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.