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Can we heal the legacy of slavery?

REMEMBRANCE: Guy Hewitt (left) with Lord Mayor of Belfast Councillor Deidre Hargey and Rev Dr
Livingstone Thompson at the inaugural Emancipation Day Service for the UK Caribbean Diaspora

THIS WEEK, August 1 marked the 184th anniversary of the abolition of slavery and the end to the greatest scourge of modern life.

But even in the Caribbean – where Emancipation Day is a public holiday – there is a lack of appreciation for what transpired in an institution that 18th century politician and
judge Lord Mansfield held to be “so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it”.

Regrettably, like so many plagues it has mutated and modern-day slavery exists: women forced into prostitution, men forced to labour, children forced in sweatshops or girls forced to marry older men. The systematic dehumanisation of horrendously exploited
individuals continues.


Based on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, it is estimated that between the years of 1525 and 1866, 12.5 million enslaved Africans were shipped to the Caribbean, North and South America. So how did slavery happen then and how does it continue today in its modern forms?

John F Kennedy said: “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Incongruously, most slaveholders would not have defined themselves as evil. In fact, George Washington, the first President of the United States under the US constitution, had interests in slavery.

The recent University College of London study on the Legacies of British Slave Ownership concluded that as many as one-fifth of wealthy Victorian Britons derived some, if not all, lf their fortunes from the slave economy.

So how did slavery happen? The Bible (Matthew 6:24) makes a strong point: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. "You cannot serve God and wealth.”

This atrocity was fuelled by simple greed, often under the guise of carrying out a civilising mission and purported to be divinely ordained.

But what is almost unfathomable is that less than a century after Emancipation, while still facing many injustices, black West Indian men volun5eered to fight and die in the Great War and Second World War for the King and Country that enslaved them. What
amazing grace and love.

We now skip to 70 years ago and the post-Second World War call from Britain to her then colonies for workers to migrate here to address the critical labour shortages. West Indians again heeded the call from the ‘Mother Country’ and between 1948 and 1973 ap-
proximately 550,000 migrated.

But this journey was not without peril and migrants faced outright racism. Some recall the infamous Teddy Boys and Notting Hill
race riots and the signs which read “No Irish, no blacks, no

Nonetheless they persevered, and with toil, sweat and tears played a pivotal role in helping to build a modern, global Britain.

It is against this backdrop that many of these migrants despaired in recent years when confronted recently by a new wave of hostility.
This time, the discrimination they faced was predicated on their “irregular status” in a "hostile immigration environment”, which resulted in the denial of their right to work, denial of benefits, denial of healthcare and also for some detention and deportation.

For me the month of April this year could only be described as a modern-day miracle. In less than a week, the Windrush scandal that was for too long begging for attention, became front page news and, in the process, won the hearts of a nation and engaged the mind of the UK government, which apologised.

Notwithstanding the sentiment, the reality – based on the summary findings from the Ethnicity Facts and Figures by the Cabinet Office Race Disparity Audit – is that the situation among black people in Britain is grim.

For example: lf Asian and black households are more likely to be poor and to be in persistent poverty; lf Attainment for black Caribbean pupils in education is very low; lf Around one in 10 adults from a black, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or mixed background are unemployed – compared with one in 25 white British; lf Black men are almost three and a half times more likely to be arrested than white men;.lf Blqck adults are more likely than adults in other ethnic groups to have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

I raise this as a concern not only for the Caribbean diaspora, or for black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups in the UK, but for the entire nation.

For as Martin Luther King Jr said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” There is an urgent need to bring unity in the Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; and there is no better time to start than now.


In 2018, on the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush, on the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s odious “Rivers of Blood” speech, on the 25th anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the incontrovertible truth is that Britain appears ill-at-ease with matters of race and migration.

Perhaps the lessons to be learned by Windrush will help give effect to the reality that, to quote Lyndon B Johnson, “until justice is blind to colour, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is un-concerned with the colour of men’s skins, emancipation will
be a proclamation but not a fact”.

Guy Hewitt is Barbados’ High Commissioner to the UK.

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