Racism, slavery and 'apologies'

Guyana Chronicle
December 5, 1999

BARBADOS marked its 33rd anniversary of political independence last week with the apology by a white Barbadian clergyman, Rev. Gerry Seale, for the sins of enslavement of Africans by whites, stirring a new focus on social divisions in a country where a government-appointed committee is currently examining racial tension and the need for reconciliation.

The Anglican Bishop, Dr Rufus Brome, had earlier apologised for his own church's involvement in slavery in Barbados. But the chairman of the Barbados Christian Council, Rev. Leonard Rock, a Methodist clergyman, does not share the sentiment of apologising for "other peoples' sins" or crimes against humanity.

Rock, also a Senator in the Barbados parliament, also questions the legitimacy of a recently established Pan-African Commission to "accept", as it said, the apology offered by Rev. Seale.

In the so-called plural or dual societies like Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana, ethnic divisions have long proven a recurring painful challenge for successive governments with initiatives at problem-solving including laws providing for equal opportunities and punishment for racial and other forms of discrimination.

Jamaica's own political tribalism has resulted in much costly conflicts and both major parties - People's National Party and Jamaica Labour Party - that have contributed to the problem, are striving to heal old wounds and foster a different and relevant political culture, though their critics remain cynical.

But the idea of Barbados, with its image of a stable, cohesive society, having to confront long masked racial tension and hatred, may come as quite a surprise to many, among them the white tourists whose visits are most welcome and crucial to the country's economic growth and development.

The emotionalism, the anger displayed at public hearings of the Committee for National Reconciliation (NCR) by black Barbadians when dealing with perceived social discrimination by and economic power of white Barbadians, are symptomatic of the prejudices and fears that have been latent long before the final lowering of the Union Jack on November 30, 1966.

The internationally renowned Caribbean historian and intellectual, CLR James, had long ago noted the simple truth in his incisive examination of `Party Politics in the West Indies', that there was no point spending time "disproving" that racial harmony exists in the West Indies. Rather, we should be seeking creative ways at uniting all races, including those of European ancestry, for nation-building and in fostering Caribbean oneness.

I think that the author of `Capitalism and Slavery', Eric Williams, father of independent Trinidad and Tobago, would himself may have been quite surprised by the personal apology offered by the whiter Barbadian clergyman, Rev. Seale, a Pentecostal minister and President of the Evangelical Association of Barbados, for the "sins" of his forefathers and the church's involvement in the racism and enslavement of the ancestors of black Barbadians.

Williams, who has clinically analysed the political and economic systems that spawned and sustained the slave trade, was also to subsequently write with passion as a Prime Minister and leader of his PNM about the dangers in jeopardising the future by the perpetuation of ethnic divisions based on ignorance of our history as a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural people with much in common.

In a memorable address to the PNM's 25th convention that was to prove his last political hurrah in January 1981 before his death within three months, Williams observed in his own inimitable style:

"We are a Caribbean people. All the many ethnic groups which constitute it, `dem is one race', came on the same trip by the same ship - merely with variations of country of origin, length of the voyage, duration of the trip, etc - all to mess out of the same West Indian pot..."

For the people of Trinidad and Tobago, as he saw it - and indeed for the Caribbean as a whole with varying ethnic groups - there can be no `mother' Africa, India, China or Europe. All those who believe, for example, in any such notion as a `Mother Africa' or `Mother India', are simply living a "lie".

In Barbados, before the NCR started hearings on race relations and the way forward for harmony and reconciliation, Bishop Brome had apologised at the 175th anniversary of the Barbados Diocese for the involvement of the Anglican Church's own involvement in the African slave trade.

Seale's apology, which was offered in an Independence Day sermon at a Thanksgiving Service at which Prime Minister Owen Arthur was among dignitaries present, had a heavy focus on the need for the society to come to grips with the problems of poverty, social peace and public justice.

But it was his specific "apology" for slavery that hit the headlines.

It was quickly embraced with "acceptance" by a Pan-African Commission of recent vintage whose chairman, David Comissiong, a militant nationalist and advocate of Caribbean and African unity is, like Seale, also a member of the Committee for National Reconciliation. Bishop Brome, himself, is Vice-Chairman of the Committee.

Well meaning, undoubtedly, as both Rev. Seale's apology and the "welcome" it received from the Pan-African Commission may be, there are questions among others, including clergymen and social commentators from other denominations, about both the appropriateness of the "apology" and the bonafides of a group like the Pan-African Commission to, as it said, "accept" it.

For the Barbadian educator, Dr Leonard Shorey, former head of the UWI's School of Continuing Studies, the "other side" of slavery, would involve the collaboration of both "buyers" or white traders, and the "sellers" - the Africans who profited from rounding up their kith and kin for shipment overseas as slaves.

This argument, incidentally, would equally apply in the case of indentured immigrants who came to this region to work in semi-slavery conditions, a business from which Indians in India profited.

Therefore, according to Shorey's logic, if claims for reparation are being made against the descendants of European purchasers of African slaves - as some in Barbados advocate - then such claims should also be made on the descendants of the Africans whose ancestors readily sold fellow Africans into slavery.

An extension of this argument is that if "apologies" are in order by the descendants of white Barbadians or other West Indians for slavery, then this should equally be expected from the descendants of those Africans whose ancestors were active collaborators in the slave trade.

On the other hand, the Methodist clergyman and current Chairman of the Barbados Christian Council, Rev. Leonard Rock, has stated that he admires Rev. Seale for his inspiring sermon on social justice. But he feels there must be a distinction between the expression of a "personal sense of shame" for the enslavement that took place as part of our history, and an apology by a particular denomination of the universal Church for active involvement in the slave trade.

It was really difficult, as he sees it, to apologise for the sins or crimes committed by others, "but we can express our shame and remorse".

Rev. Rock has also questioned the "legitimacy, the value" of a group like the Pan-African Commission thinking it has either "the right or the mandate to accept the apology offered by Rev. Seale".

While he doubted that the Barbados Christian Council may be inclined to make a collective statement of apology for involvement in slavery, since it includes denominations that had nothing to do with the slave trade, Rev. Rock's own hope is that "we are not being diverted to focus too much on the past that we ignore what is happening or should be avoided at present."

When I asked if he had any specific issue in mind, Rev Rock said an example would be the "increasing foreign ownership of land and the prices being paid that make it increasingly difficult for ordinary Barbadians to purchase land...."

And so the debate goes on, here and elsewhere, on social divisions, racism and poverty, slavery and reparation, land ownership and economic empowerment, and now in Barbados, the issue of "apology" by clergymen for slavery - something done much earlier by the Pope of the Roman Catholic faith.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples