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GUEST COMMENTARY: An Apology for Slavery Would Set New Agenda

Posted by kinchendavid on October 14, 2006

By Sir Ronald Sanders

Should the present United Kingdom (UK) government apologise for Britain’s role in the slave trade which, on March 25, 2007, would have been abolished for 200 years? That’s one of the questions that an advisory committee chaired by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, will be grappling with this month.

The committee was established to oversee preparations for the bicentenary of the passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807.

In the UK – as in the United States (US) – there are vocal groups who feel quite passionately that the governments of those countries that were actively involved in African slavery should not only apologise but pay compensation.

Equally, there are others who, while they accept that slavery was a vile and barbaric activity of dehumanisation, see little value in the present UK government apologising for actions in which it played no part and which occurred two hundred years ago.

However, various cities and institutions in the UK have apologised in the past, among them the City of Liverpool in 1999 and the General Synod of the Church of England in February this year.

About 1 million West African slaves were transported from Liverpool to America and the Caribbean, and the City made thriving profits from its involvement. In the case of the Church of England, it too made significant profits from plantations it owned in the West Indies.

In May this year, the City of Bristol, which was second to Liverpool in its involvement in the slave trade, publicly debated whether it should apologise. From 1698 to 1807, it is reported that 2,114 ships set sail from Bristol to African and then to America and the Caribbean carrying over half a million slaves.

The debate in Bristol was open and frank, with respected persons such as Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society, pointing out that Africa itself was deeply implicated as a buyer, catcher and seller of slaves.

Now this debate is likely to assume a much wider dimension as the UK government’s advisory committee decides whether or not the government should make a frank apology for Britain’s role in the slave trade or issue “a statement of regret”.

There are precedents for statements of regret.

In 1997, Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, expressed regret for Britain’s failure to relieve the Irish potato famine in the mid-19th Century. And, at the World Conference Against Racism in South Africa in 2001, Spain’s Labour and Social Affairs Minister, Juan Carlos Aparicio, said of African slavery: “We profoundly regret the injustices of the past”.

Successive administrations in the US have avoided both apologising and expressing regret for US involvement in slavery, although both President Bill Clinton and George W Bush have acknowledged slavery’s evils. President Clinton did so in 1998 when he said: “Surely every American knows that slavery was wrong, and we paid a terrible price for [it], and that we had to keep repairing that. And just to say that it’s wrong and that we are sorry about it is not a bad thing. That doesn’t weaken us.”

In 2004, President George W Bush said of slavery: “Years of unpunished brutality and bullying and rape produced a dullness and hardness of conscience. Christian men and women became blind to the clearest commands of their faith and added hypocrisy to injustice”.

The reason for caution in the US and European countries about an official government apology stems from a fear that it would imply legal responsibility for slavery and, therefore, an obligation to make financial reparations. And, there are groups in both the US and UK that campaign for compensation. Although, exactly how such a case would be prosecuted and what form compensation would take and to whom it would be paid defy easy understanding.

At the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Nigeria’s President, Olusegun Obasanjo, called for an apology by “the states which actively practiced and benefited themselves from slavery” for “the historical wrongs that are owed to the victims of slavery”.

But, he went on to say that an apology would be enough. “An apology closes the door (on the issue) and does not promote any reprisals or litigation, nor should it”, he said.

President Obasanjo may well have lit a candle to light the darkness of this issue.

African slavery was a blatant wrong and injustice perpetrated over many centuries. It has left the descendants of Africans in the US, Central and South America, the Caribbean and now in Europe with a strong sense of having been deprived of their human dignity and robbed of the chance to prosper alongside other races.

In part, it is this sense of deprivation that promotes tensions from young African descendants toward white communities.

The wounds need to be healed for the world to move on, and if Germany’s government could apologise for the suffering inflicted on the Jews and the dreadfulness of the Holocaust, there is no reason why the governments of other countries that played a role in the awfulness of African slavery should not do likewise.

In both the US and the UK, the descendants of Africans have risen to roles of prominence in government and business, but forms of institutional racism still persist as does a sense of resentment among African communities. An apology by the UK government would open the door for other governments to say sorry as well. Such an apology would help to ease pain, build confidence and set a new agenda for meaningful engagement between white and black people.

* * *

Sir Ronald Sanders is a business executive and former Caribbean Ambassador to the World Trade Organisation who publishes widely on Small States in the global community. Responses to: ronaldsanders29@hotmail.com

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