Parliamentary Debate on
African Slave Trade and Slavery

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Speech by Hon. Moses V. Nagamootoo, M.P. - July 27, 2007

Mr Speaker, I have been very moved by the contributions made by several of the speakers to this Motion. Like most of those who have spoken, I do not think that this is occasion for an academic excursion or a scholastic contribution to a vast body of information and knowledge about African slave trade and slavery.

It is universally recognised, as set out by the Honourable Minister Anthony, that slavery was not simply an abomination, but an act of the most massive inhumanity of men making other men as well as women and children, into slaves. We have all read the classics most strikingly the conditions described by CLR James in the Black Jacobins, which would apply to the situation then in Haiti, but in a general way reflected the agonies, the pains, the sufferings and also the resistance of Africans who had been enslaved in various territories of the West Indies and in the United States. We know, as was said in 1824 by Samuel Sharp in Jamaica, that the life of a slave was that of a dog. He had said that he would rather be hung up on yonder gallows than to remain a slave, hence his heroic act of rebellion.

And if there is anything we can say beyond the statistics of slavery and the toll it took on humanity is that it offers us very important lessons as well as to how our civilisation evolved and how people under the most difficult and inhumane conditions had sought to make our civilisation better for all -- for themselves and for all of humanity.

One American Philosopher-Historian Apetiker had written that struggle and resistance, and not acquiescence, is the core of history. So, while we recite the litany of sufferings, the lost of lives, the horrors of the triangular trade and the transatlantic crossing, we also must look at our forefathers, particularly our Amerindian and African forefathers, as those who had set some of the finest examples of resistance that had laid the basis for a modern Guyana.

Most of what we had inherited subsequent to those acts of resistance was in fact imbued by us as a culture of behaviour in this House. I remember my good friend and colleague Donald Ramotar (the Honourable Member is rising on his feet) that as young men and there are some others, we attended the Accabre College [Interruption: Debbie, I hope you had taken advantage of the Cuffy Ideological Institute. I see some other Honourable Members - - Komal Chand; I can recognise Indranie Chandarpal, Shirley Edwards, the Honourable Minister Clement Rohee, Harripersaud Nokta -- we came out of a fortunate generation that were taught the examples of our African revolutionary heroes and we learned, as is recognised in our National Anthem, that both "bondsmen and freed laid their bones on our shores".

We recognised the importance of the resistance that came out of the African slave experience. This must not be lost in us as we discuss this matter in an academic way, trying to gain points on the statistics of lives lost and what was done in the past. Recognition of resistance can never be enough as well as recognition generally of our African forefathers and ancestors. In saying so, I pay tribute to the fact of Africa being the cradle of our humanity. Those of us who are now reading about the Dravidians and the Dalits would know how movements of people took place. Though some of our ancestors came from the southern parts of the Indian sub-continent, there have been great movement of people from the African continent to elsewhere and in fact everywhere. So when I say "ancestors", I claim an affinity with all of our ancestors - the affinity that will make us all emotional as we relate the experience of slavery and what it meant.

But there are writers like Apetiker who have said that there has been in the slave experience an ideology to change things. The 1763 Berbice Revolt sometimes refers as the Berbice Rebellion or revolution led by Cuffy and Accabre with involvement of Atta in fact showed that though the immediate causes would have been or might have been a struggle for food and entitlements on the estates in Berbice, there was a larger passion among the slaves not to accept the conditions under which they existed; the conditions under which they were brought to the estates and were forced to work on the estates and were punished cruelly even if they worked and if they were sick, they still had to work. So no amount of description would have been enough to speak to the sufferings and the pains.

And I may say this as well: that we must never ever forget that the original settlers on our shores, the indigenous people referred to as Amerindians, were not brought here by any conqueror; they were not part of the cessation of territories or the conquest of territories; they were here before the arrival of the settlers and they were the first who were displaced; they were the first victims of the Imperial assault that had led to the conquest of territories and led to the division of our territory into Berbice, Essequibo and Demerara. They were victims, and therefore I was hoping that we will not in the debate on this motion leave them out as we seek to quantify suffering, pain and dislodgement.

I was surprised that the debate was tending to move away from African slave trade and Slavery to deal with the question of entitlement and we have not mentioned the fact that our Amerindian ancestors had an entitlement to the lands and that nothing that we could do or say should detract from that fact that we owe it [the land] to them. They were the first set of humanity subjected to the holocaust before the holocaust among the Africans. It is important that we speak about the African holocaust; that we speak about the Jewish holocaust. But, the systematic decimation of the Indigenous peoples in the Americas would make, for example, the Jewish holocaust pale.

Therefore, we have to see the historical, as my brother and colleague [Odinga Lumumba] said, as I came in, that we have to look at the dialectics of this, the historical continuity, the continuum of struggles and conquest.

I read somewhere where an old man was telling a little boy the story of the man and the lion. And the boy was always impressed with the story but asked the grandfather: "but why is it, Grandpa, that this story always ends with the man killing the lion?" And he said, "When the lion begins to write the story will be different. It will end differently."

So the repetition of the story of slavery and suffering, and the price that was paid is never too much as one member tried to say, 'we know it all, we need not go back there.' Surely, we need as the amendment to the motion said, that our children and our children's children be made to understand the history from which we were spawned, the nature of the history, the class basis of that history. Because we must never forget and not speak in an amorphous way about African slaves and slavery, that it was the imperial power, a system called by its name, Imperialism, that has sought to use human beings as factors for the creation of wealth that was sent back to the metropoles to feed the mills of capitalism and later on, the Industrial Revolution.

Why, Mr. Speaker? Because history often repeats itself. Today, there are new slave masters, forging different chains. They call it globalization. It has a name. Yet there are thousands and millions of people who are victims of the new effort to enslave under different guises to extort and extract, not unpaid labour as in the case of African and other slaves but cheap labour, cheap produce and to take advantage of the terms of trade for the enrichment of the already rich metropolis and capitals of the world.

We have to understand the lesson can repeat itself in many guises. I have heard my friend, my learned and respectable friend on the other side [Deborah Backer], talking in a way, as if the victims of slavery and the victims of the slave trade should be compensated and recompensed by a government that sits here, here and now, as if this government were the perpetrator of the evil and the crime and the inhumanity of slavery, hence the need for this government to have rectification.

When we invent an enemy, we are trying to avoid identifying the real enemy. And this is what I find disappointing about the contribution of some members to this debate that they are trying to use this debate as a scapegoat for ethnic mobilisation and for strengthening appeals to a particular constituency, hence perpetrating the same division that the imperials had perpetrated on us in the first instance.

This debate should make us inculcate a sense of re-awakening and I will say this, Mr. Speaker, I will come to that because I want to address it full on. I am a politician. I am not here for the nicety of parliamentary language and decorum. I have to let those who further divide our nation know that we are missing a golden opportunity here not only for rectification, not only for reparations but we're missing an opportunity that we should have another 'R' - reconciliation for the reconstruction of our country, for the benefit of all our people including the Africans and descendants of African slaves.

Because, Your Honour, I remember when I read statements in the 1980 constitution about "land for the tiller". It must have been … it must have been a recognition of the way a strategic and valuable resource could be utilised in Guyana because of our colonial past, because of what had happened in the past, the displacement of the Amerindians, because of the manipulation of the plantation system, to divide, to give to those and not to others, the manipulation to create an impression of those who are here, and those who were already "recent arrivals". These are part of the evil of our colonial heritage that we must examine in a very critical way rather than try to cast blames and find scapegoats for the evils of the past and for the perpetrators of those evils.

We have said very openly, (and I go back to my days in the Accabre College when we, even if we differ on who Accabre was, but we thought that he was, he was in the 1763 Revolt, he was a strategist; and we knew that the failure of the Revolutionary Revolt had to do with the disputation between Cuffy and Accabre. Nonetheless … nonetheless) that we recognise the fact that the Indians and the Portuguese who had joined with the Africans in the plantations subsequently to the abolition of slavery and emancipation, they laid the basis for the modern political movement. They had in fact learned from the African slaves and their example of defiance, courage and resistance, and struggled to lay the basis for the modern political movement in Guyana after 1948.

The Enmore martyrdom, (I was one who voiced the opinion and the view of my party, the People's Progressive Party), was a continuation of the example of 1763. And we must recognise that we have made tremendous gains in this part of the world so that in 1953 when we had universal adult suffrage, in 1968 in the United States, the battle was still joined to register Blacks or Afro-Americans to vote. They had to fight for the right not to be in segregated schools --Roe v Wade-- the right to an education. They had to fight for their names to be on the voters list and the right for them to vote without qualification. Those are things that are now even engaging the United States, the mighty imperial power to the north, the colossal of the north…[Interruption] Sorry … Roe v Wade is about abortion, sorry, sorry. Yes. [Speaker: Brown v Board of Education] …yes, Brown and the Board of Education, thank you. Thank you very much, Sir. Thank you.

So Sir, I want to say that we must recognise that there is a continuum that would have addressed issues that arose and about which there is so much grievance. When people were saying, Sir: "not a soul will go to bed hungry, there will be free cassava and milk"; when people were saying that there will be "housing for all", that was a recognition, and I come back to the point of "land for the tiller", that we were saying that not only must we enjoy symbolism of freedom of emancipation but that there was a way in which scarce resources of the State, our State, our country should be distributed - food, land, jobs, houses, scholarships - that these were the things that would constitute for us a meaningful way of addressing and rectifying some of the hurt.

We are not ourselves the perpetrators, so we are saying that we should have an international case made out so that those who perpetrated, who started the slave trade, those who turned human beings into cargoes, those who inflicted a psychosis because of the antecedent of racism and racial inferiority that attended to slavery, must pay.

In the initial period there were philosophers - I will not remember all their names, Diodorius and such philosophers - were talking about Africans in a particular way as if they were biologically made to be slaves. [Eric] Williams described slavery in economic terms and it was addressed by my friend Lumumba, so that even there were more scars attendant to slavery than simply dealing with scarce resources, that is, the dehumanising aspect of slavery that even today, even today, there are psychological scars and perception, the perception of alienation and marginalisation forming part of that systematic antecedent that says that those who were enslaved and their descendants were not worthy to be equal with other human beings.

We repudiate that and we feel that we have a contribution to make to address feelings of alienation, feelings of marginalisation in a meaningful way within this nation today. And that is why I say that part of rectification has to be reconciliation not division. Reconciliation and not political opportunism on an important debate of this nature, on an important issue to deal with our ancestors and make recognition of the fact that what they suffered was unprecedented in the same way that we recognise that their effort and labour was unparalleled, unparalleled for the fact, and I support that part of the resolution, because it was unpaid labour. It is important that we note that this contribution was sterling and outstanding and unparalleled in laying the foundation of Guyana's economy was because it was based on unpaid labour and exaction of labour through cruel, inhumane methods. And therefore we believe that the way we pay tribute to our ancestors on this bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade act and on the eve of the 173rd anniversary of our emancipation is to join with that body, that universal body, of opinion and conviction that those who had perpetrated this wrong have a moral responsibility to right the wrong. Reparation is the preferred way of righting the wrong.

There are others, other damages that you will never be able to repair. I read the other day a very poignant story in the book by Toni Morrison The Bluest Eye where the main character, a young girl, in the book, all she dreamt was, (she was a black girl), all she dreamt was to have blue eyes, and she wanted to be like Mary Jane. It was a poignant prize-winning book, the story that says that long after, almost two centuries after the abolition of slavery the scars are felt by successive generations of the descendants of slaves. And therefore there are some things that reparations will never address. We must remember that we will never address those scars, the psychological scars that have been created by this systematic destruction of the human value and the human self esteem.

We must not, here, in this Parliament, try to divert from the main focus in this debate. There was a time when we had a call in the Caribbean, in contemporary times, for repatriation. One of the many ways which some people thought would make up for slavery, the hurt of slavery, and depravation that was caused by it was for people to go back to the Mother Country, back to Africa.

There were other different ways to address the issue at different times. Another way was to be self conscious of our esteem as the descendants of slaves. When they coined in the United States in the late 60s and 70s, "black is beautiful", the black power movement which was part of the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King as well as the black power movement in Guyana, right here, the national movement that was started in 1940s, before that the League of Coloured People and other such associations, even though they were ethnic, even though they were specialised, and the People's Progressive Party of 1950, these were movements that came out of the bowels of the historical experience that wanted to address issues of colonialism and issue of the residue of slavery and its effects.

In the 1970s there grew up a movement on the East Coast Demerara called the Land Movement. As a journalist I covered that movement where people were everywhere on the East Coast of Demerara looking for land. It was violently suppressed. People who tried to claim land, Mr. Speaker, who felt they had an entitlement to land, they were violently suppressed. Lands were then vested in the different communities, and I'm sorry Mr. Corbin is not here because I remember him very carefully as one of the architects of the local democratic organs bill, vesting land in the NDCs, taking it away from the villages, taking it away from the villages and the villagers and vesting it in NDCs. These are the things that have not advanced the land movement in Guyana. They were the antithesis of the empowering of people by accessing them to land. So that is the record.

This debate is being hijacked to launch an offensive against the PPP. It is only exploited to let out there, the constituent, feel that this is an insensitive government; that this government is insensitive to the needs of a historical necessity of African people and descendants of African slaves.

I congratulate Mrs. Deborah Backer for bringing a motion to this assembly and I agree with the Honourable Trotman that it spoke volumes of our parliamentary predecessors that they had not brought a motion such as this, even if it were meant to open the dialogue, even if it meant to open the conversation so that we could speak openly about the wounds of our society, we can speak openly about the hurt of our society, our people, and we could hopefully recognise the contribution of the African slaves, the fine contribution, unparallel contribution of African slaves and the descendants of African slaves to the nation building of this society of ours. For that reason I agree that we should have had a motion earlier than now.

But we, of course, we came here and rather than listening to the body of opinion that we would form after this debate that would contribute to the vast tidal wave of opinion in the world, that the European colonial powers, those who indulged in slavery, should make reparations and apology, even if that apology was going to be inadequate, we witnessed the hijacking of the debate with the opposition seeking to turn this side of the House into the perpetrators of the evil. And so the land question is now raised not as an issue to focus on the African slave trade and slavery as the motion says in the caption but, as the Leader of the Opposition did, to point his hand to this government that it had taken away land for housing, as if the land had been forcibly taken away from the African people. The message is clear, the innuendo is clear, the inference is clear that this must be an unconscionable government to have done so! And this is why I am so disappointed and if I am emotional, it is because of the lost opportunity that we should join in the world movement for reparations and leave the issue that are domestic outside of this motion to be dealt with at another time. There is something called opportunism. So, if this were a pre-congress presentation I would have understood that it was based on an attempt for mobilisation but we don't have the congress anymore. We have a nation to unite and a nation to build.

I heard the Honourable member Mc Allister referring to Minister Anthony's presentation in reference to the University of Guyana, that we should urge the University of Guyana to be part of the Caricom position. We are part of Caricom, a member state of Caricom. At one time some were saying that the Caribbean was a part of the Pan-African conglomerate. There were slaves in Jamaica, slaves in Barbados. (Well, some activists were saying so). But we recognise that the Caribbean and the Caribbean Basin had formed a very big phalange of the reservoir of free labour, slave labour for the imperial powers. And the opinion and position of the Caricom Heads of State, and of our brothers and sisters, particularly those of African descent in the Caribbean must be important for us. And we are simply urging our University of Guyana to support the call by the Caricom Heads of Government to Universities in the region to conduct research in support of the demands for both apology and compensation.

A lot of statistics were traded in the debate. But how do we know what form the reparations should take? One issue was raised … land, but is that the only form? Who should be the beneficiaries of the reparation? My honourable friend Mrs. Backer told us in dealing with the land issue that there were transports that were as outdated as or as old as 1928 or earlier than that where there was transported land. Well, we should have views on it. How do we go about solving this -- what mechanisms, if through the Lands and Surveys Commission, if the Land Court should be activated to deal with this. There are already voluntary assistants to provide legal help because legal work is very expensive in this country and many people can't access legal support. And if it is required that there should be support mechanisms set up to deal with the devolution of land. We have existing legislation that my learned colleagues on that side know of. Where people have no title, where they are living on land as she said for a hundred years as the descendents and have not owned it, there are mechanisms by which you could deal with that. There's the prescriptive title route, Chapter 60:01 of our Laws of Guyana, where they can establish under what someone said about the cumbersome system of Roman-Dutch Law, nec vi, nec clam, nec precario, they establish exclusive possession, exclusive and quiet enjoyment over the years. Why shouldn't the law address that? Why do you need to go by way of a Commission, if there is an existing mechanism? But I am saying is we need not only to focus on one aspect of reparation to deal with an issue of land, because we have to deal with the issue of the form and quantum of reparation. How do you calculate it? [Heckle: You mean "Reparations?"] Reparations, yes. [Thank you my friend, coming from you I take it as an eminent advice.]

Sir, these are some of the aspects to this debate that we should not find ourselves side-tracking. This debate, this motion has its worth. It has allowed us an opportunity to join in this conscious effort to say to the world that there are people and the descendants of slaves in Guyana who ought to be compensated for the historical wrongs, for the evils of the imperial empire. It gives us an opportunity also to be on guard against any attempt by us to reintroduce any forms of slavery.

Someone was heckling the Honourable Prime Minister referring to the "Greeks". My friend it is not we who brought the "Greeks" to Guyana. We said "beware of the Greeks who brought gifts - the Trojan horse"! Long after the abolition of slavery we brought back here the Trojan Horse of the International Monetary Fund and we know that it took us so many years to be able to clear off that accumulated debt, the new debt to which this nation seemed to have been burdened that prevented many of those same descendants of slaves and defendants of indentured labourers from enjoying a better standard of life, a better quality of life. And who brought it? They brought in the Trojan horse! The "Greeks" were brought in here by them from 1979, in a re-conquest that have saddled this nation with a burden of US$2.1 billion debt. If we wanted to pay tribute to our forefathers we would not have been forging new chains for them. We would have taken up the cudgel of Cuffy and Accabre and the lessons of the 1763 revolution to advance the cause of the society and to provide for the systematic liberation of all the people and to provide for their wants.

Today, your Honour, I say, sir, that part of the solution, part of the remedy, part of the rectification, and I repeat this, is reconciliation. That's why we should not use this debate to score political points, to use this debate for cheap ethnic mobilisation, to use this debate to foster a division among our people, to have a re-carving of our country and to have new territories. Let us remember the Amerindians who came here. What would they be saying of us when we start to set up parallel land distribution commissions for Africans and then other people? Indians would want the Indian Land Commission and the Portuguese, a Portuguese Land Commission, and the Chinese, a Chinese Land Commission. We would be replicating the mischief that was sown in the country by the imperial master and creating disunity.

Sir, I conclude. We on this side of the House have a consistent position in relation to the sufferings and the travail of our African ancestors. We pay tribute to them. We bow in reverence to their memory, to their struggle, to their efforts, to their contribution and we wish that they empower us as their representative, even the spirit of Cuffy, even the spirit of Accabre, should empower us to be their finest representatives, to advance the cause of all the people of this country, to advance the cause of all the descendants of Africans, to see that justice is done to them; to advance their cause in a way that is non-discriminatory.

I say this with conviction, that the amount of land that has been distributed in this country - freehold, leasehold, communal titles - under this Government has surpassed anything that has been done in the preceding century. The house lots that have been distributed in a non-discriminatory way speaks volumes to what this Government has done. Over there, they have nothing to say except that they scrapped the Ministry of Housing, they destroyed the cooperatives - the pig farmers cooperatives, the cane farmers cooperatives, the fishermen cooperatives, the glue-makers cooperatives [Heckle: Glue? Glue?] copra, and glue! (Some people are reviving it). And they have destroyed the basis of cooperativism which was, as we said, the hallmark of the African contribution apart from the village movement. They over there destroyed it and denigrated it and brought it to the dust!

We do not want to trade accusations in this debate. However I would be prepared for a bigger debate to deal not with the holocaust of African slavery but we'll be prepared to deal with the "holocaust" from 1964. From 1964 to 1992 there was a "holocaust" that was suffered in this country. But today, in this debate, Sir, we must come out united.

I ask my esteemed friend, Mrs. Deborah Backer, to take the contention out of this motion, to agree that this motion should receive the unanimous support of the House and such reasonable amendments that would strengthen the purpose of the motion so that we put a very strong case and join with our brothers in the Caribbean and the international community to send a strong message for compensation for African slavery and that we expunge from this motion the offensive part that tends to divide us and sow mischief.

I, therefore, in taking my seat, Your Honour, feel privileged to speak to this motion because I did tell my honourable friend that I have very strong feelings about African slavery. We will deal at another level that is practical, that is common sense, we could deal at other levels with the issues that are divisive. I want to commend the amendment and the motion and ask this House to support the sentiment of the motion: that we are in full condemnation of the evils of African slavery and the slave system, we are in full condemnation of the exploitation of the labour of our African ancestors, we are in full support of their cause that they should be compensated for their grievances and hurt and we should leave this House taking in both of our hands the torch of unity and reconciliation.

Thank you.

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