Binoy Kampmark: “David Cameron and the Slavery Question”

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Binoy Kampmark (RMIT University, Melbourne) explores the complexities of empire building, “the slavery question,” reparations, and David Cameron’s recent visit to Jamaica [also see previous post Will PM David Cameron address reparations in Jamaica?]. He concludes his article by saying, “The echoes of slavery find shape in debt bondage, indentured labour, and the modern phenomenon of disposable labour. Life may well be cheap, but human labour remains highly, and irresistibly valuable.” Here are excerpts:

There are few more intrinsically brutal facts than slavery’s role in the building of European, and then subsequently, its various settler empires. As a system, it became the peculiar institution, as it was euphemistically termed, in the American south. It signified a demographic theft that the African continent has struggled to overcome, a shock of exponential proportion.

Slavery was always lucrative, not merely because it filled the pockets of owners and investors, but because it was literally a state-building enterprise. The development of the southern US states, be it in terms of infrastructure, would have been inconceivable without slave labour. In 1776, it was estimated that 40 members of the British parliament were deriving earnings from enslaved entities of the Caribbean.

This historical burden has been handled in an assortment of ways. Caribbean voices were particularly angered at the end of September when Prime Minister David Cameron ducked and weaved around the issue about how to deal with slavery’s legacy. He was not coming empty-handed – but an apology for Britain’s slaver past was not on the cards.

A certain hierarchy of interest was noted by the former Jamaican Prime Minister, P J Patterson, who suggested that it was time to acknowledge “the black experience” in addition to such commemorations offered for past injustices against the Jewish people.

“The refusal to apologise is a refusal to take responsibility for the crime. In a law-abiding world, this is not acceptable.” Patterson also had a side swipe at Cameron, noting that the overall “package he offered had discretely omitted any mention of a £25-million contribution to the building of a prison.”

Cameron’s DNA was doing much of the talking on that score. In 1833, when the Abolition Act was passed, mechanisms of compensation were instituted – for former slave owners. The shock to the economy with this sudden disruption saw claims made by individuals such as Cameron’s own ancestors, including a certain Gen. Sir James Duff, MP for Banffshire in Scotland. Chattels had suddenly become human subjects. It was a hard economic reality to swallow.

Cameron’s entire trip to Jamaica was beset by a self-imposed historical vacuum. Coming out with a direct apology was never going to figure, despite the 15 member states of Caricom (Caribbean Community Secretariat) having agreed to establish working committees investigating the prospects of reparations by European powers for genocide, trafficking and chattel enslavement based on racial principles.

The reparations argument goes back a good way, with compensation taking such forms as “40 acres and a mule”. In 1964, Trinidad’s representative on a UN committee on colonialism, Sir Ellis Clarke, argued that reparations should be made to former colonies as an inseparable part of gaining independence. “An administering power is not entitled to extract for centuries all that can be got out of a colony and, when that has been done, to relieve of its obligations by the conferment of a formal but meaningless – meaningless because it cannot possibly be supported – political independence.”

[. . .] While various countries find themselves marching to the wrenching tune of free trade and undemocratic finance, a restructured system of fair trade can act as a form of tangible, and constructive contrition. Caricom’s 10 point plan, created last March, points to a variant of this, focusing on technology transfer and debt cancellation in addition to the sought after apology.

For all that, the human tendency to resort to forms of enslavement, and the monetising of human beings for profit, remain. The echoes of slavery find shape in debt bondage, indentured labour, and the modern phenomenon of disposable labour. Life may well be cheap, but human labour remains highly, and irresistibly valuable.

For full article, see http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/10/28/david-cameron-and-the-slavery-question/

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