Friday, March 23, 2007

Prescott on Slavery

The present-day Member for Hull is significantly lacking in rhetorical flourish, especially when compared with his illustrious predecessor William Wilberforce. However, Prescott's interest in the slave trade is commendable - it's always nice to have British MPs showing an interest in history.
"It is one of the reasons why I would like us to pick a date every year. The legacy of this 200th anniversary should be a permanent date when we ask whether there is more we could do, so that every year, like Holocaust, we remind people of the horrors. Each year we should think about it and commemorate and rededicate ourselves to helping people on which such horrors were inflicted."
As with most Prescott speeches, you can see what he means here, even through the tortured prose. The problem with the idea of a specific 'Slavery day' is that it would probably fall hostage to what John Howard in Australia has called the 'Black armband view of history'. In other words it would be a yearly recital of the undoubted evils of the slave trade, seen from a modern perspective, in the context not of the history of slavery, but of the history of Western dominance and the British Empire. Slavery will be held up as something uniquely British and uniquely bad.
The reason many have cited for not issuing an 'apology' for slavery is that in the US it has led to claims for compensation. While I agree that compensation is neither a practical nor a justified response, I believe that there is a better reason for not offering an apology. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was remarkable only in its scale. Slavery was a state of being throughout Africa during and after this period. Mortality rates were appallingly high on the crossings - yet not so high as in the Arab slave trade in Eastern and Central Africa. What was remarkable about the Atlantic slave trade was that it was stopped. It may sound jingoistic, but the most extraordinary aspect of the British involvement in the slave trade was that they brought it to an end. I just doubt that this is what would be the focus of future 'Slavery days'.
UPDATE: Just a very brief word on Ken Livingstone's apology 'on behalf of London'. He states that slavery was appalling, a crime against humanity. This is absolutely correct. He then states:
Material being produced today to mark the anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade makes it appear that white people liberated black - the assumption being they could not do it themselves. In reality, slaves rose against the trade from its inception. This broke it.
There were slave rebellions, some of which, such as the Jamaican uprising, caused outrage in Britain at the brutality with which they were put down. However, to argue that slavery as an institution was made impossible through the efforts of the slaves themselves ignores the fact that slavery continued in the US until 1865, and in Brazil until 1880. There is no question that, had it been British policy, slavery would have continued in the British Empire indefinitely.
No one denigrates William Wilberforce, but it was black resistance and economic development that destroyed slavery, not white philanthropy.
Simply untrue. The abolition of slavery was in fact to destroy the economic worth of the British West Indies. At the time of aboliton, the W.I. were responsible for some 60-70% of British imports by value. Following emancipation this collapsed, and the islands never recovered their former economic status. This is not to say that this is a bad thing - wealth built on slavery is morally unsustainable - but to state that economic motives brought about the end of slavery is to state the opposite of the truth.


Blogger Ross said...

If slave uprisings were effective in ending slavery then Spartacus's revolt would have finished it off two millenia ago. If anything slave revolts tended to harden attitudes against abolition. Ken Livingstone's indifference to the truth is no great surprise anymore though.

2:55 am  

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