PROFESSOR Sir Geoff Palmer, the noted scientist and human rights advocate, has argued that those countries which endured and fought the British slave trade need “action, not words”, as calls mount in Jamaica for the United Kingdom to pay reparations for its historic role in slavery.

Palmer – Scotland’s first black professor, who was appointed chancellor of Heriot-Watt University in 2021 and currently leads two separate reviews into Edinburgh’s involvement in the slave trade – also cited Glasgow University’s 2019 decision to engage in a £20 million reparation programme to atone for financially benefiting from slavery as an example of “reparative justice.”

Palmer’s comments follow heated controversy over the recent royal visit to Jamaica – the government of which has indicated it will seek to cut ties with the British monarchy – during which the Earl of Strathearn expressed “profound sorrow” over Britain’s involvement in the slave trade, but did not explicitly apologise for that role, as many Jamaican activists have demanded.

An open letter published shortly before the royal visit signed by 100 Jamaican leaders argued that such an apology would be “necessary to begin a process of healing, forgiveness, reconciliation and compensation”.

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Commenting on these developments, Palmer told the National: “Jamaica’s role in British slavery in the West Indies is well known. There are Jamaica Streets in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and in other cities in Britain. The Jamaica Street in Glasgow was opened in 1763.

“Jamaica was not the only slave colony that Britain owned in the West Indies. However, of the 800,000 British chattel slaves that were forced to work without pay and live mainly short painful lives under British law, about 300,000 lived in Jamaica when this legal slavery, which Prince William called an ‘appalling atrocity’, was abolished in 1838. British politicians and monarchs managed this slavery and ‘Rule, Britannia!’ boasts about this misuse of power.

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“The benefits of this slavery can be seen in the infrastructure of the United Kingdom today. Slave owners received £20 million then – about £20 billion in today’s money – for their chattel slaves, who were their legal property. How does anyone apologise enough for this inhuman atrocity that went on for centuries?

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“I was born in Jamaica, and was taught at church and school that ‘It was not what you say that matters when people are in need, it is what you do’. The West Indian countries that endured and fought British slavery need moral support, not only apologies, to ‘proudly achieve their developing goals’.

“The Prime Minister of Jamaica, Andrew Holness, told Prince William proudly about these ‘developing goals’,” added Palmer, who told the National that he agrees fully with the Jamaican prime minister’s response. “Unlike slave owners, the freed slaves did not receive a penny when British slavery was abolished. However, moral support is not about 'repayment', it is about ‘reparative justice’ because the inhumanity of this slavery cannot be repaid.

“Glasgow University, with great courage and justice, admitted it benefitted from this slavery and has a reparation programme in education which it has established with the University of the West Indies. This is a form of ‘reparative justice’ which is changing some of the consequences of this appalling slavery for the better.

“Racism is a consequence of slavery and colonialism which, in Scotland, we are actively trying to eliminate. The ‘reparative justice’ shown by Glasgow University may be regarded as a 'small light' but it is action, not words.”