Wednesday, 26 August 2009

The Cost of Slavery Now

Barbados has erected a plaque this week to the memory of the 2 million slaves brought to that island during the British Trans – Atlantic Slave Trade.

So what does that have to do with us 200 years later?

In fact, some Channel Islanders participated in the slave trade over many years and on a big scale but, of course, the historical record tends to gloss over such parts of the inglorious past that don’t suit the current purpose.

Just a few months ago we were being told how it is necessary to re-write our Occupation history to emphasise that we helped escaped Russian slaves rather than laboured to build German fortifications. That is how history is manipulated. Yesterday’s heroes become today’s victims or villains and vice-versa. There is always a political purpose behind the words on the plaque.

The Le Mesurier family of Guernsey and Alderney owned a plantation on Barbados in the 18th century and kept and traded slaves. They also commanded and owned privateers and smuggled over centuries. But should we sanitize their role and the exploits of thousands of others from the version of history that is taught in Channel Islands schools? Or should we be at least as proud of their activities as we are of those who plundered and killed their way around the world wearing official uniforms and waving the flag for King or Queen and Country?

Of course, when there was talk of pay-outs to those who suffered as a result of Nazi or Japanese oppressions during the 2nd world war, some Channel Islanders hoped to be able to benefit. Without much doubt, they were seen as victims and there have been some substantial payments to Holocaust survivors from German industries. But there were howls of horror when ex African groups started talking compensation for their dreadful inherited slavery experience. Is there really a difference?

Today we are stuck with a Finance Industry that exploits many people in the third world just as our ancestors did 200 years ago. Today we make the same defence that our own economic survival depends upon this business and that there is no other that will provide us with an adequate standard of living.

We all know that millions of people around the world live and die in desperate poverty and that wealth generated by them is siphoned off through tax and regulation havens like Jersey and Guernsey. It is of course just another form of slavery. We also know that traditional slavery still exists so that we can enjoy cheap clothes, food, flowers, coal, timber and endless gadgets whilst those who actually produce the goods or extract the raw materials live and die in squalor.

When Thomas Clarkson the abolitionist toured the slaving centres of Britain in 1786 he found that slave ship owners and their crews would not willingly speak with him. Local officials too denied him assistance and he had to crawl around slave ships at night with his measuring tape trying to obtain the evidence that eventually ended the disgraceful business.

But it is precisely the same problem that prevails in Jersey and other finance centres today. Secrecy or omerta is the official line but it is the concealment of the facts that will eventually hasten the collapse. Just as the investigators in the Turks and Caicos Islands found that the local inhabitants – many of them descendants of slaves –were afraid to speak with them, so it is here.

Of course, in Liechtenstein it took just one aggrieved whistle-blower and a few hundred thousands Euros as a reward to cause that little feudal territory to re-write its PR script.

We now have the opportunity to express our views about this Island to the UK Department of Justice and as many as possible should grab at the chance.
Our ancestors in the 18th century did not have a similar chance to complain or to expose the unfairnesses of the slave trade, the privateering or the smuggling. Go for it!!!

Submitted by Thomas Wellard.


Anonymous said...

There are useful parallels between slavery and the modern day Finance Industry which we should heed.

Cuba was for centuries the jewel in the crown of the Spanish empire because of the wealth it generated from sugar cane production. Yet that wealth was only possible because of slavery. Cuba was one of the last states to abolish slavery in 1886 along with Brazil, another cane producer using slavery, in 1888.

Indeed Cuba’s wealth was its sugar, just as for the Channel Islands it is international finance. Yet, when the price of sugar collapsed in the face of competition from European sugar beet towards the end of the 19th century, there was instability and eventually dramatic collapse. Cuba has remained poor ever since.
Dependence on a single commodity led ultimately to ruin when markets changed.

Anonymous said...

Many little islands around the world are facing the same problems. Britain is not the only old colonial power trying to resolve what best to do. France, Holland and Britain are desperate to off-load their responsibilities and as Lord Wallace knows - the idea that the upkeep of the Alderney breakwater amounts to a realistic Defence contribution is just so much baloney.
Make no mistake, if MPs don't ask the relevant questions then EU and UN members will.
Our shared British history is built upon slavery and similar unfairnesses. The chickens are coming home to roost even from 2 or more centuries ago.
And don't be fooled by so called "constitutional experts" like Adv Lakeman or Prof Lee or even the cuddly hedgehog - if the people of Britain decide to change the relationship with the Channel Islands then they can and will - with or without "our" agreement.

If we have a relationship with the Crown, it is because the people of Britain says so. We in Jersey, Guernsey and the IOM and the other little places around the world that fly the flag have no say ultimately. The king can and has had his head chopped off, he has been sent into exile and forced to abdicate and we are simply not consulted. So don't look to the Royal Square for some mystical Royal intervention when the going gets tougher.

In the meantime, what do our so called elected representatives propose to do about the UK Justice Department initiative? Or can we just sit around and discuss whether Constables should be in the States for evermore.....