Friday, December 01, 2006

Not sorry enough?

The slave trade has been the ruling principle of my people ... it has been the source of their glory and wealth.
The speaker of these words was King Ghezo of Dahomey (now Benin in West Africa) whose kingdom was probably making about £250,000 a year from selling captured soldiers or even his own people as slaves. He was not alone; the rulers of Ashanti and Congo were competitors in the trade.

I put this here not in a spirit of 'you, too', but to spread the field of this argument a little. Let's spread it a little more. Slavery has existed for longer than history can trace and in every part of the world. It existed in law in many countries until the 20th Century and, de facto, exists even now with estimates of between 20 and 200 million slaves in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

This is the context: a practice universal in time and space. Until 1807, when the British Parliament abolishes slavery in the British Empire and the British navy enforces the ban (I read somewhere that Royal Navy ships carried a manual about slavers until the 1970s). For the first time in human history, slavery was made illegal. It was a triumph of Christian and Enlightenment education and the result of the perhaps the first great public opinion movement.

It is important to restate all this because in certain contexts it gets easily forgotten. It is not remembered in the reactions to Tony Blair's expression of regret. It was not remembered in the BBC's Making History programme of a couple of weeks ago as they walked around Bristol picking out the names of slave traders. But it is the point. This great progessive act was made here.

The relevance of slavery to British power was small. The industrial revolution and the growth of the British Empire was a result of imagination, energy and commerce, a form of commerce that had made slavery an economic anachronism. It was only because it was of little economic importance that it could be abolished at the stroke of a pen and that a higher vision of human beings could be placed on the statute books.

It will do no-one any good to wait on just retribution. Reparations for a particular event performed by a single people on another make some sense. Reparations for all of human history make none.

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