Recently, Prince Harry of the British royal family visited our country. I have never really been interested in any monarchy, and in the case of Prince Harry, we are worlds apart. Born in a country that was once a colony of his country, I am the granddaughter of Africans who were enslaved. He was born into a family of wealth and fame. But neither of us chose the conditions of our birth or the status we were born with.
His visit excited many Guyanese, but then there were those who thought about the subservience it could bring with it. Situations like the famous picture of his brother, Prince William, some years ago being carried on the shoulders of African men. Such privilege raises questions, like why do the lives of some seem to be valued more than others?
There were also those who voiced that the past must not be forgotten–they highlighted the fact that the wrongs the British committed against our ancestors still follow us; that no reparations were given and the underdevelopment is still evident in many places where they ruled.
The cultures of those who were brought to these parts of the world to work – especially those who were enslaved – were massacred, their languages were forgotten, their religions were demonised, their dress and even their names were changed as they were stripped of their culture and identity and forced to adapt to the European ideals.
The Jesus of Lubeck, known also as “The Good Ship Jesus,” was the first British slave ship. It was led by John Hawkins and was granted permission to sail by Queen Elizabeth I. Since it left the shores of England for Africa in 1562, the destruction that followed was immeasurable but millions of lives were sacrificed for others to prosper. The Queen could have ended it but instead she benefitted and encouraged it.
A small group of young citizens were heavily criticised for staging a protest when the prince arrived. The ‘social media mafia’ condemned them for taking a stand and calling for an apology for historical wrongs. It angered many people, who thought they were an embarrassment to the country.
Many questioned if the responsibility falls on Prince Harry for the horrors of slavery. And, of course, he is not guilty. He did not force his will upon the people. Is it fair, therefore, to place the burden for atonement on him? How could he be held accountable for anything his ancestors gave their blessings to when he came hundreds of years later?
It was disconcerting reading many comments, which revealed that many of our people are only concerned with image and are really ignorant about history. I understood that the protestors were not saying that Prince Harry was directly responsible for his ancestors’ sins or that they even expected him to apologise, but that his visit was an opportunity to voice what many are afraid to say–that we have not forgotten and that we are worthy of reparations. He still lives and thrives in the establishment that holds a bulk of the responsibility for the ruin and confusion of millions of people. The inheritance has been passed down from generation to generation and Prince Harry is aware of his history.
Among the comments from the social media mafia were the ones about Guyana being better off as a colony. Many believe that after 50 years of independence, we still cannot properly govern ourselves.
But the talk of Guyana as a colony brought to the fore what I call the ‘Massa Mentality,’ which is a fitting way to describe the condition of people who have a deep-rooted feeling of inferiority–those who have accepted and bought into the lie that without those they regard as superior, they cannot stand. It is the ‘Massa Mentality’ that makes some claim that slavery was a blessing, never mind the dehumanisation of millions of people.
While I love Guyana and the Caribbean, I will never say that what happened to the African and Asian peoples who were affected by British imperialism was a blessing because it resulted in new ways of life and an amalgamation of what remained of their cultures. I would never think of it as anything other than the greed of men and the evil within their hearts manifesting in the ways it did. Because of the resistance and endurance of the people who suffered, they found new ways to survive despite the odds against them.
While I pondered on these things, an experience I had in 2003 in England resurfaced. I cannot remember the name of the place but it was a trip where I visited chambers where enslaved Africans were kept before they were sold. There was also a burial ground with unmarked graves and headstones with no names because their names were never known. The stench in the chambers was still pungent though it was at least two hundred years later. It was dark and narrow. They were cramped into a little space just like they were on the ships and made to eat and defecate in one spot. If it was cold—and most times it is in England—they were given no warm clothes. Many of the older folks started crying. Me, 20 at the time, I was in a state of shock and overwhelmed with a deep sense of grief. I had to walk away, find a space where I could be alone and compose myself. It was too much to bear and I vowed never to return to that place.
We must never become trapped by the past, so that we cannot exist in the present and move forward. We also cannot pretend that certain crimes against humanity never happened.
Did Britain ever express genuine regret for its role in the destruction of nations and their people? Was there ever any regret at all? Was there any shame for owning people and imposing a foreign culture on them? Was granting them freedom supposed to be enough? Can we assess that from the time we walked out of shackles and turned plantations into villages and worked to build our nation and fought for independence, that over four hundred years of evil was erased? Was independence enough?
While the Jews received reparations for the Holocaust, which took place from 1941 to 1945, when the children in the Americas and the Caribbean call for the same respect it is often met with a barrage of criticism. Are those children not worthy enough? Are their lives less valuable than the prince and others like him?
As historian Dr. John Henrik Clarke said, “To control a people you must first control what they think about themselves and how they regard their history and culture. And when your conqueror makes you ashamed of your culture and your history, he needs no prison walls and chains to hold you.”