News / slave trade

Call for Truth & Reparatory Justice Commission on transatlantic slave trade

By ellie pipe, Monday Jul 6, 2020

A commitment to making holistic reparations for the UK’s role in the transatlantic slave trade is necessary to prevent further injustice, says Cleo Lake.

The former Bristol lord mayor, who is running to be deputy leader of the Green Party, is calling on the Government to set up a commission to acknowledge, apologise and instigate amends for wrongs that still have an impact to this day.

She is asking Labour mayor Marvin Rees to lead the city in lobbying Westminster for an all-party parliamentary inquiry.

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In a motion submitted to Bristol City Council, the Green councilor for Cotham also asks what strategy is in place to protect and support long-standing black-led cultural institutions in the city that “continue to be severely underfunded and under resourced”. The motion is included in the papers but, due to the order of agenda items, is unlikely to be debated during Tuesday’s meeting.

Photo: Crowds gather around the Floating Harbour and stand on Pero's Bridge as the statue of Edward Colston, covered in graffiti and with a rope around its neck is lifted over a fence to be thrown in to the water below.

Colston’s statute was thrown in the harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest – photo by Colin Moody

Speaking about the importance of reparations, Lake says: “This isn’t just about monetary compensation, it goes much wider than that and is a movement that has existed for centuries, ever since the first transgressions of our humanity as African heritage people.

“The first stop is an acknowledgement by the British state that what happened was wrong and a formal apology should follow – this is an essential step to repair as so far our experiences of historic and ongoing wrongs have been denied. We need an active commitment to prevent further injustice.

“I know this will be a controversial subject for some but it’s a debate we need to have and I very much hope the mayor will take this matter to the government.”

Some major British companies, including pub chain Greene King and Lloyd’s of London, have announced they will be seeking to address their founders roles in the slave trade. In Bristol, organisations such as the University of Bristol, which benefited indirectly from slavery, have expressed commitments to examining the past and effecting lasting change.

Lake was a founding member of the Countering Colston group, which has campaigned for the city to dismantle its public celebration of slave trader Edward Colston. She points out that “a significant amount of the institutional and corporate wealth of the city was founded through this hugely regrettable inhumane episode in our collective history”.

In 1833, the British Government used £20m to compensate enslavers, the debt for which was not paid off until 2015, while people who were formerly enslaved received no compensation.

Alongside lobbying for a UK-wide inquiry, the motion seeks assurance that the scope of the recently-announced commission on Bristol’s history will include an audit to trace the flow of wealth from the transatlantic slave trade into the city and down the generations to present day.

It also calls for the One Bristol Curriculum, which aims to truly represent the history and contributions of black people in the city, to be prioritised and implemented across all schools and requests long-term protection and support for black-led cultural institutions such as the Malcolm X Centre, the Docklands Settlement and the Rastafari Cultural Centre.

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Read more: Time for change in Bristol

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Speaking ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, Lake says: “The Malcolm X Centre, Kuumba Centre, Docklands, Rastafari Cultural Centre have been there for me my whole life and throughout the lives of my children, my community and others. They have served us in a way that other institutions in the city cannot.

“They have held deep and meaningful cultural activities over generations, offered solace, entertainment, education and have a first-hand understanding of our experiences in a way that is genuine and necessary. They are spaces where many of us can be ourselves, they are safe spaces and yet they are also spaces which are outward facing serving a wide demographic. But it feels like for decades that these spaces haven’t mattered, that our way of being isn’t good enough, something that I know other community centres have also battled with across the city for years.

“I hope to see a commitment from the mayor that these institutions will be supported and protected.”

She notes the recent securing of a 25-year lease for the Malcolm X Centre from the council as a “positive step forward” and suggests the Society of Merchant Venturers, and other influential city partners may be able to help with funding for these important centres.

Bristol24/7 approached the council and mayor’s office for comment and was told Rees will respond during the meeting on Tuesday, July 7.

Main photo courtesy of Bristol Green Party

Read more: Mayor to launch commission to research Bristol’s ‘true history’

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