Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Bad history

There has been a great deal of bad history associated with the current bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade. It is depressing that people can be so ignorant. It is even more depressing that some people choose to be ignorant.

Two opposing positions have been arrived at:

1) Slavery existed in all cultures and at all times, but it was the application of large-scale industrial processes by the British that transformed the Atlantic slave trade into a uniquely evil manifestation. Nothing can compensate for this crime. An apology to the descendants of the surviving slaves, together with the payment of reparations, might help them cope with the legacy of slavery (poor self image, poor social status, poor economic prospects).

2) Slavery existed in all cultures and at all times, but it was the British who put a stop to it, first by outlawing the trade in slaves, and then by abolishing slavery in all dependent territories (a quarter of the world). Slave rebellions from Spartacus onwards, campaigns by well-meaning individuals, boycotts of West Indian sugar, all had proved ineffectual. It was the power of the British state that made abolition a reality.

The particular idea of an apology (expressed most recently in a discussion led by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight last night) seems to be irritating people, most of whom seem to feel no personal responsibility for what happened two hundred years ago. The idea of bad blood (that children should be punished for what their fathers and grandfathers did) is an ancient legal concept, but one that has not been voiced for many years. Campaigners for an apology point to various precedents that suggest an apology would lead to greater communal harmony.

Opponents of an apology say that the black community in Britain is being encouraged to think of themselves as victims by manipulative politicians who aim to keep black people ghettoised, dependent upon state benefits, and malleable as a voting bloc at election time (Ken Livingstone has been identified in this context).

Above: The Thomas Clarkson memorial, erected by public subscription in 1881. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has been critical of the amount of attention history has placed on the role of William Wilberforce, but the Clarkson memorial far outclasses Wilberforce’s statue in Westminster Abbey. It’s one of my favourite structures (click on the photo to see it in more detail).

Thomas Clarkson looks down a short avenue past a non-conformist school to a war memorial in the form of a celtic cross, improbably flanked by two palm trees and with municipal gardens behind. From either side of the war memorial sweep two very graceful Georgian crescents, forming a circle (they are built on the site of the bailey walls of a Norman castle, the castle keep in the centre being now occupied by a large Regency villa). The crescents meet again at a small raised square (you go up some steps) with the town museum on one side and council offices on the other, and with a perfectly framed view of the medieval church beyond.

As an example of town planning it is superb.


Candy Minx said...

Hi A to L...oh my's been sop long since I added a comment and dropped some cheery hellos!!1 A few things happened in last few months that distracted kme from visiting as many blogs as I usually do, I am so sorry!@

But I am catching up on yours now and enjoying it very much.

this is a very good post, and actually I have a post that relates to this subject...but it's awfully depressing. You are correct that UK has beena forerunner against bigotry. And in such a fashion..."discovered jazz" actually!

hey I am doing a small survey at my blog...if you have time I'd love to read your responses,'s great to "see" you again!

Here if you have time or interest:

It's fun too!

Sherab said...

Maybe Europeans can demand reparations from Muslims for the million plus slaves taken by the Islamic Barbary states during several centuries. And black African descendants can demand reparations from oil rich Arab countries for the millions of slaves sold to Islamic Arabs over the centuries. Sure bet.

Joanne said...

Dear A from L (candy mix, you obviously don't get that it's Andrew from London) i like how you put it all out there and let the reader decide.

In America, the southern States of Maryland, Virginia & Georgia are passing or have passed legislation officially apologizing (after 400 years) for the role they played in slavery.

The logic that one shouldn't apologize for what one didn't do doesn't fly with me since the effects of slavery however decreased are felt today (as you state), no matter how subtly. Just compare rates of achievement, wealth, poverty, or imprisonment by race to see what I mean.

The argument that an apology doesn't fix history and is just meaningless symbolism while at face value seems true, I'd argue that it's missing the point.. The point is that a feeling of regret for what occurred in the past is being expressed and an official apology is better than no apology...

To take it to a more personal level; imagine how you would feel if your great-grandfather was a slave and out of the blue you get a letter from some unknown saying that they're the great-grandchild of the slave-owner. Then they state they want to apologize for what your great-grandparents had to go through. Even though you could argue that a letter can't fix anything about it, you can also argue that it's a start. It could also lead to a friendship.
This official apology could spur well meaning folks to do just that.

a from l said...

Thanks Candy and I'll drop by the survey.

It's a complex situation Sherab - once you start trying to right past wrongs where do you stop?

Joanne, I think the best way forward is to understand history but not be imprisoned by it. An apology would only have any meaning if the person making it had a popular mandate to do so (ie the apology was voted on in a referendum or election) otherwise Tony Blair would just be talking for himself (as usual). I don't think a referendum on the subject of who was responsible for the slave trade would help community relations and would probably bring divisions into the open.