Sunday, November 26, 2006

Apologising for Slavery

Apparently Blair is to stop short of issuing an apology for slavery but will express his regret at our involvement. I think that a note of regret at the awful treatment of the slaves and a UN resolution to honour those who died at the institution's hands are both worthwhile objectives, however, an apology would miss the point over the Empire's role in the slave trade.

Slavery is about as old as humanity. Not just the Greeks and Romans made slaves of each other but also just about every other people on Earth. It was certainly endemic in Africa before Europeans arrived. Those that didn't were usually those where it was not necessary due to the extent to which all were slaves of some tribal chief, king or emperor.

What was unique about the British Empire was that it made a moral decision to abolish slavery, first at home with the immortal line that:
"England was too pure an air for a slave to breathe in."
And then abroad: In a venture which was as imperialistic as any annexation Britain used its naval power to do its, considerable, best to enforce an international end to slavery. Paul Stephenson, who sees Blair's move as acknowledging the evils of the Empire, may never realise it but the British Empire in both ending the practice in the quarter of the globe it ruled and making it far more difficult elsewhere the Empire may have been as much a force for less as more slavery over its history.

Of course, all this would be different if there were a group around who had clearly suffered from slavery, questions of relative crimes and achievements would become rather abstract and morally unimpressive in the face of immediate suffering. However, while those who were slaves clearly suffered their descendents tend to have advantages like living in the States and it seems unlikely they are, net, worse off than had their ancestors not been taken as slaves and had remained in Africa. While they are worse off than those of European ancestry in the States this is hardly the correct counterfactual.

An apology for slavery would be innapropriate.

1 comment:

Gracchi said...

Its about as sensible as an apology for war