By Kate Chappell
KINGSTON (Reuters) - Jamaica plans to ask Britain for compensation for the Atlantic slave trade in the former British colony, a senior government official said, under a petition that could seek billions of pounds in reparations.
Jamaica was a centre of the slave trade, with the Spanish, then the British, forcibly transporting Africans to work on plantations of sugar cane, bananas and other crops that created fortunes for many of their owners.
"We are hoping for reparatory justice in all forms that one would expect if they are to really ensure that we get justice from injustices to repair the damages that our ancestors experienced," Olivia Grange, Minister of Sports, Youth and Culture, told Reuters in an interview at the weekend.
"Our African ancestors were forcibly removed from their home and suffered unparalleled atrocities in Africa to carry out forced labour to the benefit of the British Empire," she added. "Redress is well overdue."
An estimated 600,000 Africans were shipped to toil in Jamaica, according to the National Library of Jamaica.
Seized from Spain by the English in 1655, Jamaica was a British colony until it became independent in 1962. The West Indian country of almost three million people is part of the Commonwealth and the British monarch remains head of state.
Britain prohibited trade in slaves in its empire in 1807 but did not formally abolish the practice of slavery until 1834.
To compensate slave owners, the British government took out a 20 million pound loan - a very large sum at the time - and only finished paying off the ensuing interest payments in 2015.
The reparations petition is based on a private motion by Jamaican lawmaker Mike Henry, who said it was worth some 7.6 billion pounds, a sum he estimated is roughly equivalent in today's terms to what Britain paid to the slaveholders.
"I am asking for the same amount of money to be paid to the slaves that was paid to the slave owners," said Henry, a member of the ruling Jamaica Labour Party.
"I am doing this because I have fought against this all my life, against chattel slavery which has dehumanized human life."
Grange herself declined to give a figure.
The petition, with approval from Jamaica's National Council on Reparations, will be filed pending advice from the attorney general and three legal teams, Grange said. The attorney general will then send it to Britain's Queen Elizabeth, she added.
The initiative follows growing acknowledgement in some quarters of the role played by slavery in generating wealth in Britain, with businesses and seats of learning pledging financial contributions in compensation.
They include insurance market Lloyd's of London, pub owner Greene King and the University of Glasgow.
The petition also coincides with increasing efforts by some in Jamaica to sever formal ties with the United Kingdom.
Opposition lawmaker Mikael Phillips in December presented a motion to remove the British monarch as head of state.
More than 15 million people were shackled into the transatlantic slave trade, according to the United Nations.
(Editing by Dave Graham and Nick Macfie)