Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 8th March 2023.
I thank my hon. Friend for her wonderful intervention—it is almost as though she is reading ahead in my speech, and I will come to some of those points. I would go further: this country will be unable to move on as a cohesive whole until these issues are resolved. I think that that everyone in this room would want to see that happen as this country goes forward, post Brexit, into the big, wide world yonder.
I was in the middle of my discussion about the Commonwealth being a relationship—a relationship between Britain and her former colonies, which, like a partner that has endured 400 years of the most hideous abuse, seek not charity but restitution. The alternative is divorce in the form of growing republican sentiment across the Caribbean. Abusive partners who cannot say sorry cannot change, can never grow and can never develop. Who in their right mind would want to stay in an abusive relationship like that?
But do not take my word for it. King Charles III, through his goddaughter Fiona Compton, has shown an intimate understanding of the necessity for this national conversation—knowing, as he does, that he could well be the last king of anything resembling an international Commonwealth. As such, the monarch has shifted positions. He believes, we are told, that British history “should not be hidden”, and that, in the same way that we are taught about the holocaust,
“we should be open to speaking about Britain’s involvement in the slave trade”.
For it seems that this country still finds it easier to remember the transgressions of other nations than it does its own.
Let me turn to the issue of those transgressions. What happened such that Britain, or any other European colonial power, should be expected to apologise and pay reparations? As any student of history would attest, history is littered with ancient atrocities and what would now be called crimes against humanity that elicit no such reactions or demands. Why is what took place in the Caribbean so different?
Sir Hilary Beckles, a historian and vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies, nails a key part of the explanation in his book “How Britain Underdeveloped the Caribbean”. He states:
“The modern Caribbean economy was invented, structured and managed by European states for one purpose: to achieve maximum wealth extraction to fuel and sustain their national financial, commercial and industrial transformation. Therefore, for each European state, the Caribbean economy was primarily an external economic engine propelling and promoting national economic growth.
No other large and lucrative colonized economy in the five-hundred-year history of Western economic development has ever been created for such a singular purpose. No such economy has ever been as intensively exploited as that of the Caribbean by imperial entrepreneurs and nation states.”
It continues that European countries, Britain chief among them,
“called into being a new, immoral entrepreneurial order that defined the Caribbean…economy as a frontier beyond the accountability of civilization, where crimes against humanity became a cultural norm”,
with the ability
“to accumulate wealth without cultural or ethical constraints.”
“the institutionalization of piracy and plunder, genocide and slavery, violent hostility and hatred, and notions of black subhumanity. These were the driving forces in Europe’s wealth extraction as it rose to economic dominance”— a dominance that, we know, it still enjoys to this day.
Sir Hilary goes on to describe slavery as “systematic genocide”, because although around 3.5 million Africans were brought to the Caribbean in those 400 years, only 600,000 were in the region by the time of emancipation, which is unsurprising, given that the average useful lifespan of a West Indian slave was five to 10 years. That went on for 400 years, so extreme was their treatment. British history books might tell us that the first African slaves landed in the British empire in 1624, but when we listen to that, the reality is that black people, Africans, did not land in the British empire; the British empire landed on them. That is what happened in 1624 and continued to happen for 400 years, to this very day.
This is not just about Africans. Indians were also forcibly indentured in the Caribbean by the British. Let us not forget the 3 million indigenous peoples estimated to have inhabited the Caribbean in 1700. I have some Carib Indian in me, which I can trace back through my great-grandmother. Those people were deliberately wiped out by those European forces, so now only 30,000 survive.
As the fabulous research of University College London shows, even the abolition of slavery in the 1830s saw no justice, because it was the slavers, not the slaves, who received the vast sums of compensation—billions in today’s money—that taxpayers in the UK, including the Caribbeans who came here in the post-war period to rebuild this country, after it had fought a war ostensibly against racism and fascism, finished paying off in 2015, so vast was the debt. Let us think about that: the people who had been brutalised and exploited for 400 years came back to the mother country, after it had fought a war against racism, to rebuild this country, leaving theirs in poverty, and paid taxes to pay their former slave masters.
This does not end there. Some of those same people, decades later, having worked for this country, were deported as illegal immigrants in the Windrush scandal. You could not make this up. If it was written in a book, some would say it is fiction. It gets worse, because the Windrush compensation scheme was made so difficult to apply for that fewer than one in four people eligible for compensation have received it. That is not a scandal; it goes beyond scandal.