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Sorry seems to be the hardest word
Apologise for the slave trade - yes or no?
Member Name: Mauri
Apologise for the slave trade - yes or no?
Date: 18/04/07, updated on 26/04/07 (710 review reads)
Advantages: We use this as a focus to tackle modern day slavery
Disadvantages: All involved should do the same
I don’t think there is a clear-cut easy answer to these questions and I think in order to make any kind of objective decision you have to examine the fact of what the slave trade really meant.
Yes it is true to say that slaves have been part of human society for a very long time, the ancient empires Romans and Egyptians relied on slavery for their economic power but to bring these ancient historical events in to the argument is disingenuous. The passage of time does make those events less relevant to us than the more recent forms of slavery practises by the colonial powers in the 18th and 19th century. The fact is that the long-term effects of that slavery are still disadvantaging people today and a lot of the racial tension and inequalities and prejudice that still exist today and has such a dramatic impact on our present society can be attributed to the slave trade.
Let’s look at some figures.
Historical estimates of the numbers of people transported from Africa range from 10 to 30 million. More than 5% of those are thought to have died in prison awaiting transportation, 10% died during the journey in conditions that our present laws would not allow animals to be stored in. In addition some 2 million people were thought to have been simply murdered. This does not take into account the numbers who were abused raped and tortured. Indeed it has been shown though genetic test that the rape of women were so widespread that the majority of afro Caribbean people living today have some ‘white’ genetic ancestry mostly due to children born after the rape of female slaves. The level of abuse and violence perpetrated against the slaves horrific. Castration mutilation and various other kinds of torture were commonplace and intended to terrorise the slaves into subjugation. Those argue that these crimes were on a parallel to those committed by the Romans and Vikings, need to remember that while the ancient world was essentially a brutal barbaric place the modern slavery of the colonial powers was taking place at the same time as the European ‘enlightenment’ and great strides in culture and science this is my opinion makes these crime far worse.
I think (I hope) that we can all agree that colonial slavery represented one of the worst crimes in human history and that as such should be condemned totally by all civilised peoples.
When we come to the case for an apology we must inevitably look at where the ‘blame’ lies. Slavery was not a simple white exploiting black issue. It is true however that racism and slavery at this time became linked far more than at any other time in history. As more progressive liberal ideas were beginning to evolve in Europe and the idea of the intrinsic rights of man was being formulated it became increasingly difficult to justify slavery simply on economic grounds so racism was an effectively invented to suit this purpose. Black people had to be thought of as inferior or sub-human. Colonial slave traders began to argue that blacks were a different species only suitable for manual work that they carried out "in a very bungling and slovenly manner, perhaps not better than an orangutan".
Those racist ideas are still with us today and are a direct result of the needed justification for slave trade… the Romans had at least two black emperors.
Whatever the complexity of the issue the slave trade was indeed primarily a white black issue, although there were indeed Arab slave traders and black African tribes also supplied slaves for the European traders their involvement and organisation pales into insignificance when compared to the ‘industrialisation’ that primarily the British brought to the slave trade. The British empire hungry for development and greedy for resources thought nothing of economically enslaving it’s own citizens in the ‘dark satanic mills’ of the industrial north of England so it thought even less about creating an totally enslaved work force for its plantations in the far flung colonies. Britain did what Britain did best it organised, exploited and made huge amounts of money through slavery. The success of the British empire it can be argued was primarily due to slave labour and cities like Bristol, Liverpool and London became flourishing economic centres on the back of slavery. Others were also involved but the British must take a huge amount of the blame for the economic ‘success’ of slavery.
Even though we can apportion blame can an apology after more than 200 years still be justified or needed? Did the fact that Britain was first to abolish slavery in some way absolve it from its involvement previously?
We also have to be careful when we think of the abolition and the commendable role of William Wilberforce not to forget that tide against the slave trade had already begun to turn. There had always been resistance by the slaves themselves even under incredibly brutal oppression. Slave riots and uprisings where increasingly common and at the time when the abolitionist were campaigning the economic benefits of slavery were beginning to falter. It is without doubt a credit to Wilberforce and to Britain that slavery was abolished and this fact should be given the credit it deserves but the British should also acknowledge it role in the mass murder, mass brutality that took place and that has shaped many of the race problems that we still face today. The descendants of the slave owning colonial power still do have a direct responsibility since our way of life our culture and our wealth is still directly linked to the economic and social effects of the slave trade.
So is an apology needed? Well why not? We could clarify it by stating that the British are sorry for their role in the slave trade and hope that other involved do the same. It would be a way of moving on form these past crimes and would serve as a statement of intent not to allow such crimes to still be committed. As far as reparations or payments it is difficult to see how these would be distributed fairly amongst slave descendants and I don’t think this would succeed but it is worth remembering that when slavery was abolished all the slave traders were compensated well for their economic loss while the slaves were given nothing expect their ‘freedom’ and the chance to work in the same jobs as they did before without much hope of breaking free economically or any chance to advance themselves in ‘white’ society. If any reparations are to be made I would rather see this done in the form of charitable foundation set up to help the fight against modern day slavery and human trafficking that still goes on today. The anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade could then be used as a focus to tackle today’s problems. We could also up trust finds and organisations that would be able to help black development in education and culture.
Maybe the problem is that while some of the descendants of the colonial powers do not feel any connection or repsonsibility for the crimes of slavery the descendents of the enslaved do still feel a close connection to their ancestors and might feel that their heritage and history even their identity was stolen because of the slave trade.
Also while we might not feel we have no responsability for what was done 200 years ago we are still feeling the benefits economically and culturally that the slave trade provided to the colonial powers and we are also prepared to take repsponsbility for and celebrate the figure of Wilberforce who was instrumental in ending slavery, is this not double standards?
Summary: Is an apology for slavery needed or useful?