year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade
in Britain, in 1807. As a result, debates are raging about what
should be done and, specifically, whether the government should
offer an apology.
Blair has expressed "deep sorrow" for Britain's role in
the slave trade and called it "profoundly shameful", but
has stopped short of an official apology. Campaigners demand he
goes further and that reparations are paid. But, needless to say,
debates about what is to be done about slavery, especially two centuries
afterwards, are complicated and emotive.
one knows the exact number of Africans who were shipped overseas
as part of the slave trade. Research puts the figures somewhere
between 10-million and 28-million.
system too was linked with wars which served as a recruiting ground
for slaves, and it included deadly cross-country marches, as those
captured were corralled towards harbours for export. Some estimate
that a minimum of four-million people died in this way.
12-million slaves crossed the Atlantic or Middle Passage from Europe
in slave ships alone, with a high percentage dying in dreadful conditions
on the way. About 17-million slaves were exported to the Indian
Ocean coast, the Middle East, and North Africa by Muslim traders
too. There were also African middlemen who served as capturers and
initial salespersons of slaves. This highlights the global and complex
nature of the phenomena that lasted from the 1500s to the early
1900s in some countries.
said, there is little doubt who got rich from the system, namely
the Europeans. The slave trade allowed new markets to be developed,
and slaves were integral to processing raw materials abroad and
sparked the industrial revolution.
such as London and Amsterdam were substantially built on wealth
generated through trading human beings. This cumulatively created
a wealth gap that persists to this day, and some argue a snowballing
skills gap caused by the systematic removal of generations of the
strongest and healthiest citizens from certain African countries.
does this justify present day reparations and an apology? The main
problem with reparations is the question of who should be making
reparations to whom, considering all those linked directly with
the system are long buried. Should the present generation of Europeans
pay for the sins of their fathers' fathers' fathers? Also, not all
European families were implicated in the system.
of the slave trade, what is obvious is that structural injustice
exists in the world, and this remains racialised. The enormous gap
between rich and poor needs attention through debt relief and allowing
better market access to developing countries, no matter how the
situation came about. Where reparations and apologies are important
in that they can force those who like to pretend history never happened
to acknowledge it, and be a rallying point to address current social
importantly, it is a truism that fundamental distrust exists between
the haves and have-nots. This has a racial dimension too that is
evident in how quickly Africans turn to issues such as slavery and
colonialism to explain their current problems, and how swiftly many
Europeans blame Africas problems on present inadequacies,
such as leadership, rather than looking at historical legacies.
can be a way of building trust, a way of creating reconnection and,
thus, can be instrumental in generating cooperation to overcome
as a first step, an apology is necessary because the impact of slavery
remains, at the very least, in the mindsets of Africans and Europeans.
The fact a debate is happening about slavery two centuries later
is proof in itself of this. All means necessary are needed to shift
these mindsets. So it is time those with the most power in the relationship,
such as the British State and the monarchy, bite the bullet and,
at a bare minimum, make an official statement.
Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis
of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its
relevance to South Africa on Polity, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.
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