Wednesday, March 28, 2007


So, we are now past the various celebrations of the 200 years since the abolition of the slave trade, and what a jolly time we have had! Everyone slagging everyone else off for not celebrating the right things (it wasn't the end of slavery, don't y' know?), or not celebrating the right people (it wasn't all Wilberforce, don't y' know?).

The thing is, I sympathise with the guy who got up in Westminster Abbey yesterday to berate everyone present. I don't totally agree with him, but I do sympathise - after all, didn't the Church of England, the Monarchy the British Government and indeed most of British industry benefit from the slave trade and ongoing slavery for more than thirty years after the abolition of the transatlantic trade? Not much repentance for that in the service, as far as I could see. And didn't these profiteers on the back human misery all get compensation for the loss of their slaves (the slaves, of course, got nothing)?

The history of how this and other Western nations treated the people of Africa so appallingly lives with us to this day. Where is the greatest poverty and social deprivation to be found in the UK and the USA? - largely among the descendants of salves. Which groups are still excluded, treated as less than human and subject regular individual and institutional abuse? - yeah, you got it again. And yes, where is the slave industry still flourishing? - well actually not just in Africa this time - how about Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, etc, etc. It's spreading! But where is poverty getting worse? - umm, there you are again, Africa. And who is still getting rich off the poverty of Africans and slaves? - ah yes, that'd be us again.
Plus ca change, plus c'est la mem cholse.

So maybe I did not totally agree with the protester yesterday - but he had a point. Poverty and slavery and racism and injustice are still with us - Wilberforce did not abolish them. He may have won one small battle two centuries back, but the war is far from over. No wonder so many of those of African descent feel uncomfortable and alienated from the celebrations this year. Maybe we need to ask the question that Wilberforce and the abolitionists asked - are we happy to grow in wealth and power at the expense of others living in poverty and misery? And if not, what are we going to do to change that?

If the controversy over these celebrations should teach us anything, it is that we cannot afford to stop asking these two questions of ourselves - and seeing them spur us into action.

(Am I getting a bit pious here? Quick! - get me back to baby pooh!)

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