Prime Minister endorses TT National Committee on Reparations at Emancipation Dinner

At the Emancipation dinner held at the Diplomatic Centre, St Ann’s Thursday night Prime Minister Kamela Persad-Bissessar made strong references on the establishment of the Trinidad and Tobago National Committee on Reparations-TTNCR.

These clarifications were made during her feature address to her guests.

The Prime Minister stated” As you know, across the Caribbean, the lobby for reparations for slavery and native genocide is growing.

Trinidad and Tobago, along with several other CARICOM nations, have established National Reparations Committees to pursue amends from former colonial nations.

On Tuesday the members of the Trinidad and Tobago National Committee on Reparations, led by my dear friend Mr Aiyegoro Ome, received their official letters of appointment.”

Here is the Honourable Prime Minister’s full speech:

 

INTRODUCTION

Good evening and thank you all for joining us here as we observe Emancipation Day celebrations.

It is a great pleasure for me to welcome you all once again. Just last week, we gathered to commemorate Eid Ul Fitr and joined hands with our fellow countrymen in one of the most sacred Islamic observances.

This evening we commemorate that crucial moment in human history when we broke the shackles of slavery and turned our faces to liberation as free women and men.

 

TRIUMPH OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT

Emancipation was a defining moment in world history, and for us, a significant turning point in Caribbean history.

We threw off the ties that bound us as slaves, and took the first steps towards an entirely new and different civilization.

At that time, people were held as property…as chattel.

The cruelty that women, men and children were subjected to was unthinkable.

But what was more powerful than the evil that drove human slavery, was the strength of the human spirit that fought and won liberation.

It was a time when a future that was so deeply desired was suddenly thrust upon a people who had, up to that time, never lived or experienced life as free people.

It may be difficult for us to perceive today, in our modern time, the depth of sadness, joy, triumph and exhilaration in the breath and voice of every person who was alive on that day. But that is the purpose of recorded history.

It gives us the ability to reflect on where we came from, and what it took to bring us here.

And it gives us the opportunity to reaffirm our promise to always stand as one people, united by our humanity, and driven by our desire to never allow our freedoms to be compromised.

 

CELEBRATING EMANCIPATION

As the people of Trinidad & Tobago, in 1985 we became the first nation in the world to adopt Emancipation Day as a public holiday of national celebration.

No amount of pride is enough for such global recognition, because it was one of the moments that defined what it means to be Trinidadian and Tobagonian.

Many of our ancestors came out of that heart-wrenching struggle for freedom. Many of our ancestors started their free lives with only the sandals on their feet and the rags on their backs.

Tragically, many of our ancestors were born, lived and died, only knowing what it felt like to desire freedom, but never actually experiencing it.

The move towards freedom - Sir Thomas Buxton

And this day in our history is pivoted on many moments in the past where liberation was achieved.

In Haiti, what was then called St Domingue, liberation was achieved by rebellion in 1789.

The Emancipation Bill was presented in Parliament by Sir Thomas Buxton in 1833. Sir Buxton was an ‘abolitionist’ MP and social reformer who championed the end of slavery in the British Parliament.

In the following year, he succeeded when the Emancipation Act was passed in 1834. Some might agree that it could be one of the most tragic ironies of world history, that this man who championed the abolition of slavery, died in the very year, 1845, when the first indentured labourers were brought to the new world – here in Trinidad.

Slavery to Apprenticeship

In Trinidad & Tobago, as with many other territories, abolition came with a condition, which many fought against – a period of apprenticeship which would end in 1838, said then to be the period when the former slaves would integrate into the world of work and into the social system.

In other countries, dominions at that time, slavery was abolished permanently in the French Empire in 1848, in the Spanish Empire in 1880, and in Brazil in 1888.

I mention these different years because it makes the point that the struggle for liberation did not end with an Act of Parliament, or at just one date in history.

The struggle for freedom was a continuing one, and carried on for decades, starting with the Haitian revolution and ending in 1888 in Brazil.

And that means something important for all of us, which I will get to in just a moment.

 

THE TRINIDAD & TOBAGO EXPERIENCE

This evening I am delighted to stand arm and arm and side by side with our Afro-Trinbagonian community as we pay homage to the people who fought for our freedom, and commit ourselves to continuously working for a just, democratic and peaceful society.

As we pay homage, we reflect on the efforts to uproot the most insidious aspects of the old order, and how Emancipation set new terms for other groups coming into the society.

Oppression did not end with Emancipation, but there were qualitative differences in the laws which governed the newcomers to post-emancipation society.

There were formal contracts, there were rights and there were those persons who would ensure that society did not regress into the abyss of slavery.

As a nation we must never underestimate or forget the sacrifices and hard-won freedom of the enslaved Africans.

We must appreciate their struggles, and from that passion for justice which burns within us all, commit to transforming the memory and pain of struggle, to respect for the rule of law and love of our diversity.

 

REPARATIONS: RIGHTING WRONGS

I note that my good friend, Kafra Kambon and the Emancipation Support Committee chose the very topical theme of Reparations: Righting a Historical Wrong for this year’s celebration of Emancipation Day.

As you know, across the Caribbean, the lobby for reparations for slavery and native genocide is growing.

Trinidad and Tobago, along with several other CARICOM nations, have established National Reparations Committees to pursue amends from former colonial nations.

On Tuesday the members of the Trinidad and Tobago National Committee on Reparations, led by my dear friend Mr Aiyegoro Ome, received their official letters of appointment.

We were also very fortunate to have visiting our shores this week, Dr Verene Shephered, Professor of Social History, at UWI’sMona Campus and co-Chairperson of the CARICOM Reparations Commission.

I am certain that Dr Shepherd’s insightful views will positively inform our national committee and Trinidad and Tobago’s perspectives.

While I know that Mr Ome and his team will create greater awareness of this issue throughout the country in the coming months; I must also state that we, as CARICOM leaders, are saying to the former colonial nations that the case for reparatory justice is unquestionably strong.

This is therefore a good moment for me to reaffirm my full support and the support of the Government of Trinidad and Tobago as you document the long-term effects of the enslavement of our African ancestors on their descendants and by extension our present society.

Professor Hilary Beckles in his book, Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide recalls:

In 1838, the British people ended their 250-year old “national crime” of black enslavement with a sum total payment of  20 million pounds to the last slave-owning cohort. Slavery came to an end with a festive orgy of public money being showered upon slave owners.”

For the liberated Africans, there was nothing except a certain future of immediate poverty and continued social exclusion.

This is why it must be carefully noted that the Caribbean’s call for reparations is not merely about a quantifiable sum of money for each territory; it is a call for developmental recompense in the areas determined to have been severely compromised by slavery.

Reparatory justice is being sought through: an indigenous people’s development programme; technology transfer; debt cancellation; illiteracy eradication; psychological rehabilitation; public health; the development of cultural institutions; repatriation, and a formal apology.

So today in celebrating freedom, I stand on the side of justice and I again re-affirm Trinidad and Tobago’s commitment to the case for reparatory justice.

 

STRONGER DEMOCRACY

As Prime Minister of our country, I have always ensured that talk extends to action, especially in the area of protecting and re-defining the freedom and power that people must possess.

Participatory governance and attention to the principles of democracy are extremely important to my Government and earlier this week, we demonstrated that talk must always translate to action.

The constitutional reforms which were debated this week and passed in the Lower House shall forever stand as the turning point that the people of our nation have been working towards for many years.

The passage of three key reforms must stand as one of the most visible affirmations that democracy must be based on the people having the power, not the Governments.

Citizenship, without the freedom to choose the best possible representation, could well be seen as another form of bondage. And we cannot allow those who wish to strike fear and panic to continue with their unconscionable acts of injustice on the people of our country, to succeed in blocking the progress of our country and the empowerment of our people.

 

FREEDOM IS AN ABIDING COMMITMENT

A moment ago, I told you that the struggle for freedom was a continuing one and it is particularly important to us. I said that I would return to explaining why, and this is where I do that…

Emancipation Day must never be just a moment in our history where we celebrate hard-fought freedom. Emancipation must be a responsibility that each and every one of us takes seriously.

That responsibility is an abiding commitment and while in the 18th and 19th centuries, freedom was fought from those who wished to enslave people, the modern fight for freedom faces new enemies.

We must therefore consider…

In 1833, what if the Sir Thomas Buxton’s Emancipation Bill was defeated by other British MPs who might have said that they were acting in accordance with norms and the existing social order?

In 1962, what if the push towards independence was rejected, because it was overruled by the voice of a loud minority?

In 1990, with slavery and bondage having ended almost 150 years before, what if Nelson Mandela was not freed from prison, and did not become the South African President?

The reason I say that freedom is an abiding commitment, is because the enemy of liberty may not always be visible and in front of us.

The enemy can be fear, panic, anxiety and a refusal to change and adapt to an increasingly modern society.

For us to fight such enemies, requires bravery, boldness and an unbending loyalty to ensuring that the people of tomorrow inherit a nation that wants them to be free, and provides for them to succeed in freedom.

 

CONCLUSION

So as I move to conclude, I hope that I have been able to do justice to the essence and significance of Emancipation, to us, and to the entire world.

The ground we stand on, the religions we practice freely, the liberties we enjoy, the communities we have built and the strong democracy that we secure every day…all of it was built on the shoulders of those who came before us, and fought for us.

To understand the true essence of liberty, look to your children. Remember when, as boys and girls, they looked to you and told you what they wanted to be when they grew up.

Now look at them, and see what they have achieved. That, my friends, is the essence of freedom, when people can see the future they want, can access the opportunities to pursue that future, and can have the freedom to achieve their objectives.

As your Prime Minister, I reaffirm my pledge to do all in my power to ensure that the passion and wisdom of the past are never forgotten, and that our children can write better stories tomorrow.

May God continue to bless each of you, your community, your families and may God bless our great Nation, Trinidad and Tobago.

I thank you.