Positive Aspects of Britain’s Role in the Slave Trade

Today is the 200th anniversary of the passage of the Slave Trade Act (47 Geo III Sess. 1 c. 36) and there still seems to be controversy over Tony Blair’s refusal to apologise for the slave trade on behalf of the British Government. I was going to comment on one of my blogrolled blogs, but I decided I had enough to say that I should post it here.

It should be noted that the slave trade was never specifically legalised by the Crown in, or out of, Parliament. It’s not like one Government brought it in and another did away with it, but failed to apologise for what the previous Government did. I suppose the only thing for which the Government could apologise is not acting sooner. But has anyone considered that Britain was the second European country to ban the slave trade, after Denmark, which passed legislation that only took effect four years before? The only country to act earlier was the United States, which made provision for legislation in the Constitution, though that legislation actually came into effect eight months after the British act.

And what’s the big deal about this anyway? Slavery itself wasn’t abolished in the British Empire until the appropriately named Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. So will there be another round of apologies (or demands for them) in 2033? Almost certainly.

Britain has nothing for which to apologise. If anything, exactly the opposite.

As a couple of the most high profile and respected scholars in the area of slavery, Eugene and the late Elizabeth Genovese note,

Until recently, people of every race and continent lived in a world in which slavery was an accepted part of the social order. Europeans did not outdo others in enslaving people or in treating slaves viciously. They outdid others by creating a civilization that eventually stirred moral condemnation of slavery and roused mass movements against it. Perception of slavery as morally unacceptable – as sinful – did not become widespread until the second half of the eighteenth century. Slavery, not merely serfdom, existed in Western and Central Europe as late as the Renaissance and in Russia until the mid-nineteenth century. . .

Today we ask: how could Christians or any civilized people have lived with themselves as slaveholders? But the historically appropriate question is: what, after millenia of general acceptance made Christians – and, subsequently, those of other faiths – judge slavery an enormity not to be endured? (The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders Worldview, Cambridge U Press, 2005, pp. 69-70)

But even if you don’t accept the Genoveses’ argument, how is it that the Government of the day should apologise for something a previous Government did or didn’t do? Some argue that the British Government is a single historical continuity and that it is therefore representative of any previous Government. But is it? And when do we say it began? With the Model Parliament in 1295? Or since Parliament is just an extension of the authority of the Crown, does it begin in 1066? But wasn’t 1066 just a matter of change in dynasty- a solution to the question of who would succeed Edward the Confessor? So really, does it go back to Athelstan in 924, the first King of a united England?

Or do we have to say that the Government of today bears little resemblance to the Government of Grenville in 1807. After all, in 1807 both Houses of Parliament had power and the Prime Minister was in the House of Lords. There were only two members of the Commons in the Cabinet. The Commons was hardly representative of the people and only started to become such in the Representation of the People Act of 1832. The present Constitutional structure only dates from the House of Lords Act 1999.

But even if you get past both the issue of the role of the British Government, and the matter of historical continuity, there is still the matter of visiting the sins of the father on the children. How do you hold people who were never responsible for anything to apologise to people who never suffered anything?

I’ve heard silliness about those who are still benefitting from the legacy of the slave trade and those who are still oppressed because it. How do you trace all the descendants of someone who was a slave trader in the 18th century? And how do you even trace all the descendants of those who were traded? What those clamouring want is for all white people to apologise to all black people. But what about those whose families immigrated from outside slave trading nations after the abolition of the trade?

But perhaps more legitimately, we could calculate the benefit that a descendant of slaves has had in Britain as opposed to what their life would have been like had their ancestors never been taken from Africa. No one ever suggests that just as in the story of Joseph, what those who sold someone into slavery meant for evil, God, who looks beyond one generation, meant for good. After all, if you look at immigration today, is the flow toward sub-Saharan Africa or away from it?

But political correctness won’t allow us to do that. It won’t let us remind people that much of Africa is bloody awful place. Almost all of the slaves of the Atlantic slave trade came from what are now eighteen present-day African countries, listed in descending order of life expectancy in 2006, long after the introduction of American and European medicine and food supplies: Senegal (59), Ghana (58), Madagascar (57), Togo (57), Gambia (54), Gabon (54), Benin (53), Cameroon (51), the Democratic Republic of Congo (51), Equitorial Guinea (49), Guinea (49), Cote d’Ivoire (48), Nigeria (47), Guinea-Bissau (46), Sierra Leone (40), Liberia (39), Mozambique (39) and Angola (38).

No one will say that thanks to the slave trade there millions of people who have a life expectancy beyond their 30s or 40s.

Yesterday, there was a big gathering of Christians in Kennington Park in South London. They were marking the Church of England’s apology for the slave trade. One of the most idiotic things quoted by the BBC came from a lay minister from Birmingham,”We need to remember what out forbears and ancestors went through. We might not be thrown off ships now, but there is still slave labour.” What? None of her forbears and ancestors was thrown off a ship. Slaves that were thrown off ships drowned and did not produce any descendants (except for any they produced before they left Africa). And yes, there is still slave labour in the world, but it is entirely unrelated to what her forbears and ancestors went through. Clearly in this woman’s case, her body may have been in London, but her brain was still in the West Midlands.

Trying to apportion blame for the past takes away from assuming responsiblity for the present. It is time to stop saying, “You made me this way” and start recognising that each individual takes the opportunities they are given and makes what they will of them. The descendants of slaves have much greater opportunities than they ever would have had otherwise. Rather than blaming the slave traders (or their descendants, or the Government of their descendants, or more broadly everyone who looks like they could possibly be a descendant) those descended from slaves should be thankful that their ancestors suffered misfortune and hardship that in generations to come led to better things.


9 Responses to Positive Aspects of Britain’s Role in the Slave Trade

  1. Steve says:

    I made most of the comments I had to make on this topic in a posting in my blog last year: Notes from underground: Apologise, apologise, apologise

  2. yucca says:

    Hi Dave,

    A few points, at random:

    the fact that it is near-impossible to trace the discendants of slaves does not mean that those discendants don’t exist, nor does it mean that they might still suffer from it. Yes, it might mean, practically, that it will be impossible to apologise to them, but that, in turn, does not mean that they don’t deserve an apology

    On the fact that slaves were better off than those that weren’t enslaved, its controversial: i dunno how many would have chosen that, even if you told them that some of the descendants of some of those who would eventually survive would even much better opportunities than the descendants of those who were not enslaved.

    also, its just like the child labour argument: yes, children who are made to work today

  3. yucca says:

    ops, i pressed “submit”

    ok, i was saying: children who are made to work today might actually be better off for it, but that doesn’t make it right

    on the continuity, you have a good point: a commentator on my post also said that there would be some sort of similarity between governments. whether there is enough similarity between blair’s government and the government of 1807 is an open question

    anyway, very good post!

  4. Steve says:

    My wife is descended from a slave.

    So who should apologise to her?

    The descendants of her owner, one Peter Hacker?

    Or someone else?

  5. Dave says:

    Steve, would one descendant do, or would they all have to be rounded up?

    yucca, I still don’t understand on what basis a descendant (identifiable, such as Steve’s wife or Al Sharpton) deserves an apology. How can we quantify their suffering? Why would we even assume or speculate that they might somehow be suffering as a result of what happen to their ancestor or ancestors 200 or more years ago?

    I did not suggest that those who were slaves were better off than those who were not enslaved. I do think it is clear that those who are descended from slaves are more likely to be better off than those descended from contemporaries who remained in Africa.

    So if there were anyone to be apologised to, it would be the slaves themselves. They are dead and dead people can’t forgive. That’s were I think your child labour analogy falls down. You are referring to those who are currently in child labour. They have a situation which can be rectified. However, the descendents of dead former child labourers shouldn’t receive apologies for a situation that shouldn’t have been allowed to have happened.

    And what about bi-racial children? Should they apologise to themselves?

  6. yucca says:

    hi dave, i answered some of your questions in replying to steve in the comments of my post. on the rest: quantifying the suffering and whether they are worse off because of the slave trade is, i already agreed, near-impossible. but it doesn’t follow from that that there isn’t anyone around who is not worse off because of it. so it doesn’ follow from it that they don’t deserve an apology, is one accepts that that’s sufficient for deserving an apology.

    on the descendents: if they are indeed better off because of the slave trade, and if they don’t mind the fact that their ancestors had to go through it in order for them to be where they are, then, i agree with you, they don’t deserve an apology. but i would question both points, especially the second.

    the child labour analogy wasn’t to do with the apology, but just with the general issue with utilitarianism that the fact that those children are better off (and that the slaves were better off) because of the conditions they are forced into, does not make what it’s done to them right.

  7. Dave says:

    All the mental gymnastics of who should give and receive the apology aside, what is the actual point of apologising?

    We can be sad that someone or some people to whom we have some sort of historical connection did something to someone or some people to whom somebody else has some sort of historical connection. At the end of the day, we can’t repent of what they did or change the ensuing reality for better or worse. We, ourselves, did nothing to bring about the present reality.

    So should I search my family tree and find every anecdote of a wrong that has been done to one of my ancestors and track down a descendant of the wrong doer and ask for an apology? I have a great-great-grandmother who was a Cherokee Indian. The Cherokees were done over by the US Government. Should I demand an apology from President Bush?

    Some of my great-great-grandparents owned slaves. Some of my great-great-great-grandparents owned slaves. Lots of slaves. My great-great-great-great-grandparents owned even more slaves. Should I track down every descendant of all of those slaves and apologise, being as I’m one of hundreds of descendants from slave owners?

    Then there’s my ancestors who were non-conformists and left Britain because of religious persecution in the 17th century. Should I get an apology from Tony Blair for that? And why aren’t Rowan Williams and John Sentamu beating a path to my door to offer their heart-felt apologies, because the C of E was complicit in this?

    Am I better off than if they had not left Britain? Actually, I wouldn’t even exist if they hadn’t left Britain, because their descendants wouldn’t have met up with other people in America with whom they born children that became my ancestors as well.

    Let’s be genetically honest here. If it weren’t for the slave trade, the descendants of slaves wouldn’t be better or worse off – they simply wouldn’t exist. So are Tony and Rowan apologising to the descendants of slaves because they were born?

  8. Pingback: Blair, the slave trade and apologies « Khanya

  9. yucca says:


    I thought we had already gone over the differences between ancestry relations and relations between governments.

    descendants of slaves don’t deserve an apology because they are descendants of slaves as such, only if they have been affected by that. so the family relation, as such, doesn’t matter, as it doesn’t matter in who is to issue the apology.

    the initial argument was that relations between governments are different, because a government actually represents previous governments.

    but i think we are starting to rehearse the same arguments, so maybe we should stop

    i didnt fet the genetically honest point: there is a indefinite, if not infinite, amount of counterfactual conditions to someone being born, such that, had that condition not been actualized, they would have not been born. so i don’t think that these condions, as such, matters. only particularly significant ones…

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