Who's sorry now?
Kurt Barling looks at the controversy surrounding the calls for the Prime Minister to apologise for Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.
Should Londoners join their Mayor in apologising for one of the greatest crimes against humanity ever committed?
Last week Ken Livingstone said it was time for him as Mayor and his fellow Londoners, to apologise publicly for the horrors of the slave trade which was finally outlawed in March 1807.
From the beginning of the transport of African across the Atlantic London played a central role in establishing Britain’s participation in the trade. In 1606 three ships set sail from Blackwall reach destined for the New World.
Once established in Jamestown, Virginia, the colonists found their cash strapped economy could only develop if labour was free of cost.
Initially this labour was indentured, as was the labour from England itself, often these were children from London’s streets. Indentured labourers gained their freedom after a period of time. There is evidence that by the middle of the 1600s some Africans had become “free” and owned their own slaves.
Few in these colonies knew or cared about the horrors of the Middle Passage. At least if they did few left records of their concerns. Millions of Africans perished in the most appalling conditions on the slaving ships that brought them to a willing market.
At the same time, in mainland Britain few landowners were worried about children working as agricultural labourers or the conditions of the working poor more generally.
In Britain, as those with wealth and power accumulated their riches through growing trade and Empire, grand estates sprang up. Many are now held in trust for the nation by English Heritage.
All this capital accumulation helped Britain’s development which spawned the industrial revolution. Without cotton there would have been no Spinning Jenny, without Spinning Jennies there would have been no need for steam, without steam…well you follow the logic.
In Lancashire where James Hargreaves made his discovery which helped industrialise weaving, it was soon found that children on “slave wages” could be best used to work these looms.
Mayor's calls for apology
Both sets of people were subject to a system of exploitation which enriched those who were already rich and kept those who were not, mainly out of the loop of advancement and prosperity.
Merchants, bankers, insurance underwriters in the City of London helped finance the slave trade and in return created profits from managing the risks to their investments which could be used to create wealth in other areas like the cotton mills of Lancashire.
The advancing industrial revolution was underpinned by the profits accumulated in the slave trade and the trade in commodities that the slaves themselves grew sugar, tobacco, cotton.
Revolution and reform followed hot on the heels of industrialisation and so did considerations of brotherhood, equality and liberty as so ruthlessly demonstrated in the French Revolution in 1789.
From the mid 1700s reformers in Britain saw the writing on the wall if those who governed continued to ignore the plight of those who saw in revolution a chance to improve their lives.
To be sure some of those who became fabulously wealthy were also reformers and advocated change and a more active role for the State in dealing with the ravages of a political economy that failed to reward people for their labour, free or un-free.
It is fair to assume that life expectancy for the urban poor was often no more than that for a slave who had survived the middle passage. In short the poor in Britain did not benefit from slavery any more than the slaves and their immediate descendents themselves.
By the end of the 1700s many Britons had become extra-ordinarily wealthy through the slave trade and the benefits it brought to the colonial societies of the New World.
It is difficult to pinpoint the moment that the moral pendulum began to swing away from an acceptance of slavery towards its abhorrence. The period of enlightenment which challenged our medieval values, pinned as they were to religious doctrine undoubtedly fostered that shift. Science and rationality helped challenge the idea that life was pre-ordained.
When in 1838 slavery itself was finally abolished it was the owners who were compensated for the loss of their assets to the tune of £20 million pounds from the Treasury.
Slaves received nothing and the poor of Britain received nothing. It was still decades before British children at home and in the colonies would be entitled to a free and universal education. The welfare state as we know it which started to improve the lot of the poor was only really established just before the First World War when the workhouse was finally banished.
There is of course one big difference. The political system in Britain began to take account of the iniquities of society under pressure from reform movements, enlightened Parliamentarians and the Trades Union movement. Fighting for change within the system began to be possible.
The descendents of slaves have a different story. Their struggles were only recognised amongst their own diaspora communities. In the West Indies they still lived in highly “racialised” societies. The European plantocracy, although now slave-less, were still wealthy and powerful. The lighter the skin shade the more likely it was that you could gravitate into the circles of power and influence.
Black descendents of slaves were still on the receiving end of inequality in the British ruled colonies. Furthermore their historical experiences were no where to be found in the conceptions of identity in those communities.
In other words Britain’s 300 years experience of being a slaving nation was never part of the mainstream agenda for exploring the ideas of nationhood and belonging. Few people outside the diasporic African communities were asked to consider the value of the slaves’ contribution to the society that had governed them, often brutally, for so long.
However ideas of race, and racism itself, did emerge to justify unequal treatment in the wake of slavery’s abolition. These attitudes we have only relatively recently begun to recognise as serious issues in themselves.
Slave trade exhibition
Given all that, who should be apologising to whom becomes a critical question; and there are no easy answers. Should the poor of London be apologising to the descendants of slaves? That doesn’t seem remotely just. After all they have the same exploited roots in the British political economy. That is far different let’s say from perhaps rich descendants of slave owners considering it an obligation.
Part of the problem is that in today’s London, it is very difficult to ask the question without making it appear an issue of ethnicity. Many people assume that the descendants of African slaves are Black.
When I interviewed Lord Wedderburn of Charlton and his distant relative Brian Weddurburn in December, they had only relatively recently discovered that they were white descendants of the son of an African slave.
There are those who argue that an apology is irrelevant without compensation. This too raises the question of who pays and who receives. If the State is to pay compensation to those who were exploited as a consequence of the slave trade, they would have to consider paying those in the Lancashire Mills along with those on the West Indian plantations. This is clearly untenable.
Perhaps rather than an apology a more equitable form of reparations would be to recognise that the legacy of the trade is still with us, partly because we still fail to appreciate its impact on the forging of our National identity.
This suggests the British State should take greater steps to improve our understanding of this legacy through education. It may also mean recognising that just because chattel slavery ended 160 years ago doesn’t mean that the psychological consequences of slavery have entirely dissipated.
Above all in dealing with Slavery it should be broadly recognised as not a Black or White legacy, but a British one. It is a shared heritage that needs recognition and which may help us become more comfortable with the diverse society we have become.
last updated: 09/04/2008 at 10:24