Slavery: West Still Owes Apology

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The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, described slavery as an offence to human dignity and freedom and "the greatest cause of grief to God's spirit." His church profited immensely from this cruel trade in humans. "We, who are the heirs of the slave-owning and slave-trading nations of the past, have to face the fact that our historic prosperity was built in large part on this atrocity," he said.

ON SLAVERY


Events to mark the 200-year anniversary of the day the British Parliament passed a law banning the trade of human beings were held around the world recently with reparations activists bemoaning the lack of an explicit apology from the former slave-trading nations.

In the U.K. where major events were held, there was no commitment by British prime minister Tony Blair and churches which profited from this inhuman and cruel trade to specific reparations aimed at compensating those who suffered from the trade.

A commemorative service was held at Westminster Abbey to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Slave Trade Act. The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, Blair and religious leaders were among 2, 000 people who attended the service.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, described slavery as an offence to human dignity and freedom and "the greatest cause of grief to God's spirit." His church profited immensely from this cruel trade in humans. "We, who are the heirs of the slave-owning and slave-trading nations of the past, have to face the fact that our historic prosperity was built in large part on this atrocity," he said.

"Those who are the heirs of the communities ravaged by the slave trade know very well that much of their present suffering and struggling is the result of centuries of abuse," he added.

No official apology was made by the Queen, Blair and Church of England clergy. Instead, the commemorative service was at best held to glorify William Wilberforce who was a prime mover of the abolition of slave trade motion which led to an enactment on March 25, 1807.

The Slave Trade Act of March 1807 never stopped slavery but prohibited British ships from transporting slaves. African scholars say Wilberforce was not the only person who helped end slavery. It is worth noting that Britain did not abolish slavery in its territories until 1833. Blacks like Olaudah Equiano, a former slave, and thousands others signed petitions, marched, and lobbied against this transatlantic slave trade were critical contributors to the anti-slave trade movement.

They lay flowers on the memorial to William Wilberforce, who Europeans in their history text books say “led the abolition movement,� and then, of course to the lesser Innocent Victims' Memorial, in honor of all those affected by slavery. Lady Kate Davson, the great-great-great grand-daughter of William Wilberforce was also used strengthen the belief that the British cared and saved Black people from this evil human trade system.

Africans at home and abroad wanted Blair and the Queen to go a step further –make an official apology. Linda Ali, of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel said Blair who had expressed "deep sorrow and regret" at Britain's role in the slave trade must go a step further. "I don't see what is so very difficult about apologizing for what is such a great crime against humanity," said Ali. Even Lady Davson said she too thought Blair should apologize. "Slavery is one of the largest pieces of our wounded history, our worldwide wounded history, and has to be confronted in order to get peace in our world."

The British prime minister did not speak at the service. "It is hard to believe that what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at the time," Blair said in an opinion piece on Britain's role in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade before the commemorations.

"Personally I believe the bicentenary offers us a chance not just to say how profoundly shameful the slave trade was –how we condemn its existence utterly and praise those who fought for its abolition – but also to express our deep sorrow that it ever happened, that it ever could have happened and to rejoice at the different and better times we live in today," Blair said.

Even though Blair admitted that Britain is richer in every way –in business, politics, sport, the arts and science because of the part played by the African and Caribbean communities, he remained adamant and never apologized.

Instead, he used the colorful language of racial equality and “the richness of our diversity� approach to tactically avoid the crucial apology which Africans at home and abroad so wanted.

But the African spirit remained unbowed despite the refusal by Blair to make an official apology. According to media reports, people across the Caribbean bowed their heads for a moment of silence to mark the end of the trans-Atlantic slave routes, which shaped the region's history.

In Jamaica, islanders held symbolic funeral rites in Kingston Harbor for African slaves who died during the perilous ocean crossing. In the Dominica, the cries of African slaves being led to cell blocks pierced the air as their lives were re-enacted.

Participants walked in chains to Roseau's Baraccoon building, where slaves were held before being auctioned off to plantation owners in the former French and British colony, and which now houses the City Council.

Media reports in Guyana say a tribute was held in the compound of parliament buildings where slaves were beaten and sometimes hanged. "We unite as a region and as a people, in a collective moment of reflection, as we remember one of the greatest tragedies in the history of humanity, which denied over 25 million Africans, for over 400 years, the basic human right of freedom, the right to self actualization and for so many, denial of even their basic right to life," said Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and chairman of the Caribbean Community.

Dr. John Sentamu, the second most senior cleric in the Church of England told the media that Britain was a country which once bought and sold slaves "as it did crops like onions or maize," and now had to make a formal apology. "A nation of this quality should have the sense of saying we are very sorry and we have to put the record straight," he said.

At the anti-racism conference that was held three years ago in Durban, South Africa, participants agreed that the depredation of the systems of slavery and colonialism had a degrading and debilitating impact on those who are Black. The African delegations in Durban noted with concern the lack of an explicit apology from the former slave-trading nations or any commitment to specific reparations aimed at compensating those who suffered from the trade.

However, despite the criticism, the debates in Durban broke new ground in the decade-long campaign by African countries and representatives of the African Diaspora to gain international recognition for the injustices perpetrated against them in the era of the slave trade.

The issue was not just one of righting an historical wrong, they argued, but also of addressing the lasting legacy of poverty and discrimination suffered over centuries by Africa and its descendants.

In the early 1990s, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) now the African Union, officially embraced the idea of making claims for atonement, including specific reparations, for slavery and colonialism.

 


Tsiko is The Black Star News' Southern Africa correspondent based in Harare, Zimbabwe.


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