At the turn of the year, after the giving, receiving and splurging are over, eyes turn wearily to outstanding bills, upcoming liabilities and the settling of accounts. This year, thanks to Brexit, no shortage of final demands and eye-watering bills will be appearing in the nation’s letterbox – and denial will not be an option.
In addition to the £18bn or so that the UK is thought to owe in outstanding EU spending commitments and pensions, there will also be demands marked in the deepest red that can be traced back to our imperial past, and which have been ignored for far too long.
Some 235 years ago last month, 133 African slaves bound for Jamaican sugar plantations were deliberately drowned in the Caribbean by British sailors aboard the slave ship Zong. Chained together at the ankle and weighed down with metal balls, they were cast into the deep so that the ship’s owners could claim compensation for “cargo” lost at sea.
Two weeks ago this event, known as the Zong massacre, was symbolically chosen by the Jamaican government to reassert its claim that the UK should formally apologise and make financial reparations for running a slave colony on the island for two centuries.
Jamaica’s culture minister, Olivia Grange, used the anniversary of this heinous act to rededicate her government to pursuing reparations, saying: “We will continue to see through campaigns and initiatives being undertaken by the National Council on Reparations [and will take] strategic steps towards honouring our foreparents.”
Eighteen months ago, I was photographing the slave auction site Farquharson Wharf in Black River, Jamaica, where the Zong’s survivors passed from being cargo to human livestock for an average of £35 each. For those Scots – and there are many of us – who have been unaware of our own nation’s culpability in this ghastly business, the revelation that Farquharson Wharf was a Scottish-owned business, and that many of the souls who passed though its doors would go on to toil in the numerous Scots-owned sugar plantations in the surrounding countryside, should give pause for shame and reflection.
In Jamaica, where Scottish surnames and place names abound, a sense of shame for past misdeeds goes only so far. What the island and its similarly impoverished neighbours require is debt relief and access to finance to develop their productive capacities and enhance opportunities for education, enabling them to escape a reliance on fickle tourism.
In its campaign for reparations from the UK and other ex slave-trading nations such as Spain and Portugal, the region’s economic bloc, Caricom, is demanding that we recognise that our society’s enrichment has been at the direct expense of its members’ advancement – and that we are obliged to make amends.
‘What Jamaica and its similarly impoverished neighbours require is debt relief and access to finance to develop their productive capacities.’ Photograph: Stephen McLaren
A recognition that each of us alive in Britain today has benefited financially from the era when our country shipped humans from one continent to another and forced them to work for free became apparent to me while photographing many Scottish country estates, schools and landscapes with Jamaican connections. Thanks to research by Scottish historians, we are now learning that not only did many sugar magnates of the Caribbean return to buy big houses and become lairds of the manor – but they also invested surplus wealth in many nascent enterprises of the industrial and agricultural revolutions, turbo-charging sectors such as canal-building, mining and textile production. It happened all over Britain; our collective sweet tooth and today’s economic comforts are directly connected to the empire’s rapacious exploitation of the West Indies sugar trade.
The Caribbean’s patience at our reluctance to deal with these outstanding debts is understandably running out. In 2015 it was duly noted that David Cameron’s visit to Jamaica passed with a refusal to engage with the idea of reparations, never mind a formal apology. Indeed, the takeaway from that visit was his urging of Jamaicans to “move on”, while offering to fund and build a new prison.
When you consider that in 1948, all Jamaicans, and 800 million fellow citizens of the British empire, were entitled to migrate to Britain, and nowadays just obtaining a tourist visa to visit is a stretch, it shouldn’t surprise us that the reparations issue is now being pursued more forcefully. With Caricom engaging a British law firm that previously won £20m compensation for Kenyans tortured by British troops during the 1950s, there is no doubt it is serious about prosecuting these claims.
No one relishes paying bills, and the notion that developing countries want to put us on the hook for vast sums in reparations is just the issue to set off a chorus of, “It’s a messy business, long time ago, you wouldn’t understand, sleeping dogs and all that.” In this worldview, it’s always Britain coughing up for the rest of the world’s problems, putting the sixth richest nation on Earth at risk of being impoverished by damn foreigners.
History teaches us, however, that compensation for imagined national liabilities is always available if one is of the “right sort”. The bank bailouts of 2008 may be the most recent example, but it is the 1835 compensation for British slave-owners post-emancipation that is the most enlightening here. As slavery was abolished, the British government decided that each slave owner (and there were tens of thousands up and down the country) was entitled to a sum that, when combined, totalled around £2bn in today’s money – a quarter of the government’s annual budget.
How can we compensate those who leeched off the unpaid labour of African slaves yet remain hostile to the legitimate claims of their ancestors?
As a Glaswegian whose city flourished massively as a result of transatlantic slavery, I urge Scotland’s leaders to engage with the UK government in a series of negotiations with the Caribbean nations in order that we can begin to settle these blood-soaked debts. The poor of Glasgow, and likewise of Bristol and Liverpool, cannot be expected to personally contribute, as that would be a travesty of reparative justice; but collectively we must explore what we have to do to put this right.
If, while dragging its feet on this issue, Scotland should take flight from Brexit and become independent, then it is beholden on us to make a formal apology to the people of the Caribbean impacted by the slave trade, hope that it is accepted, and then work out how we can contribute to their economic advancement. As the Scottish purse is currently being expected to contribute around £1.5bn annually for the next 30 years for new Trident submarines, I would suggest that a portion of this insane amount of money should instead be earmarked for more humane ends in the islands from which we took so much.