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Emancipation episodes

By Terry Joseph
July 22, 2005

Part IV

Back in 1838, closing the final chapter of enslavement seemed quite enough for those who had been pressed into service under threat of the whip but during the 167 intervening years, hindsight suggested that Emancipation was hardly payment in full.

After all, if freedom is forcefully snatched away and later returned, the victim has gained nothing and indeed lost that entire period of oppression, invariably all of his most useful years, left now at the mercy of the very Massa whose shackles he so recently escaped, landless, culturally disinherited, impoverished and adrift in a society not of his making, ruled by an economic order in which he played no part.

Which is why notions like reparation and even repatriation took hold in the 20th Century, descendants of former slaves seeking to level the playing field retroactively by demanding compensation for the hundreds of years of forced and unpaid labour which, by contemporary measurement, amounted to tens of billions, some activists taking the view that Britain should be made to cough up such money and give it to groups to create remedial institutions in countries where slavery operated.

The issue of repatriation to the Motherland, a fundamental aspect of Rastafari, which started with the coronation of Haile Selassie I in 1930, was a much more complex concept, rooted in a combination of intangibles like emotion, a yearning for return to roots and history and, of course, religion. Rastafarians saw Ethiopia as their spiritual homeland and demanded to be sent there.

The repatriation movement quickly gained considerable strength, although not in unified fashion until the founding of the Ethiopian World Federation, Inc, which was established in 1937, embraced goals similar to Marcus Garvey and was seen as the hub, particularly after Selassie announced the granting of 500 acres to blacks who had helped Ethiopia in its war against Mussolini. The land was called Shasemani.

Rastafarians in Jamaica internalised a view that ships would come to take them "home". Rastas from every quadrant uprooted, gave away possessions too cumbersome to transport and stayed 21 days on the port before it struck them that no ships were coming.

In 1959, Claudius Henry offered for sale tickets to Ethiopia, earning good money. On October 5 that year, thousands flocked to the waterfront again, confident they were en route to the Motherland, only to find thousands more, equally disappointed that they were going nowhere. In his defence, Henry insisted he did not actually mean travel in a physical sense. He got off with a slap on the wrist, was fined and ordered to keep the peace for a year.

Eventually, the Jamaican government decided to send a delegation to several African countries, to properly arrange immigration. Rastafarian leaders in the mission visited Shasemani, reporting that it was fertile land and offered several opportunities. Selassie was quoted as saying: "Tell the Brethren be not dismayed, I personally will give my assistance in the matter of their repatriation." Later, on a visit to Jamaica, Selassie's position was varied slightly, telling the Brethren they should not try to go to Ethiopia until they had liberated the people of Jamaica.

Meanwhile, stories from those who had actually made it to Shasemani were not all flattering.

One account referred to Rastas ill-treating even their own brethren in the quest for survival and conflicts arising from stark cultural differences between Jamaicans and Ethiopians. The report further indicated that recently the repatriated were overworked and underpaid; their aspirations muted by reality.

With Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer less than enthusiastic about handing over the Royal Mint to complaining Blacks and the Back-to-Africa movement yet unable to achieve the dream of mass migration to Ethiopia or other places, there clearly is no easy solution to redressing hundreds of years of oppression.

Culpability in the original issues of slavery is not in dispute but precisely how the guilty should be punished is an intricate matter. In the absence of a level of determining power that would order either or both solutions to residual pain felt by the descendants of slaves, good faith is the only thing left upon which claimants may depend.

Unfortunately, Blacks in the western world have not been given enough reason to believe Britain could summon up the required quantity of good faith or, for that matter, charity to reconcile the outstanding debt.

Part I | Part II | Part III

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