“When you hear about slavery for 400 years. For 400 years?! That sounds like a choice.”
These were words spoken by American entertainer Kanye West that speak to the complete lack of knowledge of the true horrors of 500 years of European colonialism and slavery.
For thousands of years, there were three main tribes of indigenous persons populating the archipelago we now call the Caribbean islands. The Taino, the Arawaks and the Caribs from which these island groupings are now aptly named.
From the year 1492 onward, things changed drastically for them with the advent of European explorers.
Unfortunately, for the indigenous populations, these explorers had grandiose ambitions of coercion, control and, ultimately, complete colonisation.
History will record that the indigenous population of the entire Caribbean region was decimated to the point of near extinction within the space of one century. European powers, inclusive of Spain, France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Great Britain, systematically enslaved, tortured, raped and killed millions of these indigenous persons.
Essentially, phase one of European colonisation was mass genocide that eclipsed anything the world has ever seen.
“Columbus advocated fighting and enslaving native groups he presumed to be cannibals. By 1500, he and his brothers had sent nearly 1,500 enslaved islanders to European markets to be sold. Even “friendly” indigenous peoples were forced to mine gold en masse, speeding death from malnourishment, overwork and disease.” Washington Post October 8, 2015
Phase two of their colonisation was the importation of enslaved Africans to work their agricultural plantations across the region, spread from Guyana to Jamaica and every point in between. They were forced to grow crops such as tobacco, sugar cane, arrowroot, bananas, citrus fruits, coconuts and, yes, Bermuda onions.
You see, for more than 300 years, millions of Africans had no choice in the matter of where they were migrated to, what sort of work they would be doing, who they could marry or even who they could have a child with.
“The death rate on the plantations was high, a result of overwork, poor nutrition and work conditions, brutality and disease. Many plantation owners preferred to import new slaves rather than provide the means and conditions for the survival of their existing slaves. Until the Amelioration Act was passed in 1798, which forced planters to improve conditions for enslaved workers, many owners simply replaced the casualties by importing more slaves from West Africa.”
Those Europeans essentially fleeced both the land and the enslaved Africans right up to the 1980s, when most of the English-speaking colonies eventually gained their independence. Here are some prime examples of how British colonies were truly treated:
• In their class-based structure, little to no public schools were built, hence denying the populations proper basic education. My grandparents’ generation was provided with no public education, while in my father’s childhood, 1,000 students were forced to share chairs and desks at The Central School, which is now known as Victor Scott Primary School.
• The English, in their disregard for our medical wellbeing, provided no proper healthcare for the masses. In the British Virgin Islands, there was no hospital until the late 1950s.
Perhaps, most significantly, through their race-based economic structures, the only persons allowed to own and operate major businesses were those who were of direct European descent and/or mixed-race populations. This left most persons of African descent locked in a state of perpetual economic poverty.
Given these realities, it is no surprise that those persons in the Caribbean sought to find a way towards a better life for themselves and their families.
Many from the Lesser Antilles headed to the Dominican Republic to work on sugar plantations between in the 1930s and 1960s. Others, particularly Jamaicans, migrated to work on the building of the Panama Canal in the early 1900s, Closer to home, there was a mass migration of persons from St Kitts to Bermuda in the late 1800s.
Then came the unintended consequences of the Second World War.
Having lost millions of men in battle, alongside massive devastation of their cities and infrastructure via mass bombing, Britain was in dire straits.
Then came the policy of importing manpower from the British colonies of the Caribbean and India. The first transport ship was named the MV Empire Windrush, which moved persons from across the Caribbean, including Bermuda, to the docks of London.
Over the course of time, more than 500,000 from the Caribbean sought to escape 400 years of enslavement, lack of housing, lack of medical care, lack of education and abject poverty by migrating to what was then their colonial motherland.
As documented in the BBC Two special Windrush, they were met with open hostility by much of the English population. They were often denied proper housing, with many landlords putting signs in their doors stating, “No Irish, No Dogs, No Blacks”.
Subsequently, they were forced to life in squalor in tenement housing in areas such as Notting Hill and Brixton, denied proper healthcare benefits and paid on a wage scale that was unequal in comparison with their English counterparts.
Despite the racism, hundreds of thousands migrated to Britain.
As of 2014, the British Government had put in a policy that sought to revisit the worst of colonial behaviour, which directly affected those of the Windrush generation. Untold amounts of persons were systematically:
• Denied the right to work
• Denied access to public healthcare benefits
• Denied entry back to Britain
• Deported to the Caribbean
Only once exposed via various media houses and held to account by Caricom leaders on April 17 did British Prime Minister Theresa May make an about-turn and apologise for this policy.
These are but snapshots of what the people of the Caribbean have had to endure. It is clear that no one would ever choose to face genocide, slavery and outright racism.
Furthermore, it is false equivalency for anyone to attempt to compare anything to the 500 years, or worst of humanity, which the people of the Caribbean have endured.
• Christopher Famous is the government MP for Devonshire East (Constituency 11). You can reach him at WhatsApp on 599-0901 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org