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Barbados begins to revisit its grim past

Though few want to be reminded of centuries of slavery, activists try.

February 10, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

Ikael Tafari, a sociologist who heads the Commission on Pan-African Affairs, says it has been a struggle to persuade the Caribbean's black leaders to take their people's rightful place in history.

"Pain and humiliation are not something people want to relive," he says of black Barbadians, who make up 95% of the island's 290,000 people. "You can't understand the level of denial about the slave trade that exists at the official level."

Caribbean cultural leaders have been talking about seeking reparations from the European countries that conducted the slave trade, to go to the African nations where blacks were kidnapped or bought from corrupt tribal chiefs as well as to the former colonies where generations endured poverty and servitude long after emancipation.

The bicentennial events, mostly concentrated in Britain, stirred the first official support for reparations, says Aaron Larrier, a Christian minister and black heritage activist.

After the March 25 anniversary of the end of the British slave trade, the Barbadian Parliament passed a resolution acknowledging for the first time that slavery was a crime against humanity. Prime Minister Owen Arthur has expressed support for reparations, though he has urged those drafting the appeal to focus on educational exchanges and technology transfers rather than cash payments.

Talk of reparations has been heard in the Caribbean since the islands began gaining their independence in the 1960s. But only Haiti, a former French colony, has made a direct appeal. Nearly five years ago, as Haiti was preparing to celebrate the bicentennial of its emergence in 1804 as the first free black nation, then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide submitted a nearly $22-billion demand to France. Paris immediately rejected the April 2003 appeal and it hasn't been mentioned by subsequent leaders since Aristide was driven into exile a year later.

Those seeking to confront the past say whatever reparation money might be forthcoming should be used to restore vestiges of slave life on the island, to fill in the blank pages of Caribbean history.

But at the Newton Plantation slave burial ground, just a few miles south of Sunbury, there is little evidence that anyone has taken notice of the new historical marker. The simple white sign explains that the site holds the remains of 570 slaves and is the only excavated slave graveyard in the Western Hemisphere.

Veteran taxi driver Martin Codrington didn't know the memorial existed until an American visitor asked to be taken there. Neither did other drivers he asked for directions, which he eventually got by stopping at the national museum.

"We should know more about what has gone on about us," says the bemused 60-year-old, adding that schools in his day never mentioned the slave era.

With a glance at the weed-choked site obscured by the boat works and a nearby ranch house, he says, "It would do to fix it up a bit and make it more pleasing."

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carol.williams@latimes.com

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