“We seem to be getting closer and closer to a situation where nobody is responsible for what they did but we are all responsible for what somebody else did.” Thomas Sowell
The toppling of statues of historical figures by Black Lives Matter has brought into focus the issue of slavery.
While nobody questions the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, slavery is presented in schools and media and as an extreme form of racism, with white people enslaving black people. This highly selective, distorted view of history has fostered a sense of guilt among European descendants of the enslavers, leading to calls for apologies and reparations.
First, until the 19th century, slavery has been an integral aspect of almost every civilisation – Babylonia, Egypt, Persia, Greece and Rome, and also ancient India and China, and the Aztecs and Mayas of Central America.
Second, for most of recorded history slaves were of the same ethnicity as their enslavers. Only when it became technologically possible to transport large numbers of people from one continent to another did people enslave others of different ethnicities.
Third, although public perceptions are based on the Atlantic trade, in which slaves were black and their owners were European, this obscures the fact that the slavers did not venture into the African interior to capture Africans, but bought their slaves from African dealers. Blacks were not enslaved because they were Africans, but because they were made available by other Africans.
Fourth, whites as well as blacks were enslaved. In the Barbary slave trade from the 16th to the 19th centuries, Islamic pirates from the coast of Morocco raided coastal communities in Europe, capturing hundreds of thousands of people and sold them into slavery in North Africa. And closer to home, in his book “Pakeha Slaves, Maori Masters; The Forgotten Story of New Zealand’s White Slaves”, Trevor Bentley describes the trafficking and enslavement of European seamen, escaped convicts, castaways, and runaway sailors.
Fifth, and most important of all, it was in European society that the moral legitimacy of slavery was first challenged, and was eventually ended after a campaign led by William Wilberforce.
Opposition began in the 1780s with the Quakers’ presentation of the first slave trade petition to Parliament in 1783. That year Wilberforce, who was Member of Parliament for Kingston upon Hull, met James Ramsay, a retired ship’s surgeon who had left the navy to take holy orders and had become a clergyman on the Caribbean island of St Kitts. While employed by slave owners to treat their slaves, he saw their suffering at first hand.
Also campaigning against slavery were the Testonites, led by Sir Charles Middleton. After becoming aware of James Ramsay’s reports they encouraged him to write An essay on the treatment and conversion of African slaves in the British sugar colonies. Published in 1784, the book became catalytic in raising public awareness of the evils of slavery.
Wilberforce met regularly with the Testonites and, at the urging of Lady Middleton, mounted a parliamentary campaign against the slave trade. Highly influential in the campaign was Thomas Clarkson, who gave Wilberforce a published copy of his prize-winning essay on slavery. Clarkson visited Wilberforce weekly, bringing first-hand evidence he had obtained about the slave trade.
Wilberforce began his parliamentary campaign in 1798 with a bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, but it was an uphill struggle against powerful financial interests, and it was not until 1807 that the Slave Trade Act became law. Though it brought an end to the trade, slavery itself was not stopped until 1833 with the passing of the Abolition of Slavery Act, ending slavery in all British territories.
Thus, although the British had played a dominant part in a practice that had been endemic throughout recorded history, it was the British that confronted its abhorrence and ended it. The anti-slavery campaigners had fought against deeply-rooted beliefs that for millennia had been considered normal.
In 1835 the British Government paid £20 million (almost 2.4 billion today) to compensate about 46000 slave owners for the loss of their ‘property’. That was about 40% of the government’s budget at the time, which the Treasury had to borrow, and only finished repaying in 2015.
The liberated slaves did not receive a penny, but the slave owners did extremely well out of their compensation, investing their ‘immoral earnings’ in banks and manufacturing industries. Some are now confronting their past links with slavery and are taking compensatory steps. The Chief Executive of Greene King Breweries has said that his company would “make a substantial investment to benefit the Black Asian and Minority Ethnic community and support our race diversity in the business as we increase our focus on targeted work in this area".
So what about ‘apologies’? If sweatshirts saying “I’m so sorry” means deep regret, no one would argue but if, as I suspect, it implies taking responsibility, that would be nothing more than competitive virtue signalling.
My response would have been that I should have chosen my ancestors more carefully.
Martin Hanson is a retired King's College science teacher and author of school textbooks, who now lives in Nelson.