Jamaica: Call for reparations over a slave trade that left the Caribbean behind

Elias Thomas believes reparations could help lift him out of poverty. Credit: ITV/On Assignment

The northern coast of Jamaica is mesmerisingly beautiful.

Powder-fine white sand, bright shimmering green-blue sea water, cascading bougainvillea and palm trees swaying in a gentle breeze.

It is a high-end tourist magnet now and up to five million flock here each year, many from the UK.

However, it was not always thus.

In fact the beaches and shoreline around Ocho Rios have a very different history.

Centuries before the mostly white tourists from America and Europe arrived here, they saw a very different kind of visitor.

First came Christopher Columbus who is believed to have landed here when he discovered the island of Jamaica, describing it as "the most beautiful land the eye could behold".

Then came the first ships carrying British slave owners.

Very soon, they set up the sugar plantations that would make many of them rich, establishing an industry that would hugely benefit British industry and society.

A monument stands at Seville Great House - Jamaica's first plantation - to slaves whose remains were discovered just decades ago. Credit: ITV/On Assignment

This is now at the heart of the claim by CARICOM, the community of all 15 Caribbean countries who have come together to seek reparations from the UK and other European colonial powers for the legacy of slavery which they say has held back the development of the region ever since.

Mention the word reparations and it conjures up images of a huge pay-out; a punitive fine for colonial wrongdoing.

But the CARICOM case is built around a set of very specific issues which they say can be traced directly back to how European countries like Britain built and profited from slavery and the manner in which they left the region when their rule ended.

Professor Verene Shepherd says Britain has benefited hugely from its slave past. Credit: ITV/On Assignment

Professor Verene Shepherd, an advisor to the Jamaican government on reparations told me that the bulk of the slave trade in Jamaica was carried out by the British and British people today live in a society which still feels the benefits of that slave past in cities like Liverpool, London and Bristol.

It's enshrined in what they call the "Ten Point Plan"; effectively a manifesto for how any reparations money would be spent, with key priorities starting with a full formal apology for the slave trade, but also covering as eradicating poverty and illiteracy, to addressing public health crises and teaching young black people in the Caribbean to be proud of their African slave past.

Liberty Hall's unique after school club in Kingston, where children learn about their African roots. Credit: ITV/On Assignment

The Jamaican government, like other Caribbean nations, argues that Britain made trillions of pounds from the slave trade in which millions were brutally treated and died, but they did very little to develop the infrastructure of the island beyond the sugar industry which served their interests.

People rummage through rubbish in Riverton - one of the poorest areas in the country. Credit: ITV/On Assignment

They argue that what little development that did take place over the two centuries of British slavery in Jamaica was geared around and aimed at supporting the slave economy of the sugar plantations.

I met Elias Thomas who worked on a sugar plantation in one of the poorest rural districts in Jamaica.

He told me how he grew up on stories of how his enslaved forefathers worked on the same plantations from which he retired last year after nearly half a century of work.

Elias Thomas believes reparations could help lift him out of poverty. Credit: ITV/On Assignment

He still lives in dire poverty in an old house built on stilts which he shares with his wife and grown children and says he believes that reparations from Britain could help lift him out of such conditions.

But travel around the uptown areas of the Jamaican capital, Kingston and you can see plenty of people whose ancestors arrived as slaves but who are now financially successful despite the many obstacles thrown up by poverty.

The Jamaican capital, Kingston. Credit: ITV/On Assignment

For its part, Britain has already openly acknowledged a deep regret for the pain and suffering the slave trade caused.

It says it wants to work with Caribbean countries to find a way forward, but not based on reparations or looking to the past.

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