Thursday, 27 August 2020

Hard Labour under Caribbean Skies

It may be a holiday paradise but not so long ago, tourists were just as likely to choose a postcard image of ceaseless toil to send to the folk back home as an image of palm fringed beaches washed by a deep blue sun-flecked sea.  These are the children and grandchildren of an enslaved population and their hard won freedom has done little to raise living standards.  Key industries - coffee, sugar, tobacco and banana growing remain in the hands of colonial masters for whom an abundance of cheap manual labour sustains generous profit margins.  All of those activities are shown in this selection together with another popular and related subject - carrying the produce to market. Clumsy, patronising captions add to the sense of unease these images arouse.  The prosperous European (mostly British) visitors would be confined to their beach resorts and luxury hotels and no more than glimpse the lives lead by the average citizen of African heritage.  Walk-on parts as servants, waiters or cleaners were the only roles available to them.  

Any fleeting impression that existence was hard and unrewarding could be quickly dispelled by a glance at these images of a contented workforce taking pleasure in the outdoor life.  The rich and well to do have always eased their consciences with the thought that subject peoples are simple folk, only too happy to serve their masters in cheerful acceptance of their diminished social status.  It will never cross their minds that they are seeing the descendants of a displaced people, forcibly abducted from their homelands and trafficked into slavery and indenture with all the attendant trauma of recollected endemic violence, murder and callous exploitation.

From the perspective of the present, there’s always another way to see these images as a picturesque window into a long lost past.  A place we can scarcely recognise now the colonial masters have departed and the donkeys have been replaced by the Hilux and the Land Cruiser.  That might hold true if independent Jamaica had transformed itself into an economic powerhouse but even then to resort to nostalgia would be to overlook the historic dark legacy of disruptive trauma and subsistence economics that has so profoundly shaped the collective national experience.

When we learn, courtesy of David Olusoga’s efforts, that the British government went massively into debt to generously compensate former slave-owners for the loss of their property it’s a reminder that property rights will always outrank human rights in the eyes of the British political establishment.  There was no compensation for forcible abduction, deprivation of liberty and systemic brutality experienced by the victims of slavery.  Left to their own devices, most freed slaves carried on working for their former owners on terms that were scarcely less onerous than the ones they had escaped from.  We must conclude that the pride we are encouraged to take in Britain’s abolition of slavery is much misplaced - despite the ferocity with which it was resisted, it was a very modest step on the road to social justice.  All these years later, Britain has a Prime Minister whose language quite readily slides into casual racism.  Incensed by the BBC’s decision to play instrumental versions of Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory on the last night of the Proms he had this to say, “I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions and about our culture, and we stopped this general bout of self-recrimination and wetness”. In other words - let’s sidestep the uncomfortable legacy of Empire, stand to attention and serenade the wider world with the anachronistic lyrics of the anthems of English Exceptionalism.


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