Caribbean leaders don't want to revisit slavery

Carol Williams - in Bridgetown, Barbados

Although descendants of slaves control the governments in the English-speaking Caribbean, prosper in business and define the image portrayed to the millions of people who visit their tropical islands every year, the vestiges of three centuries of bondage are few, as if no one here wants to be reminded.

Doralene Lashley, 43, puts up her hands to halt the conversation when asked whether she or the plantation's two dozen other employees, most, like her, descended from enslaved Africans brought here during the colonial era, mind that so little of their forebears' labour and craftsmanship is acknowledged in heritage houses presented to visitors as replicas of the past.

"I personally try not to talk about it. 'This one did this and that one did that,' " Lashley, the catering manager, says distractedly as she checks on the serving trays for a luncheon. "Talking about the past just has a negative impact on the present."

In Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago and Turks and Caicos and Grenada, all former British colonies, it has long been popular among small cliques of activists and scholars to swap suits and ties for the printed tunics and head wraps of West Africa. Some have adopted African names to reflect their ancestry or newly embraced Ethiopia-originated Rastafarian lifestyles.

But it wasn't until last year's bicentennial of the 1807 abolition of the slave trade by Britain that a serious movement got underway to reflect on the era of slavery here and enshrine its artifacts and lessons in the historical touchstones of each island.

With support from the government, Barbados' small but evolving community of Black history advocates staged commemorative and consciousness-raising events in 2007. A reenactment of the landing of the first European ship, the Orange Blossom, at Holetown drew modest crowds of activists and officialdom in March. The UNESCO Slavery Project erected a sign at the Newton Plantation's abandoned slave burial site, a one-acre patch behind sprawling sugar-cane fields and a fiberglass boat-building yard.

And at the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, 11 panels hanging in a back room tell the 400-year history of the brutal slave trade, from the cost in cowrie shells for a slave to the horrific Middle Passage that one in four didn't survive, to the proud militants such as Barbados' Bussa whose rebellions helped end slavery.

"There was almost a subconscious need to forget," Kevin Farmer, the curator for history and archaeology at Barbados Museum, says of the island's collective evasion of slavery milestones and memorials. "But forgetting is a means to amnesia and the ability for mistakes to be repeated all over again."

Some see the reluctance of the Caribbean's Black people to reflect on the slave era as a matter of pride, not shame.

Barbados has the highest standard of living in the Caribbean, and wealth is distributed more equitably here than in the other islands, notes Karl Watson, a history professor at the University of the West Indies. He wrote a commemorative 2007 journal on the island's development after the end of the slave trade, the British empire's first step toward emancipation that came to the islands 30 years later.

"It gives us a sense of accomplishment that very few of us are unable to keep our heads above water," Watson says. "It's a point of pride that has made us perhaps a little arrogant."

Local historians have begun to search for sites and artifacts that might be restored to recount the contributions of more than 100,000 Africans brought to Barbados in the 17th and 18th centuries and the generations born into slavery as the property of colonial planters.

A few "slave huts" are maintained at the site of a former plantation on the remote north coast. But the thatched-roof cottages actually were built by Irish servants after they had worked off their seven-year indentures, Farmer says.

He supports the Ministry of Tourism's nascent effort to find surviving chattel houses -- the small homes built by freed slaves that they dismantled and moved from plantation to plantation. He hopes the homes could anchor a future restored village that would be more representative of local history than the heritage mansions long ago shorn of their slave quarters.

Ikael Tafari, a sociologist who heads the Commission on Pan-African Affairs, says it has been a struggle to persuade the Caribbean's Black leaders to take their people's rightful place in history.

"Pain and humiliation are not something people want to relive," he says of Black Barbadians, who make up 95 per cent of the island's 290,000 people. "You can't understand the level of denial about the slave trade that exists at the official level."

Caribbean cultural leaders have been talking about seeking reparations from the European countries that conducted the slave trade, to go to the African nations where Black people were kidnapped or bought from corrupt tribal chiefs as well as to the former colonies where generations endured poverty and servitude long after emancipation.

The bicentennial events, mostly concentrated in Britain, stirred the first official support for reparations, says Aaron Larrier, a Christian minister and Black heritage activist.

After the March 25 anniversary of the end of the British slave trade, the Barbadian Parliament passed a resolution acknowledging for the first time that slavery was a crime against humanity. Prime Minister Owen Arthur has expressed support for reparations, though he has urged those drafting the appeal to focus on educational exchanges and technology transfers rather than cash payments.

Talk of reparations has been heard in the Caribbean since the islands began gaining their independence in the 1960s. But only Haiti, a former French colony, has made a direct appeal. Nearly five years ago, as Haiti was preparing to celebrate the bicentennial of its emergence in 1804 as the first free Black nation, then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide submitted a  £10bn demand to France. Paris immediately rejected the April 2003 appeal and it hasn't been mentioned by subsequent leaders since Aristide was driven into exile a year later.

Those seeking to confront the past say whatever reparation money might be forthcoming should be used to restore vestiges of slave life on the island, to fill in the blank pages of Caribbean history.

But at the Newton Plantation slave burial ground, just a few miles south of Sunbury, there is little evidence that anyone has taken notice of the new historical marker. The simple white sign explains that the site holds the remains of 570 slaves and is the only excavated slave graveyard in the Western Hemisphere.

Veteran taxi driver Martin Codrington didn't know the memorial existed until an American visitor asked to be taken there. Neither did other drivers he asked for directions, which he eventually got by stopping at the national museum.

"We should know more about what has gone on about us," says the bemused 60-year-old, adding that schools in his day never mentioned the slave era.

With a glance at the weed-choked site obscured by the boat works and a nearby ranch house, he says, "It would do to fix it up a bit and make it more pleasing."