Jamaican dreams of seeing slavery redressed | The Storytellers | DW | 12.03.2014
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Jamaican dreams of seeing slavery redressed

His ancestors were deported from Africa by the British, abused and forced to do hard labor. Now Lucky Cooper is trying to keep their memory alive as he holds out hope for justice - even after all these years.

There is no end to it. No hope. Round and round and round he goes. His head bowed, his feet shuffling, his hands tightly gripping the handle. "It's hard work right here, you know!" Alton "Lucky" Cooper [above, with son Dalton] treads in a circle just like his ancestors were forced to.

"Imagine a man going around like this in shackles. To crush all the coffee, right around this thing here. In shackles!" he recalls the misery of his ancestors laboring as slaves in the old Highgate Estate's coffee mill.

The former workplace up in the hills near Kingston is now decayed and covered by thick green bush. A half-forgotten place. But the legacy of slavery lingers: Where once all hope was lost, Cooper has now gained new hope that justice will finally be done as Jamaica and 13 other Caribbean states prepare to sue their former slaveholders for reparations. A move that, if successful, would help to recognize Cooper's ancestors as victims of a crime against humanity.

A sign reading Welcome to Sligoville, first free village founded 1835

Sligoville was built by freed slaves

Cooper's family has lived in Sligoville since the town was founded. Just after abolition in 1834, British Baptists raised funds in the UK and bought land for the newly freed black men and women. "Everybody got an acre or half an acre of land," Cooper explains in his thick Jamaican accent and with a sparkle of pride in his eyes. "This is the first free village!"

At the village entrance, a memorial recalls Sligoville's first 18 settlers, erected under Cooper's supervision. "William H. Cooper" is one of the names engraved - Cooper's great-great-great grandfather. Or something like that, Cooper can't remember exactly. But the tales of hardship and hopelessness have been passed on through generations - down to his own eight sons and daughters.

Cooper is a man of many talents: a father and farmer, mason and medicine man. People trust him when they seek herbal cures for their aches. Nowadays he is something of a village historian. The 57-year-old shows around US Peace Corps volunteers, scholars and the occasional tourist.

Disappointment runs deep

But his town is struggling - just like the rest of Jamaica. Teenagers hang out in front of the local shop, drinking rum and coke while music blares from a neighboring house. There's nothing for them to do - no activities, no jobs. Dalton, one of Cooper's sons, works on-and-off in construction, farming, whatever he can find. But it's never enough, Cooper senior says: "With our jobs, you can't even raise a family."

A young man and a boy carry a large sack as they ride past the Old King's House on a bicycle

Slavery was abolished in 1834 on the steps of the Old King’s House, but it took four more years until all slaves were freed

Although he has voted throughout his life, Cooper says he's decided not to participate in the next election: "I don't see the help that we get. We want water, light and a landline phone. We want a good road. That's what we vote for. And we're not getting it. We vote again and again - and everything remains the same."

Legacy of slavery

The people of Sligoville feel left alone by the ruling class once again; when slavery was finally abolished in the British Caribbean, the government paid out compensation worth 2.5 billion euros ($3.5 billion) in today's money. But it paid everything to the slaveholders - and nothing to the slaves.

Now Cooper and his fellow villagers hope for reparations to make up for that, almost two centuries after slavery was abolished. "It will help do something for the country, support the people in need," Cooper tells DW. Others agree: "No matter how long ago it was, our ancestors got hurt a lot," another villager says. "I think we should benefit for what they suffered."

A memorial to the first inhabitants of Sligoville

Cooper's family goes back to the first inhabitants of Sligoville

Slavery does have an ongoing impact, the Caribbean states (CARICOM) argue: Physiologically, because wide-spread illnesses, such as diabetes, stem from the days of malnutrition and poor diet. Psychologically, because there is a widespread feeling among black Caribbeans of inferiority, of being "second class." And financially, because upon independence, most of the islands' economies were left to start with nothing and still fail to thrive.

Sorry is the hardest word

To get former slaveholders to make up for all this, CARICOM could claim up to ten trillion dollars, rumor has it. "It'd help uplift the community with a piece of that," says Cooper.

But for him and the people of Sligoville, the reparations claim is not really about putting a price tag on slavery. The descendants of slaves also hope for an apology. In 2007, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke of "deep sorrow and regret" for the "unbearable suffering" caused by the slave trade, but he stopped short of an apology.

"It was them who did it," Cooper says, full of hope, "So it would be justice, man!"

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