Reparations can never make up for the UK’s colonial past

Reparations can never make up for the UK’s colonial past

Fight for more — Jamaica has become the latest country to demand slavery reparations – but awarding this sum will do nothing to heal the Caribbean Island’s wounds unless the UK is forced to dismantle its racist institutions and structures, writes Aaliyah Miller.

Earlier this month, the Government of Jamaica announced plans to seek reparations from the Queen. The reparations petition is based on a private motion by Jamaican lawmaker Mike Henry, who said it was worth some 7.6 billion pounds – as though this sum will somehow make amends for the horrors that existed through colonialism.

I’m happy that my people are demanding some sort of retribution and boldly asking for what they deserve. But the petition also raises urgent questions: for starters, how would this money be used? And crucially, how can this sum amend what has been done to my ancestors, the trauma from which is still felt today? This £7.6 billion is nothing in comparison to the mass of cruelty that the UK has inflicted on innocent Black people: the people of Jamaica deserve so much more.

My visits to Jamaica growing up were nothing short of perfect. My siblings and I would spend our school summer holidays exploring as we ran through the countryside parish of St.Elizabeth, where my family is from. Wifi out there has always been poor, and so our endless hours of fun came from the trips we made to my auntie and uncles small shop, near our home; or journeys from the mango tree to the veranda, where we would sit next to our grandma so she could do her favourite thing: looking at us.

While these memories are faultless, as I’ve grown older, my perception of my once perfect island is not. Today, I know more than just how over-sugared ‘bag juice’ is or how blue the sea is at the beach. I now know that Jamaica’s violence levels are unfathomable, with around 46.5 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in the island. I also know that Jamaica stands as the Caribbean’s fifth most corrupt country, with dishonesty and cronyism running rampant from parish to parish, costing citizens an average of US$738 million annually. I’ve pondered how such a seemingly perfect place can be so full of disaster and my conclusion is nothing other than through the evils of colonialism.

Colonialism is not a past evil, it is a present horror that still reigns with terror over lands that were formerly deemed nothing other than territory. The dimensions of the damage done are countless – however, some of the most detrimental ills in Jamaica are seen in the manifestations of violence and corruption as well as the perversion and upheaval of culture.

Today’s Jamaica is built on a legacy of violence. Violence is intertwined with the sand that covers the beaches and in the minds of those that walk them. Historically, violence has been used to gain and maintain power, and those sentiments still reign true. While public displays of violence were used by colonisers in an attempt to display dominance, the covert, psychological and systematic violence also had a devastating impact.

The abolition of slavery didn’t immediately erase the damage done; the kind of evils done to a people by the British simply cannot be undone by the passing of legislation. This is made apparent by the havoc that still reigns in Jamaica. The violence and the corruption are evidence of a people whose land was stolen, whose people were murdered and whose systems were upturned. The British did leave once they were forced to recognise human life that wasn’t theirs, but their evils did not depart with them. They went on their boats, taking their riches with them, leaving my island in tatters, leaving the land bare and the people traumatised.

Our institutions were destroyed, our spiritual practices made redundant, and our people living with the memories of unjustified torture. In a country haunted by the reminiscence of those who lost their lives to nothing other than evil and greed.

Presently, Jamaica exists with the manifestations of this upheaval: the country is still broken, there is still pain and suffering that no amount of money can fix. The weakening of the bonds between those who were enslaved is still seen in the disparity that exists between citizens, there are hierarchies between class and even between the shades of Blackness people wear. The idea instilled by slave owners that lighter-skinned Black people were somehow superior is even still seen, evidenced by the obsession with skin-bleaching in an attempt to increase proximity to whiteness.

It is mandatory that the identity of Jamaica is separate from the identity that was imposed. What was Jamaica before it was molded by the violence and greed of the oppressors, before capitalism and neoliberalism were introduced, when the island was guided by its own ideals? Jamaica’s cultural influence has captivated the world, from food to music to incredible athleticism, Jamaica is not simply an ex-colony; Jamaica is a place of wonders that had unimaginable evil imposed upon it, which now it must entirely divorce itself from.

And modern-day Britain is not innocent. If the UK were to pay this sum it would be nothing other than another meaningless gesture that they are so well versed in – like clapping for the NHS. How could the UK pay amends when they still fuel a colonial legacy, while Windrush citizens still live in fear that they will be made to leave the place they were encouraged to call home for the majority of their lives?

What good would be done by the UK giving Jamaica this sum while they still keep the country in debt traps, with Western institutions such as the International Monetary Fund still keeping Jamaica from ever being fully independent? How is it that a country that has been oppressed can be in debt to the oppressors? The Queen still sits as the head of state for Jamaica, exporting her influence under the guise of ‘commonwealth’, whereby her country is the only member that reaps benefits. How can reparations be paid when the same structures are in place?

This sum, £7.6 billion, is even insulting. What is £7.6billion to a country that squandered £10 billion on a failed track and trace system without a second thought; or, for a country where £17.1billion is used for government officials while starving children are denied school meals? This payment would be nothing but a silencing attempt from the UK and an effort to attract some positive PR. This money is nothing for a country so rich from corruption.

It would be foolish to award such a sum to Jamaican leaders who are so prone to corruption. Any amends need to be ensured to serve all those who are forced to live with the horrifying effects of colonialism and not at risk of being juggled between a few elites who are driven by greed.

As well as this, it must be assured any reparations awarded by the UK take place alongside a sustained effort from the country to evolve from its dark past. By, for example, teaching Britain’s role in colonisation in schools or ensuring the UK dismantles colonial institutions and structures – such as the commonwealth. Indeed, money alone cannot repair the psychological and systematic damage done.

Jamaica must also become introspective and look at the place they were before the horrors. The island that was known pre-colonially as ‘Xaymaca’ –  meaning ‘Land of Wood and Water’; a place that existed before the West brought their corruption, violence and greed. The people must evolve, because as the academic Maziki Thame says, colonialism is “not simply the removal of colonial structures, but especially, the deconstruction of colonial legacies in the mindset of formerly colonised peoples”.

Follow Aaliyah Miller on Twitter.

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