Anthony Gambrill GUEST COLUMNIST
It is highly likely Spain will be suing Jamaica for reparations. If they do, surely they will acknowledge the initiative taken by Mike Henry, Verene Shepherd et al who are leading a campaign of that nature for our island.
Just because the events in question took place centuries ago is no reason for shrugging them off as a historical misdemeanour. Mind you, setting a precedent of this kind could open a can of worms. I mean, Native American Indians and Australian Aborigines might be encouraged to make justifiable claims for reparations for loss of their land if not loss of their culture against Washington and Canberra.
Spain, it has been pointed out in the British press, are in need of a distraction from some recent domestic revelations. As you are probably aware, Spain is once more clamouring for the return of Gibraltar, that tiny tip of land facing the strategically important straits leading into the Mediterranean from the Atlantic. It was originally ceded 'in perpetuity' exactly 300 years ago by the Treaty of Utrecht at the end of the Spanish War of Succession.
Today, Gibraltar is home to 30,000 Gibraltarians who not long ago voted by an overwhelming 99 per cent to reject the idea of becoming part of Spain. This signalled their desire to remain a British Overseas Territory, or if you are Spanish, a British colony. Probably the same thing would happen if Jamaica decided to claim back Cayman. (Something to think about, eh, Mike?)
What has stirred Spain to renew its demand for the return of Gibraltar (regardless of the wishes of its indigenous population) is the need for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to direct attention away from a growing scandal besetting his government. It all began with revelations that the treasurer of the Popular Party (the government of the day) was holding a number of multimillion euro bank accounts in Switzerland which were allegedly being used to further the party's political ambitions with illegal cash payments to all and sundry.
General Francisco Franco, Spanish fascist dictator for decades, once said, "Gibraltar is a knife in the heart of every Spaniard."
Not that this was surprising, as a number of Britons took part (unsuccessfully) in the Spanish Civil War opposing him. This is the nature of the current rallying cry. To the British - and Gibraltarians - this is beginning to smack of another Falkland Islands dispute dragged up for the same reasons - to divert attention from domestic problems.
As the present Gibraltar issue loses traction, the Spanish government must surely consider looking actively at seeking reparation from Jamaica for 50 years of plundering by Port Royal-based buccaneers in between 1655 and 1671.
One of the main problems will be determining exactly how much was stolen, looted, and extracted from Spain's citizens, cities and ships. Luckily, the Spanish bureaucracy in the 17th century kept detailed records distorted only when the governor of a city wanted to exaggerate his losses in the hope of getting more troops and a larger fortress to defend its citizens when next attacked. As you might guess, the buccaneers for their part usually underestimated their 'earnings' to minimise having to reserve the king's share. The best example of this was the official report by Henry Morgan that he only came away from sacking Panama in 1671 with 30,000 pounds. For 350 years adventurers have been scouring the Caribbean trying to find where Henry hid the rest of his loot.
Most Spanish cities of any importance in the Caribbean received visits from the buccaneers in the late 1700s. If you spread out a map of the Caribbean basin you can identify the main victims: Spiritu Sanctus, Santiago de Cuba, Maracaibo, Gibraltar (the Venezuelan one), Rio Hacha, Tolu, Providencia, Trujillo, Villahermosa, Granada (the Nicaraguan one), Santa Marta, Puerto Principe, Porto Bello and, of course, Panama. The difficulty will be estimating not only the value of the loss of gold, silver and jewellery, but also the value of slaves, prisoners (to be ransomed), cattle, barrels of wine, church bells and religious ornaments, cannons etc. Even more difficult will be putting a value on the buildings, fortifications and ships that were destroyed. For instance, during his 1669 escapade in the Gulf of Venezuela, Henry Morgan sank three galleons of the Armada de Barlovento which had sailed from Spain to rid the region of the likes of Morgan - not before having purloined 20,000 pesos in silver from one of them, the Magdelena.
The inventory accompanying the deposition demanding reparations, I expect to look something like this: Item: May, 1666, Mansfield E. seized Providencia and came away with 70,000 pesos of booty. Item: June, 1668, Morgan H. extracted 50,000 pesos in coins and general merchandise after a raid on Puerto Principe. Item: June, 1668, Morgan H. looted Porto Bello, famed as a transshipment port for the fleet returning to Spain with treasure that the Conquistadores themselves looted the Americas.
And so the depositions would go on. It wouldn't be surprising if the bottom line finally adds up to what Jamaica is demanding from Britain as reparations consequent on the abolition of slavery.
The dilemma for the Spanish government would be to decide who to expect to pay up. In other words, who were the Jamaicans at that time in history? You can count out the indigenous Tainos who had long been exterminated, thanks to the ravages of disease as well as suffering the bondage of their colonial masters. The next batch of Jamaican residents were the English invaders followed by waves of settlers. Henry Morgan, for instance, got married here, caroused in taverns, bought estates and joined the public sector (lieutenant-governor) in between ravaging the Spanish Caribbean.
There is, of course, the first generation of unwilling immigrants from Africa who today represent the vast majority of the inhabitants of the island. It's probably the descendants of the English settlers (there are one or two around in St James, I believe) and the unwilling immigrants from West Africa who will have to pay over the reparations Spain will be demanding. I mean to say our governor general is the present incumbent of that high office which included Sir Henry Morgan. Or should Jamaica fall back on that old chestnut and blame the events of the past on colonialism for which we can accept no responsibility? In all likelihood, Spain is going to have to take this conundrum to the international tribunal in The Hague.
But their effort will be worthwhile because if the Spanish need more distractions from present and future scandals, and successfully extract reparations from Jamaica, the French and Dutch could be next.
Anthony Gambrill is a playwright and author. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.