Remembering slavery: a personal guide
February 2015, Trinidad
Sharing a ride back from the archives to the B&B with Paula, the owner, I quizzed my driver on an article I had recently read concerning women and business ownership in the Caribbean. The writer of this article compared the percentage of female business owners on a global scale and positioned the Caribbean at the forefront with an impressive majority. Women constituted such a large proportion of business owners, as well as making up the majority of academic achievement, that there were now concerns that boys and young men were lagging and being left behind. I asked Paula for her thoughts.
My car companion, herself falling under this demographic, had a simple explanation: slavery. Despite having researched Atlantic slavery and its cultural manifestations since my first year as an undergraduate, I confess I was shocked. The vivid commemoration of slavery in the Caribbean is an unavoidable part of the literature and culture studied by any student. Slavery, and its forced cultural contact, seeps through Caribbean culture everywhere. Yet reading is not quite the same as hearing, especially as part of the mundane rituals of rush hour traffic. For Paula, Trinidad and Tobago was still in essence a slave society. The family structures of those who had been considered not humans but property, where children were anchored around mothers while fathers came and went, had left an enduring mark. In a reversal of traditional European narratives, the financial burden of providing was placed on women. These were theories I had read in print and mulled over in seminars. The real discovery was my own naiveté, my own bewilderment at the open and everyday audible expression of ideas that had very real consequences.
April 1973, Jamaica
In the Caribbean, the personal is historical. To even gain some understanding of the long-lasting implications of slavery, both physical and psychological, culture is as ever an excellent source, from its most popular to most highbrow. The imagery of slavery and how it is remembered in the Caribbean was and is a recurring theme. The most salient example is found in Bob Marley’s classic, Catch a Fire. With its zippo lighter jacket and the vinyl emerging from ignited flames of outrage came the song “Slave Driver”. As the honeymoon period of independence faded, Marley, ever the symbol of the young and rebellious, sang:
Every time I hear the crack of a whip,
My blood runs cold.
I remember on the slave ship,
How they brutalise the very souls.
Today they say that we are free,
Only to be chained in poverty.
Marley linked slavery, colonialism, and economic dependency in a narrative that defied temporal lineality. Marley’s ‘I’ is simultaneously that of the slave and his descendant. The experience of postcolonial poverty was likened to slavery, meaning the abolition of the institution in 1833 was meaningless if its repercussions were and are still felt nearly two hundred years later. The colour of skin, access to wealth, and social structure of Caribbean society still bears slavery’s imprint, as sung, clamoured, and cried out by Mighty Sparrow, Kamau Braithwaite, Martin Carter, Nicolás Guillén, and many others.
September, 2015, Jamaica
Where slavery is so personal in the Caribbean, it is impersonal in Europe. David Cameron, speaking in front of a semi-empty Jamaican parliament over a week ago, asked that the issue of reparations for slavery – the payment of compensation to the descendants of the slaves – be put to rest:
“I acknowledge that these wounds run very deep indeed but I do hope, as friends who have gone through so much together since those darkest of times, we can move on from this painful legacy.”
Symptomatic of a broader European attitude, the British Prime Minister’s speech revealed a sense of distance between the contemporary we and the preceding them. At school we learn of the horrors of slavery inflicted by individuals, who we must broadly acknowledge to be our ancestors, over others. But the temporal and geographical distance between we and them has produced an incomplete awareness of how we have benefited from slavery, how our prosperity and modernity is linked to the capital generated from their plantation.
The direct and indirect influences of slavery and its abolition are rife and plenty across our historical and contemporary landscape. The brilliant project run at UCL, Legacies of British Slave-ownership, began at its core with the recognition that the taxpayer-funded £10 million which was paid to former slave-owners had impacted the culture, politics and economics of its times. In practical terms, this means that a slave-owner was compensated for having his property – property, that is, in the form of working men, women, and children – taken away from him or her at the abolition of slavery. Compensation was not given to those who suffered, who were oppressed and exploited. It denied the former slaves recognition of their humanity and experience. To see how this has had a more lasting impact in the contemporary structures we recognise today, we only need to look at the histories of such names as Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds, and Barclays, all family businesses that benefited from such capital.
For the debate on slavery and capitalism/modernity, see:
- Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (1944)
- Cedric Robinson, “Capitalism, Slavery, and Bourgeois Historiography”, History Workshop Journal, 23:1 (1987), pp. 122-140