My Caribbean trip opened my eyes to the legacy of the British empire | Lenny Henry

After Brexit, the Commonwealth could play a crucial trading role. But the historic associations with slavery still resonate

Before embarking on what became a journey of discovery, I knew just two things about the Commonwealth. One was that it was a collection of countries linked by commerce and trade. The other was that every few years there was the Commonwealth Games. Perhaps it was that initial lack of knowledge that made travelling to Jamaica, and Antigua and Barbuda, as I did recently for a documentary on the Commonwealth, such an extraordinary experience.

I spoke to ordinary people, business people, politicians, expats. Hardly any of it was as I expected. When I asked people in Jamaica what they knew about Britain, quite a few said things like tea and the Queen. Quite a few told me Jamaica was better when the Queen ran things. I was surprised, given our impression of how important the Commonwealth is to these countries, to find that many politicians couldn’t really say why the Commonwealth is a good thing. It just wasn’t that big a deal in their lives.

But they were interested in the role it might play after Brexit. Once Britain traded with Jamaica a great deal; not so much of late. I spent a lot of time with movers and shakers in Kingston. “Ah, you need us now,” was their attitude. And there is some truth to that. “Help us to help you,” they said. And we may as well.

Commonwealth countries are sure doing enough business with America.

But the trip wasn’t just about politics. For me, it was really a matter of tracing my roots. My mum came to Britain from Clarendon, in the south of Jamaica, to make a better life for her family. I have been to Jamaica before, but this trip made me think deeply about what that entailed. I really understood for the first time what life was like and why she made that leap. I thought again about the history of that part of the Caribbean, about slavery. I went to a plantation where they still produce rum, and thought about what life must have been like there then, and what that means for life there now. When you think about the legacy of slavery in these countries, the problems they face today make more sense. How are they supposed to recover from that?

Consider, as I found myself doing, that the slave owners got reparations and the slaves got nothing.

I found a Barbuda still devastated after last year’s battering by Hurricane Irma. That was probably the most upsetting part of my trip. One would have thought that the Commonwealth would have come together by now, to help and put in better protections.

So what now for the Commonwealth? Now that I know more about it, I think there should be a future for it. No doubt it needs rebranding. I have a CBE – which I accepted because I knew how much my mum, who made it all possible, would have loved it. But I can see that the Commonwealth is sullied in the eyes of many people by the negative connotations of empire and the past relationship Britain had with many of the former colonies. It needs a major reboot, in fact, which would allow it to look to the future and not be so weighed down by the past. But such a Commonwealth could really come into its own: a big family of nations working together. We should try to make that happen.

• Lenny Henry is an actor and comedian. Lenny Henry: The Commonwealth Kid is on BBC 1 at 9pm on 2 April

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Lenny Henry

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