MANY Bahamians awoke Saturday morning to have a quiet cup of coffee with The Tribune’s weekend publication — The Big T.
Shocked into reality by that publication’s headline: “Bahamas suing UK over slavery”, our telephone started ringing, and continued for most of the day. The first call was an angry young lawyer — Andrew Allen — who immediately put fingers to computer and sent us the article that is published today on page 6 under the heading “Our odd and dangerous relations with CARICOM.”
Although the slavery reparations debate has been going on for some time among various CARICOM members, Bahamians move about their business with little knowledge, interest in or reference to CARICOM’s affairs. Therefore, they are probably not even aware that about two years ago the twin islands of Antigua and Barbuda and St Vincent and the Grenadines went to the United Nations to put their case for reparation for all the perceived damage done to those islands by the iniquitous slave trade. They blamed the legacy left to people of African descent for their retarded development. However, even if Bahamians knew of the debate, they probably did not identify with the discussion.
“Antigua and Barbuda,” Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer told the General Assembly in 2011, “has long argued that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and racial violence against peoples of African descent have severely impaired our advancement as nations, communities and individuals across the economical, social and political spectra.”
Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves of St Vincent and the Grenadines also had his say. “Racial discrimination,” he argued, “was justified and became itself the justification for a brutal, exploitative and dehumanising system of production that was perfected during the trans-Atlantic slave trade and ingrained over the course of colonial domination.”
Bahamians who were fleetingly aware of the CARICOM position, but never identified these islands with the problem, were shocked to discover that — without consultation or even information — the Bahamas was indeed suing great Britain for reparations.
When a Tribune reporter contacted Foreign Affairs Minister Fred Mitchell to try to find out how the Bahamas got drawn into this debacle without consultation, Mr Mitchell admitted that although no representative from this country was present when the decision was taken, the Bahamas was still bound by that decision. Said he: “We haven’t defined a position taken at the last CARICOM meeting. We weren’t represented there. However, whatever was the decision that came out of the last meeting, that would represent our position.”
And, if he had been there, what position would he have taken on behalf of the Bahamian people? This decision was not made in a vacuum. Mr Mitchell must have known about it – after all it has been discussed for some time among his CARICOM buddies. He should have known that a vote was imminent. Why didn’t he consult his political colleagues, or is this another deep dark secret kept by all of them, because they don’t think Bahamians are yet mature enough to deal with such weighty matters?
Slavery in Africa, absorbing the entire continent goes back almost to the beginning of time. Islamic religious law codified and justified the existence of slavery, the Bible talks of slaves as almost a matter of course.
Words are not strong enough to condemn the horrors of slavery, especially what grew into the Atlantic slave trade. However, has anyone come up with the idea of suing Africa for making the trade possible? When the European nations spread into areas that needed workers for their plantations, Africa was a ready market. The trade would not have been possible if Africans themselves did not organise slave raids to march their own kith and kin to the coast to sell them to European traders for the transatlantic crossing.
Even after the abolition of slavery, the Africans continued the illicit trade because they knew of no other industry as lucrative to take its place.
Yet it was England that made the first move to end the iniquitous trade. It was the Age of Enlightenment – an age when European interests moved from agriculture to industry. By 1833, Britain had outlawed slavery in all of its territories. It sent out the Royal Navy to enforce the law. Over the years, Britain as a nation made reparation in many ways until now — as far as the Bahamas is concerned — Bahamians can boast of 40 years of independence, 40 years of managing their own affairs. After centuries of colonial rule, education and training, many have moved from a history of slavery to a future of heads of industry and leaders of nations.
And the only true reparation that can be paid as tribute to those who really suffered the pains of slavery have been made by the achievement of their sons and daughters through the centuries.
When one thinks of all that Britain, for example, has given to help uplift our people to the level of statehood, maybe Britain should be sending us a reparation bill.
In our midst, we have Bahamians, descended from Britons who gave their lives in the fight against slavery. On the other side we also have descendents of black Bahamians who were themselves slave masters.
The Brownrigg family, for example, are descended from Capt Charles James Brownrigg of the Royal Navy, who dedicated his life to assisting in the ending of the iniquitous trade. His ship HMS London made several voyages to patrol the waters off Africa in an attempt to release the slaves. On December 3, 1881, however, Capt Brownrigg caught up with a dhow off Zanzibar captained by Hindi bin Hattam with about 100 slaves on board. Capt Brownrigg led a boarding party to release the slaves. However, he was killed in his valiant attempt. A newspaper of the time reported an eyewitness as describing Capt Brownrigg as “fighting like a lion” to the end.
Recently, Mr Mitchell gave notice that he intended to spend most of next year abroad. He gave the impression that he was going to raise investments for the Bahamas. If this is the type of investment he was suggesting, we would advise him that rather than embarrassing the Bahamas further, he should plan to stay at home and save the Treasury precious funds.
Bahamians would be better advised to get on with the future and let the dead past bury its dead.