Monday, 27 November 2006

Saying Sorry For Slavery

To mark the bicentenary of its abolition, Tony Blair has said that Britain’s slave trade was ‘regrettable’. Not quite the apology or reparation that has stirred so much controversy.

Everyone’s apologising for past sins these days, even the Pope (for the repression of women for centuries). But I’m not sure that I buy into the idea of collective and/or inherited guilt. And I don’t know how you compensate for crimes against peoples that span generations.

There may even be a kind of racism in thinking this way. Having seen the Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum last year I found it difficult to look modern Germans in the eye. But in truth the only thing that links liberal young Germans today with the SS generation is their German-ness. Do they bear some sort of genetic stain of Nazism ?

The story of slavery is a horror that should be known and commemorated. How many tourist that visit the Jane Austen theme park that is Bath, with its Georgian crescents and assembly rooms, know the sinister reason for its splendour ? The eighteenth century town was built as a demonstration of the wealth that the slave trade brought to the West Country, and the respectability of the slave traders. We should know that modern Britain was largely built on slavery. Britain was the first industrial nation, and its economic take-off was made possible by wealth accumulated from the slave trade.

But in apportioning blame, who was more culpable the agricultural labourer in Britain, or the West African slave trader who captured the slaves and sold them to the Europeans ? By the logic of inherited collective guilt, their descendants in Nigeria and Ghana should apologise to African-Americans.

We should also remember that slavery disappeared because of a fight not the inevitable march of progress. Although the abolitionists may be revered today, at the time slavers argued fiercely that slavery was actually benevolent and an economic necessity. Much like those who now argue that sweat shops and free trade zones in developing countries are in the interests of those who are exploited. Rather than apologising for the past it would be more meaningful if we looked at
slavery today; glamorous designer brands that use child labour in developing countries, human traffic in the sex industry or the exploitation of migrant labour.

No comments: