The Queen’s passing and the accession of King Charles to me and many other families serve as a bitter reminder of the British empire’s violent exploitation and generational trauma resulting from colonization. The event, at the same time, marked a golden opportunity for Canada to re-evaluate its relationship with the monarchy and, at a minimum, acknowledge the impacts of colonization on millions of Canadians, the trillions of dollars extracted from British colonies.

If not now, then when? 

I wasn’t going to make the same mistake. I renounced my British citizenship today in an effort to reconcile the exploitation of my family for centuries and to protest Canada’s continued relationship with the monarchy. 

Ben Samaroo signs the documents to renounce his British citizenship.

While renouncing my British citizenship might seem symbolic, it’s an important step for me and my ancestors. As a free man in Canada, I have the choice to sever ties with Britain, a choice that my grandfather and ancestors did not have.

Let’s rewind. 

My grandpa Karia was born a slave in 1917 in a Caribbean sugar plantation under British rule. 

“He wasn’t a slave — how could he have been? Slavery was abolished by the British in the 1830s,” I’ve been corrected countless times.

As Britain phased out slavery in its colonies due to mounting criticism and political pressure, it knew that sugar production, a mainstay of the economy, could not be sustained without slave labour. The mass exodus of slaves from sugar plantations created a void that needed to be filled immediately — the alternative was economic disaster.

What followed was the most impactful rebranding in history.

The British took all of the overarching elements of slavery: abuse, domination and deceit, and all of the day-to-day mechanics including working conditions, food and living quarters, and dubbed the new system “indentured servitude.” 

Over one million indentured servants were taken from India and China in the years that followed and were spread among the Caribbean and other British colonies. The British had found a clever way to continue to exploit people on a massive scale, without breaching new anti-slavery legislation.

Ship to Guyana

Indentured servitude, used somewhat interchangeably with the term “bonded labour”, is now a cornerstone of modern slavery.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) recently published  research which estimates that at least 50 million people around the world are trapped in modern slavery, with 86 per cent of those found in industries including manufacturing, construction and agriculture. This marks a drastic rise since the last estimates were published by the ILO in 2016, with over 10 million new victims, most of whom are women and children.

Not only did Britain’s successful rebranding of slavery in the 1800s create permission for other nations and businesses to continue to exploit slave labour without significant repercussions — it also set an important precedent that the use of “new slaves” would be a viable solution for economies and businesses that hinged on the availability of traditional slave labour.

It is uncanny that the Queen died within one week’s time of the new global statistics being published on modern slavery. The Queen’s death must serve as a catalyst for awareness of the topic — her life and legacy are inextricably tied not only to violent exploitation and suffering, as has been well documented by journalists and public figures over the last week, but also to the exploitation and slavery of 50 million people today.

When most people think of slavery today, it feels like a problem of the past. That is not the case. There are 50 million slaves today according to a recent report from the International Labour Organization (ILO), an increase of 10 million since 2016.

What can we learn about past generations of slavery like my people, that can be used to help the 50 million slaves today?  Much like my people, most modern slaves are deceived or coerced into slavery. Once in the system, it’s almost impossible to get out.

We owe it to the tens of millions suffering to bring global attention to this urgent matter.

Uncovering a painful family history

I was born in London, England. In 1989, my family moved to Canada in pursuit of better education and opportunities. 

Growing up, I didn’t have a connection to my roots on either side of my family — not  through language, culture, religion, anything. My father, who was from Guyana and my mother, who was born in Kenya, always went against the grain. They strived to be Canadians and had little desire to maintain connection to their cultures. They left behind their pasts to allow for a new future for my siblings and me. 

In 1994, their Canadian dream became a reality – we became Canadian citizens. I was seven years old but I remember the citizenship ceremony and sharing the details in school vividly, because my teachers and friends were confused. It seemed everyone else in Edmonton was already a Canadian. 

Samaroo family: Ceremony for the Canadian citizenship.

I embraced that confusion. Being a dual citizen of Canada and the United Kingdom was something I was proud of, because it made me different and unique. In school, we were taught that Canada was a young country whereas countries like England had more history. So being a British citizen made me feel a part of something bigger. I felt so lucky. 

As I got older, I felt a growing desire for freedom. This manifested in different ways, and became more pronounced when I started working as a corporate lawyer. It was a job that made me feel accomplished, but took away from the many freedoms in my life. I worked until my soul withered away and then I kept working some more. Bringing me a bit closer to freedom, or so I thought. 

It was during this period of my life that I started researching my family history. We had no official records and very little was known about my grandparents and nothing of previous generations. I needed to learn more. I would come home after working 14 hour days and stay up all night researching. 

I spent the next 10 years digging deeper, which involved trips to England and Guyana and countless conversations with distant relatives and family friends. I searched far and wide to unearth the history of my ancestors.  

I discovered some harsh truths during this time. 

My grandfather was born a slave. So were several generations prior. 

How can one become a slave? 

My great-great-grandparents were taken by the British from a small village in India to Guyana under false pretenses, believing they were going to the land of opportunity on a six- hour boat ride. Six months later, they arrived in the Caribbean and became slaves on a sugar plantation called the Wales Estate.

Those ancestors in India were specifically targeted, because they were vulnerable following mass famines in the region that were orchestrated by 18th century British trade policies with little thought towards the millions of people who died.

My connection to Britain felt different from when I was younger. What used to make me feel proud  suddenly made me feel angered, hurt and confused. Citizen or not, Britain will forever be a part of my history, and with it comes the complexity of oppression and colonization.  While this is my family’s history, it’s also not unique. The British empire spanned across the globe and affected so many people while extracting trillions of dollars of wealth from its colonies. 

When the Queen died and Charles was officially proclaimed King of the United Kingdom as well as Canada, I felt anger and frustration.

“On behalf of the Government of Canada, we affirm our loyalty to Canada’s new King, His Majesty King Charles III…” said Prime Minister Trudeau. I wasn’t sure if it was 1822 or 2022. 

It reminded me of my Canadian citizenship ceremony in 1994 – we had to say: “I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada.” I now look back on that moment and feel ashamed. 

I have proudly renounced my British citizenship. I cut ties with the empire that exploited my family for generations. This act is for me. It is also an example to myself, my parents and my grandparents that we can choose differently. Canada can choose differently. The world can choose differently. There is freedom in that choice, and that’s a step forward. 

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Ben Samaroo

Ben Samaroo

Ben Samaroo is co-founder of WonderFi, one of Canada’s largest cryptocurrency companies, and is the youngest person to ever serve as CEO of a company listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

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