Slavery: It Wasn’t Me

Monday, November 27, 2006 21:25 | Filed in Life, Politics

There’s been a certain amount of fuss in the press over this in the last few days, because that Tony Blair Prime Minister chappie has come out and said that he feels that slavery was a jolly bad thing, and that he expresses sorrow over the fact Britain has had a slave-trading history, saying that it was a shameful occurrence.

It’s one of those things where the poor wee lamb (and I never thought I’d ever describe him like that) can’t really win. Some anti-slavery groups thing he’s not gone far enough and should offer an apology on behalf of Britain; some think he should look at how to work out reparations for the legacies of enslavement in terms of economic repairs, some think that it’s ridiculous to worry about the actions of over 200 years ago, and a very small minority of people — including Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality, and himself descended from slaves, think he’s got it about right.

But, as I said the poor wee lamb can’t even say that slavery is a bad thing without upsetting some people. Being Prime Minister must be one of a handful of jobs which makes being England manager look easy…

You’re never going to be able to please everyone with a statement of this nature. But as ThePickards is the place for my rants, let me tell you what I think:

  • slavery is a bad thing
  • an apology from people who weren’t involved is meaningless
  • the idea of recompense from the taxpayer is wrong

Let’s start at the beginning: slavery is a bad thing. I don’t say was because while it is no longer legal, slavery still exists — think of the trade in human misery involving women forced to act as prostitues.

Why slavery is wrong is a trickier question. It really boils down to a matter of personal belief. I’m a firm believer in equality: that every person has the same basic rights as another. Of course, even without slavery, in Victorian times we still had the crippling torture of the workhouse where people were forced to live and work in atrocious conditions — at a significant cost to their life expectancy — simply for the crime of being poor.

I think that was wrong too. I have no particular objection to the theory that people who are able to work should be asked to provide a useful contribution to society but their working conditions should be safeguarded just the same as anyone else’s conditions would be, and they should be paid a proper wage, rather than just given food to subsist on.

But that’s an argument for another day, today, we’re looking at slavery.

An apology from people who wasn’t involved is meaningless. Well, isn’t it? If we’re going to start issuing apologies for the crimes committed by nations and national leaders, how far back to we go? We also have to bear in mind that they had different laws at the time. For that matter, different countries have different laws now.

  • Should the US be forced to apologise and pay recompense to the families of the people it executes if they are from a country which doesn’t have the death penalty?
  • Should the UK (and other countries) apologise for the slave trade over 200 years ago?
  • Should the Spanish people of today apologise for Spain sending an Armada to attack Britain in 1588?
  • Should all the world’s catholics apologise for the deaths of people in the Crusades, because Pope Urban II called for the first Crusade?
  • Should the Danish apologise for attacking much of western Europe, along with raping, pillaging and plundering around a thousand years ago?
  • Should the present day Italians apologise because the Romans invaded Britain two thousand years ago?
  • Should today’s Egyptians apologise to today’s Israelis because the early semitic peoples were believed to have been used as slaves in Egypt?

I can’t see why any of these situations — which deals with different notions of right and wrong in different places and times — is particularly any more difficult than a different one. If the British people are to apologise for slavery, then I’d like an apology from the Romans first. After all, they enslaved Britons long before we enslaved Africans.

In my mind, any notion of recompense or compensation is a nonsense for exactly the same reason — why should I pay my taxes to compensate someone who isn’t a slave and never has been a slave, simply because some people in this country were involved in the slave trade over 200 years ago?

I don’t feel any shame for being involved in the slave trade for the simple reason that I wasn’t. Similarly, I don’t feel any pride that once Britain had outlawed slavery, it did a great deal to campaign against the involvement of other nations in the slave trade, and indeed were successful in eventually shutting it down.

Of course, there’s another good reason why the British taxpayer shouldn’t be expected to fork out compensation for the descendants of those affected by slavery. The fact that the average Briton 200 years ago — much like today — had little say in what went on in the way of slavery. The average Briton worked for a pittance themselves. The average British tax paying citizen today gained no benefit whatsoever from slavery.

So, who did?

Companies. Investors. Big Business. Exactly the same people that are at the top today. Call them the cream or the scum on the top — depending on personal political preference — but these were the people who profited. There may well be multi-million dollar companies (hell, probably multi-billion dollar companies, but I can’t be bothered to look it up) that still exist today made money from slave plantations. As I say, I don’t know ‘cos I’ve not looked it up, but I bet there is…

And if any of these do exist, these are still the same legal entities today as they were when they would have been trading in slaves, abusing human rights, and generally riding roughshod over their workers and/or slaves in the interest of making as much profit as possible. I’m not of course making any implications as to present-day business practices: I’ll allow you to draw your own conclusions, again probably based on your existing political opinions.

But the question must surely be asked: if reparations or compensation should be paid, why should individuals today be expected to pay taxes to pay for the crimes of people long dead, if the very same companies that profited directly from the slave trade in the first place are still here with vast resources and profits? Why don’t we ask them to chip in?

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22 Comments to Slavery: It Wasn’t Me

  1. Mike says:

    November 28th, 2006 at 5:29 pm
    - seems only fair…

  2. ThePickards » Blog Archive » Slavery was a jolly bad thing says:

    March 25th, 2007 at 12:34 pm

    [...] I’m not sorry. As I’ve said before it wasn’t me. I didn’t keep slaves. It’s unlikely that my ancestors benefited from the slave trade. [...]

  3. Katie says:

    December 9th, 2007 at 2:16 am

    I really don’t think its meant so literally – as an apology from every single person in britain,but as national regret that it happened. It occured more recently in human history and our values are very different,we have greater respect for human beings,we’ve grown morally I hope.The slavic people [eastern europeans] were heavily transported as slaves from the earliest times until the ottoman empire and I dont think any of them would expect an apology for it now.

    But if the same thing had occured in the 18th/19th century as the slave trade did,if polish/russian/czech [slavic] women were being putting on ships naked,laid down with chains in packed rows like boxes in a period where we have supposed to have grown as humans there would have been absolute outcry.There is a difference in values and period.

    Of course you feel no regret or sorrow about,it was’nt your great grandmother,your great great grandfather [now nameless],it wasn’t thousands of years of your own history and culture that you lost and can never replace.I don’t think you can comprehend the emptiness of that.

  4. JackP says:

    December 9th, 2007 at 10:08 am

    It was certainly — as the poor wee lamb said — a shameful period in our history (not just of the UK but of many nations). I just can’t feel sorry or regret for something I had nothing to do with…

    Of course I feel sorrow about the slave trade: no regret, but that would imply I’d been involved. But I do think it’s appalling that it went on. I think it’s appalling that it continues today with some migrant workers (people kept as slaves in the sex industry, cockle pickers and so on).

    I even suggested that we should look into the possibility of emptying the pockets of some of the multi-billion dollar corporations who made their money on the backs of slaves. I just don’t feel that the British taxpayer (who for the most part is descended from people not involved in the slave trade who lived and worked in atrocious conditions themselves at the time this was going on) are the ones who should be held responsible.

  5. Ty says:

    June 10th, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    To compare any suffering to any other suffering is wrong. But every major crime against a people (other then blacks, has been righted in the form of money.) When the Jewish people where being killed in WW2 who forced other countries to break bread with them after the war to help build the Jewish communities back up. (America) After America bombed Japan who gave them money to rebuild. (America) So to say that a 200 yr gap with not even a dime given to us is far and we deserve nothing is the same attitude that allowed Blacks to be enslaved while Americans just sat back and watched. I guess if you are not cracking the whip are you really to blame… In DC the capitol of America the Holocaust museum is ten times bigger then every African museum combined… Sublime messages like this are laced into the country of opportunity…

  6. JackP says:

    June 10th, 2008 at 9:09 pm

    Ty – what about the homosexuals, gypsies and disabled people who were slaughtered in there millions in the holocaust? It wasn’t just about the Jews…

    …but you do pose an interesting question. Like I said, I’d be quite happy for the companies who actually made the profits from slavery to have to pay a ‘slavery tax’, but I don’t think it’s fair on the ordinary working man or woman, who would have been cripplingly poor at the time and have worked in conditions not that much better than slaves themselves, to expect their descendents to pay taxes.

    I abhor the slave trade. So far as I can tell — having researched my family history back to around 1800 — my family don’t appear to have been involved in it anywhere. So why should we be expected to pay? If compensation is due, then it should come only from those who profited from it. And for that matter, why should I not be compensated for the way my ancestors were ill-treated by the rich too? Or is it only black people who can suffer persecution?

    (of course not – but why is the persecution of one group different to that of another?)

    And nor would I necessarily think America is the great altruist you seem to think it is. The history of other countries would suggest that they played a part in various things too. For example: who campaigned against the slave trade, abolishing it even when it brought them money? Britain.

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