Wed | Aug 5, 2020

Lipton Matthews | Slavery is a scapegoat for the failures of the political and intellectual classes

Published:Monday | October 21, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Slavery is the proverbial beating stick of Jamaica’s torpid intellectual class. Blaming national ills on slavery is a deceptive strategy for politicians and intellectuals interested in dodging responsibility for their role in the nation’s demise.

Discussing the impacts of slavery on contemporary Jamaica is not problematic. However, critics should espouse evidence when they speak. Asserting that the negative values of Jamaicans are products of slavery is a testable claim. But making this assumption without referring to data is misleading. Economists have studied the effects of the slave trade on trust in Africa, so we can provide definitive comments on this topic.

On the other hand, beyond expressing shallow rhetoric, scholars and politicians have not seriously interrogated the impact of slavery on our economic or cultural development. They rather assume that Jamaicans exhibit negative attributes because their ancestors were slaves.

From an evolutionary standpoint, it is not impossible to surmise that negative traits evident today were crucial for survival during slavery. Without a study, however, we only have opinions, not facts. Yet, anecdotes on the lives of blacks after slavery indicate that they valued respect, honesty, and the majority were strict parents. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that current Jamaican qualities are linked to slavery.

Scamming, dishonesty and the veneration of lewdness were not typical of most black Jamaicans in the post-emancipation era. A stronger argument can be posited that politicians, through the institutionalisation of garrison politics, have corrupted our people. By entrenching pork barrel politics as a public policy, our leaders created a permanent class of mendicants. Immediate gratification accompanied by excessive materialism are the logical results of a corrupt political system. So, obviously, slavery is a scapegoat for the failures of the political and intellectual classes.

Further, when elites fail to offer anything substantive to the masses, they invoke romantic notions of culture to serve as distractions. Hence, linguists at The University of the West Indies are obsessed with teaching Patois in school, because, if successful, they can be credited with uplifting working-class culture. Linguists make a logical assertion by noting the utility of teaching children in their native tongue, before they can grasp concepts in a foreign language. Although in the context of Jamaica this argument is irrelevant, because Patois is not our native language.

After involuntarily migrating to Jamaica, African slaves combined various West African languages and English to develop Patois, thus enabling communication with English planters. Proficiency in English eluded slaves because most were not taught the language. Patois is really the dialect of illiterate slaves.


More importantly, the problem is that despite the official status of English, several Jamaicans are still poorly educated and do not speak the language.

Likewise, the folly of reparation is another big distraction. Activists concede that the legal route to reparation will fail; after all, suing the Queen of England is impermissible. Therefore, they are relying on moral suasion to persuade British institutions to provide some compensation for slavery.

For example, the University of Glasgow, along with The University of the West Indies, will build the Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research. To onlookers, this appears sensible, but the institute’s objective is to select and guide further reparatory projects. Therefore, instead of studying serious economic and scientific issues, we are going to waste time analysing reparatory projects.

Only a deluded person would fail to see that reparation is a project of misguided political and intellectual elites. Invariably, if claims for reparation are successful, then they will declare that they won a victory for the Jamaican people. In essence, reparation is a strategy to shift blame from politicians and their counterparts to the British for the prominence of their ancestors in slavery.

Jamaicans should ignore elites and their nonsensical opinions.

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