26 March 2007


Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


The United Nations commemoration of the two hundredth anniversary of the end of Britain’s trans-Atlantic slave trade sought to ensure that “what happened to our ancestors must not happen again -- to anyone, to any group of people, in any country”, Prime Minister Denzil Douglas of Saint Kitts and Nevis said at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon.

Mr. Douglas, who is also Minister for Finance, Sustainable Development, Information and Technology, Tourism, Culture and Sports, said the 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM) had put forward the initiative to commemorate the historic abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which had claimed millions of lives and shaped the region’s history.  Enacted on 25 March 1807, the Slave Trade Act prohibited British ships from transporting slaves, although slavery itself had not been abolished until much later.

He said the commemoration presented an important opportunity to remind the world’s peoples of the crimes committed against humanity by slave traders, and gave Caribbean peoples a chance to think of their common heritage and the region’s diversity.  It was also an opportunity for the entire United Nations family to recognize the past and consider where to go in the future.

Rex Nettleford, Vice-Chancellor Emeritus, University of the West Indies, Jamaica, also stressed the commemoration’s importance, noting that the Caribbean was “a living laboratory” of the movement of peoples over the past 500 years and its results.  The African presence had played a catalytic role in the region and it was important for the Caribbean to break the silence -- “that second most powerful act of oppression, which the African Presence in the Americas had suffered for the past 500 years” along the Slave route.  “We are of tremendous significance to the world at large, too,” he added.

Resistance was only one aspect of the issue, he continued, noting that one thing that had been denied his African forebears was the capacity to think.  “Oh, yes, we can sing and we can dance, but we can’t think.  And of course, we have certainly disproved this.”  The commemoration also reminded the world that no person should be owned by anyone else.

On the question of reparations, he said that while that notion was becoming increasingly popular, what many felt was that Europe, particularly Britain and France, were in debt to the Caribbean, because “we were the recipients of a very high percentage of slaves”.  Those countries needed to invest in the human resources development of the countries they had left behind, in the education of the young.  “I am not going to waste my time and energy in allowing myself to be consumed in an inner rage, but rather, to put it into creative enterprises of building and creating something for ourselves.”  On the other hand, some said that was the past and stressed the need to look to the future.  “Do you drive without a rear view mirror?” he asked.

Also speaking to the media following this morning’s plenary meeting of the General Assembly were Philip Sealy, Permanent Representative of Trinidad and Tobago and Chairman of the Caribbean Community Ambassadors’ Caucus; Crispin Gregoire, Permanent Representative of Dominica; and Raymond Sommereyns, Director of the Outreach Division in the Department of Public Information.

Mr. Gregoire, who also chaired CARICOM’s 200th Anniversary Commemorative Committee, said commemoration activities had begun on 1 March, in line with resolution 61/19 passed on 28 November 2006.  A joint United Nations-CARICOM exhibition, “Lest We Forget -- the Triumph over Slavery”, told the story of slavery and of the abolitionist movement.  As part of the commemoration, today’s event in the plenary would be followed by a panel discussion this afternoon under the theme “Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: Acknowledging the Tragedy, Considering the Legacy”.

Mr. Sealy said CARICOM looked forward to continuing support from the international community as it planned a “cultural extravaganza” at United Nations Headquarters to showcase the musical talent of the African diaspora.  In the longer term, the regional body planned to erect, “in a place of prominence in the corridors of the United Nations”, a permanent memorial in honour of those sons and daughters of Africa who had perished in the passage and in resistance to slavery.

Mr. Sommereyns recalled that, opening the joint United Nations-CARICOM exhibition at the beginning of the month, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had said the story of the ending of the slave trade deserved to be told at the United Nations.  Mandated by resolution 61/19 to conduct an outreach programme, the DPI looked forward to continuing its collaboration with the CARICOM Ambassadors’ Caucus.

Asked about sustainable development in the Caribbean, Prime Minister Douglas said the region’s nations had a shared history and a common economic path towards development.  With several exceptions, most of them had traditionally been agricultural States, but had now begun to diversify their economies, particularly in the areas of tourism, hospitality, finance and information and communications services.  With CARICOM pursuing a common agenda, the countries were working towards sustainable development.

Mr. Nettleford added that African slaves had traditionally been regarded as being unable to generate wealth.  Now, it was important to end the region’s dependency on the countries of the North Atlantic, for which it must invest in its own people.  It was important to cultivate the human mind, a particular investment to which people of African ancestry were quite capable of responding.

To a question about apology, he responded by acknowledging that it could be a step towards reconciliation and an admission of a certain truth, but that an apology “only takes us this far and no further”.  What the Caribbean needed was assistance that would rid the region of potential anger.  “We don’t have a love-hate relationship with Britain, for example, none whatsoever.  But we certainly haven’t forgotten.”

Responding to another query, he said he was against the notion of multiculturalism in the meaning “you stay in your small corner and I will stay in mine”.  In that sense, the Caribbean was not multicultural, but “intercultural”.  Not many people in the North Atlantic could understand the description by a famous writer, Édouard Glissant, of people in the Caribbean as “not a people of origin”, but a people of relations.  “We are part African, part European, part Asian, part Native American, but totally Caribbean.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.