16 Apr 2007

Slavery: should we apologise?

Following the well attended Anti-Slavery march in Stroud (see blog 27th March and 6th March) the local paper has had various arguments for and against apologising for Britain's role in the Slave trade.

Photo: Poster of reward for runaway slaves

The House of Lords leader Baroness Amos Britain's first black female cabinet minister describes the slave trade was one of the UK's most "shameful and uncomfortable chapters". But if we start to apologise for this where does it end? Should we be demanding apologies from the Romans and Scandinavians asks one letter?

Britain has in the past opposed an apology for the transatlantic slave trade - like at the UN conference on racism - preferring instead a more modest expression of "regret". Last month, Tony Blair expressed "deep sorrow" for the slave trade, saying: "We are sorry."

The Archbishop of York however has called for a stronger more formal apology for the slave trade. Dr Sentamu, the second most senior cleric in the Church of England, said: "A nation of this quality should have the sense of saying we are very sorry and we have to put the record straight."

Toyin Agbetu, of Ligali, a non-profit voluntary organisation dedicated to challenging negative representations of the African British community, has said that an apology would encourage honest engagement with the past: "An apology is just a beginning. As well as an apology, there should be re-education, reparation and a rewriting of history."

Indeed the story of enslaved African peoples must be remembered, retold and reinterpreted. But just an apology is surely a navel-gazing distraction from the much more important issue of how much slavery goes on, unrecognised and unheeded, across the world today? Or is it as Jesse Jackson has said that the countries opposing an outright apology fear the legal consequences of such a move, as they could be forced into paying reparations?

There is also the issue of who should do the apologising, and to whom?

Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society said: "Morally this is an incredibly complicated issue. Africa itself was the main perpetrator of slavery; the continent is deeply implicated as a buyer, catcher and seller of slaves. What is really important is the lasting damage done to the psychologies of black people."

That, he believes, is the issue at the core of a lot of Africa's problems today. "What needs to happen is something much deeper than an apology. There needs to be a coming together of all the countries involved in slavery and its global legacy needs to be discussed."

We should not forget that it is when a people no longer feel the need to ask for an apology that their wounds can be judged to be healed and their self-confidence restored. If an apology is the first step on that road, then it should be made without delay.

Certainly it has been good to see the focus on today's slavery: the Stroud march and talks all made clear that slavery is still around today. I would wholly agree with Charlotte Wilberforce - the great, great granddaughter of William - when she said the evils of the modern-day slave trade should feature more prominently in the school curriculum: "Unless people know what's happening nowadays they're not going to know what they can do to combat it."

Save the Children UK have just published a major report about modern day child slavery: more than 218 million children aged between five and 17 are working as child labourers across the world. This includes prostitution and a range of different work that is harming them and in some cases killing them. This is indeed very shocking.

And we know it isn't just children. People trafficking is just one other aspect which we've raised locally (see for example here). And when it comes to our trade policies there seems to be a massive blind spot about the reality. I heard someone quote the example of an 80-piece tool set selling for £14.99: this isn't super-efficient manufacturing processes it is abusive labour practices. It is about people working in hot, dirty environments for 12 plus hours a day for a pittance of pay.

It is essential that our trade policy recognises the importance of international labor rights, so that we are no longer building our prosperity on exploitation. Why are the other parties not talking about this? Slavery and trafficking is part of our history. Its time to make sure it is not part of our future.

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