By Benito Wheatley
As the United Kingdom (UK) confronts the issue of racism in British society and the country’s longstanding problem of injustice toward people of African descent, it should not be forgotten that the people of the British Virgin Islands (BVI) are also victims of Britain’s dark legacy of slavery and colonialism. The local population is primarily descended from the enslaved Africans brought to the colony to work on plantations by the British via the slave trade. The BVI also remains tied to the UK under the political designation of British Overseas Territory that is a modification of its earlier colonial status.
The UK has not made amends for its longstanding wrongs toward the people of the BVI. When slavery legally ended in 1834, the UK compensated British slave owners on the mainland and throughout the British Empire for the cost of each person of African descent they owned as a slave. However, no compensation or reparations were paid to the newly freed people or their descendants who were left poor and to fend for themselves.
While some may argue that slavery ended a long time ago, the $20.6 billion borrowed by the UK to pay off British slave owners across the empire was repaid by UK taxpayers only in 2015 after 181 years of instalments. No such financial obligation was made to compensate the formerly enslaved people in the BVI and elsewhere, or their descendants, for the dehumanisation and loss of life suffered during 200 years of slavery or for their subsequent gross colonial neglect after slavery ended 105 years in which the BVI became the poorest part of the British Leeward Islands Colony.
What makes Britain’s treatment of the people of the BVI even more shameful, is that just two years after the UK paid off its debt incurred to compensate slave owners for the persons they enslaved, the UK government decided in 2017 not to provide direct grants for reconstruction to the BVI as an Overseas Territory to help rebuild after hurricanes Irma and Maria inflicted catastrophic damage to the islands. Even the UK’s offer of a loan guarantee to the local government on which to borrow for recovery did not materialise.
If the UK is sincere about a positive relationship with the BVI, it will make amends with the people of the islands for the dehumanisation of slavery; for not compensating the formerly enslaved people for their enslavement under Britain, while at the same time compensating slave owners for the persons they had enslaved; and for the gross neglect of the people of the islands for 105 years after slavery ended that triggered the great march of 1949 against Britain.
Furthermore, the UK should explain why the UK government in 2017 was unwilling to provide direct grants for reconstruction to help the people of the BVI rebuild after the devastation of two category 5 hurricanes, when just two years earlier in 2015, UK taxpayers completed repayment of the loan of $20.6 billion that was borrowed to compensate British slave owners for each person of African descent they enslaved.
The BVI’s upcoming annual August Emancipation Celebration to commemorate the legal end of slavery is an opportunity for the UK to begin the process of redressing its longstanding wrongs toward the people of the BVI. This can begin with offering an official apology for the enslavement of their fore-parents and post-slavery colonial neglect, and a commitment to begin talks on how Britain can make the people of the BVI whole for its wrongs toward them.
Doing so can help the UK and BVI move past the long unaddressed issue of slavery and to take further steps in addressing the legacy of colonialism and eliminating its last vestiges on the islands.