27 million of compensation for slave owners. It is even more unconscionable and unacceptable that in 2015, the British Parliament still does not see it fit to pay reparations to the descendants of enslaved Africans or even to offer an apology.

slave-owning legacy

The economic significance of the institution of slavery for Britain, as established by historian Eric Williams in 1944, is now indisputable. The work of your own British scholars at the University College London, who have extensively studied The Structure and Significance of British Caribbean Slave-ownership 1763-1833 and undertaken by the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project, provide important supporting evidence. Eric Williams was correct in declaring definitively "that economic development has never been purchased at so high a price". Our economic underdevelopment is directly and indirectly rooted in this inhumane and unjust history of slave trading, slavery, colonisation and is the basis of CARICOM'S claim for reparations.

We also reject your assertion that Britain led the way in abolishing slavery. Our forefathers and foremothers fought relentlessly to free themselves from slavery. Many did not live to see the result of their heroic fight against this major crime against humanity. Among these relentless fighters were Nanny and Sam Sharpe, two of our NATIONAL HEROES today. THEY, not Britain, led the way in abolishing slavery.

Prime Minister Cameron, an adequate and sincere apology is a necessity and fundamental starting point in healing the deep, deep wounds of slavery that bind our nations. We are quite aware that an apology and/or reparations are insufficient for resolving these complex, centuries-old legacies. We, nonetheless, see significant value in such demonstration of attrition and remorse.

We, therefore, join the growing voices of discontent, including those of our former Prime Minister P.J. Patterson and many others in the international community and appeal to international law in demanding a formal apology for the slave trade and slavery as crimes against humanity and your commitment to a reparatory process.

Best Wishes!

1. Prof Rosalea Hamilton, VP, Community Service & Development

2. Associate Prof Ellen Grizzle, Dean, College of Health Sciences

3. Dr Rohan Lewis, Dean, Faculty of Education & Liberal Studies

4. Dr Kamilah Hylton, Dean (Acting), Faculty of Science and Sport

5. Dr Garfield Young, Dean (Acting), Faculty of the Built Environment

6. Dr Horace William, Acting Senior Director, Human Resources and Administration

7. Mr Michael Steele, Head, Joan Duncan School of Entrepreneurship, Ethics & Leadership

8. Dr Martin Schade, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education & Liberal Studies

9. Mr Orville N. Reid, Programme Director, Joan Duncan School of Entrepreneurship, Ethics & Leadership

10. Dr Neville Graham, Associate Professor, Medicine & Sport

11. Susan A. Muir, Lecturer, School of Computing and Information Technology

12. Elaine Wallace PhD, MBA, Registrar