Prime Minister Arthur delivering the Wilberforce Lecture

While praising the efforts of William Wilberforce 200 years ago, in working relentlessly to end the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, a Caribbean leader has called on those who were at the heart of that ghastly crime against humanity (Britain) to go beyond that landmark piece of legislation in 1807 and address the issue of reparation to the descendants of former slaves.

Prime Minister Owen Arthur of Barbados made this know today as he stood in Holy Trinity Church in Hull, England, and declared that that there was still unfinished business that must be dealt with. He said “we are all deeply indebted to William Wilberforce for his magnificent contribution to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, but it is to be noted that when slavery was abolished in 1833 over 20 million pounds was paid by the British Government of the time to the Caribbean slave-holders as reparations for the loss of their property. However, not a penny was paid to the former slaves.”

Mr. Arthur pointed out that he was aware that the issue of reparation, at least for the victims of the transatlantic slave trade and their descendants, has been a controversial one, and he suggested it need not be so.

He opined that it was not a matter of retribution, but one of morality, and stressed that “we need to bring equity to the emancipation process and closure to the criminal activity that was racial chattel slavery.

The cause being fought for reparation is not a mission of mendicancy.  And, it is not unknown as a practice over time, he noted.

In calling for the start of some kind of understanding and dialogue to take place, the Prime Minister offered up some suggestions to deal with the problem and “build a partnership between the Caribbean and the United Kingdom in the same spirit of reconciliation, healing and social justice with which we commemorate both the life of William Wilberforce and the abolition of the slave trade.”

He went on and called for the setting up of a Fund, the William Wilberforce Educational Fund: to achieve the following:

1)  To finance, by means of scholarships and concessionary conditions, the education of dozens of students from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) at British universities on an annual basis. This educational exchange was commonplace decades ago when distinguished Caribbean leaders like Sir Grantley Adams, Dr Eric Williams, Norman Manley and Errol Barrow studied in Britain. In fact, the whole vast area of human resource development was historically the core of the relationship between the Caribbean and Britain before the massive cost cutting of the 1980s took its toll. Nowadays, therefore, you are more likely to find Caribbean students pursuing their studies in Canada or the United States. We must change this.

2) To finance visiting British lectureships at the campuses of the University of the West Indies in areas to be agreed on.

3) To finance student and teacher exchanges between African universities and the University of the West Indies.

4) To fund the establishment of a joint British-Caribbean Centre for Multi-racial Studies and Policy Development at the University of the West Indies. A similar project actually existed many years ago at the Barbados campus of the university and might easily be re-activated.  The Caribbean, as a result of the genocide of its indigenous populations, the mass enslavement of Africans, and the subsequent indentured servitude of Asians and Europeans, emerged as a unique, unprecedented experiment in human relations that was conceived, shaped and reproduced in the crucible of institutionalised racism. 

Mr. Arthur, who is the first Caribbean Prime Minister to deliver the annual Wilberforce lecture, told his audience that the proposed Fund “would become the centrepiece of a new programme for British/Caribbean cooperation that would go beyond economic and financial issues, that goes beyond security issues, that speaks to a social development that places a supreme value on cultural diversity and harmonious relations between people of different ethnic origins.”

Mr. Arthur surrounded by Barbadians and well-wishers after the lecture

A number of important British public figures and diplomats attended today’s lecture, including the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott; former Government Minister and sitting M.P. Claire Short; several other MPs and clergymen; University of Hull officials; and the Lord Mayor of Hull, Councillor Trevor Larsen.

Mr. Arthur received a standing ovation at the conclusion of his hour-long address and was presented with a Medal of Honour on behalf of the people of the Caribbean for their fight for freedom. It was presented by Claire Short M. P., a former Wilberforce Lecture presenter and medal winner herself.

Hours before delivering the lecture to a packed Holy Trinity Church, on a clear but very cold spring day in Hull, the northern part of Britain, the Prime Minister had the unique honour of officially re-opening the imposing, beautifully refurbished Wilberforce House Museum.

Mr. Arthur will climax his round of official engagements in Britain on Tuesday, when he witnesses the launch of the Sagicor Financial Corporation on the British Stock Exchange. He returns home the following day.

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