Saturday, March 24, 2007

Slave Trade

On 25 March 1807, Parliament passed the Act for the Abolishment of the Slave Trade, outlawing the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in my mind probably the greatest crime in human history. Britain is commemorating this bicentennial anniversary and Britons certainly should remember William Wilberforce and the abolitionist movement.

The Act passed made it illegal for British owned ships to transport slaves at the risk of being penalised £100 per slave. The trade continued and as the slaves were considered nothing more than chattel, if unscrupulous captains feared being boarded by the Royal Navy they would throw men, women and children overboard to lessen the overall penalty.

By the time that Britain had woken up to the brutality and immorality of the transatlantic slave trade, the wealth generated from the previous two centuries of legalised cruelty had already kick started the Industrial Revolution giving Britain a competitive advantage, setting her in prime position for the next stage of colonial domination and imperialist ambitions. As the headline in the Voice newspapers shouts, Britain was ‘Built on Black Blood’ with much justification. Lloyds of London, Barclays Bank, the City of Liverpool and countless other institutions, industries and towns were built, directly or indirectly, on the profits of slavery.

But should Britons today apologise for the slave trade? Whilst the devastating impact of slavery on present day Africa, their descendants in the Americas and of course on the direct experience of upto 30 millions transported slaves cannot be ignored, who do we apologise to now? What responsibility do I or anyone living in Britain today have for the actions of pirates, traders and capitalists hundreds of years ago? What would you say and to whom? If you apologise does this imply culpability and the need to make recompense. There are serious advocates claiming that the government make substantial reparations. How do you put a price on kidnap, forced labour, cruelty, dispossession, rape, oppression, murder and torture?

Despite all these imponderables, Ken Livingstone to his credit, has issued a full and unequivocal apology on behalf of all Londoners for London’s role in the slave trade. In the absence of any previous formal apology on behalf of the nation, it probably is time to finally record the country’s regret at the inhuman activities which it legalised and the blood and tears it prospered from. Germany apologised for the Holocaust and as a way of acknowledging and coming to terms with its past, this was a necessary first step.

But by doing so, it should not be implied that individuals today bear any responsibility for the actions of previous generations. That would be contrary to natural justice. The Quran states ‘that no bearer of burdens shall be made to bear another’s burden’ 53:38. Which is obviously quite different from the fundamental Christian concept of Christ suffering for the sins of others.

An apology could only be a symbolic gesture to ensure, as with any lesson from history, that we learn from our mistakes and seek to avoid them in the future. Lessons it seems we as humans have forgotten - modern day slavery is still around us in the form of trafficked women from Eastern Europe, bondaged labour in the sub-continent and exploited migrant labour in the Far East. The Quranic exhortation to free slaves (2.177) has as much resonance today as it did when revealed.


Blogger individuality1977 said...

Excellently written. Check my blog (March 25th) for my views on the issue.

4:34 am  
Anonymous dazey said...

hey, so you DO know how to use words! and i thought you were an other one of them number people :D.
lol, mashAllah that was a very good read. i'm taking those quranic references down...

5:44 pm  

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