Monday, March 26, 2007

(not so) Great Britain

I really wanted to write something about yesterday’s 200 year anniversary of the Slave Trade Act, which abolished the British slave trade. I don’t agree with calls for an apology, because I strongly believe that in order to gain anything from the study of history, we have to be rational about it. Apologising to dead people on the behalf of other dead people is rather irrational. Casting ourselves and others in the roles of historical characters is both irrational and very dangerous, especially when we are assigned our parts according to the colour of our skin.

I believe the greatest lesson we get from the Slave Trade, and from the much greater machine of British Imperialism (which fucked over many more millions of people than it actually enslaved) is the power of moral expedience. And funnily enough, discussions about abolition over the last few weeks have brought the legacy of this to the fore.

I am genuinely fascinated about why people should feel defensive about slavery. I don’t, partly because it is indefensible, but mostly because I was not there, I have no guilt on that score. What I do have is an acknowledgement that the reason I grew up in a relatively safe and prosperous part of the world compared to others is not because Britain is inately Great and groovy, but because Britain was an aggressive military power that invaded and exploited other countries of the world and made a packet. They turned a quarter of the world pink in the days when pink was a macho colour.

Cannot be undone, alas. The impact of the British Empire, i.e. a comparison between the way things are now and what they would have been like had this not happened, is incalculable. It’s a bit like asking what the world would have been like circa 400AD – or indeed today - had the Roman Empire never existed. We’re talking about hundreds of years, many generations of people, all manner of social and scientific progress taking place at the same time. Which is not to say that we must regard the British Empire as a morally neutral fact of the past. The Roman Empire isn’t either; they committed similar atrocities, but for example, if they hadn’t happened to nail a certain Jewish political rebel to a cross for his troubles… well we just can’t imagine.

What this acknowledgement should mean, as with any position of privilege or advantage, is that we have a responsibility to help support those people and countries which are struggling, to support themselves. Which is a complicated and messy business when it comes to dynamically different cultures. But is even more complicated when you bring racism into play.

Which brings me to the most problematic demonstration of this moral expedience. There have been many daft objections made to the idea of apologising for slavery, including the fact that it wasn't just us, without the participation of African and Arab slavers, we'd never have had a trade, as well as the truly incredible idea (the most recommended comment on the BBC News Have Your Say page) that Africa should thank us for stopping slavery when we did. However the most interesting objection is probably that
We cannot and should not apologise for something which everyone thought was all right at the time.
Two major flaws with this argument. The first is that generally, people who do bad things think they are doing the right thing at the time, or else don’t realise that what they are doing is so very bad. That’s why people say sorry, having realised their mistake; really bad people don’t say sorry because they never realise their mistake.

The second is that slavery was never ever all right as far as one somewhat vital group of people were concerned. Who am I talking about? The Quakers? No, not them. Uh, oh yes, I remember! The slaves!

People in Africa did not weigh up their options in life and think that slavery was probably a reasonable career choice. Even though we are talking about an age in which living and working conditions for many Britons were pretty appalling, ordinary working class folk here had at least a handful of fundamental freedoms. Like being paid for work. Like not being put in chains. Like not being raped. Like being able to have relationships, families and so on without outside interference. Like being allowed to grow old. Life was tough, but life was ours.

The reason you put someone in chains is because they are not a passive victim; they do not want to experience what you are subjecting them too and they are otherwise likely to run away or defend themselves. This alone, in the absence of any of the accounts we have from slaves or former slaves, or our knowledge of slave rebellions, demonstrates that it was never all right.

However, one major legacy of the British Empire is the idea that those people don’t know any better. We were no less moral as human beings a few hundred years ago than we are today and as such, we had to justify moving in to other people’s countries in order to pinch their natural resources - a real bugger in those days, as you can hardly pass a spear off as a weapon of mass destruction. When it came to invading other European countries, this had always been argued in terms of defence or some claim involving our royal dynasties. When it came to countries several hundred thousand miles away, it became a little trickier.

At this point, race became really handy. We’re busy stealing people’s countries. Conveniently, they're all a different colour from most of us. Well, clearly these people are less intellectually sophisticated than us because they don't have guns. And although Africans were building pyramids whilst we were patting our backs at being able to make vague circles with random lumps of rock, none of these chaps is wearing a tie. Clearly, these people don’t really know their own minds. We’re doing them a favour, putting their labour to good use.

And so we start putting this in scientific and religious terms. Just as we did with women at the time, we used pseudo-scientific and religions concepts to explain how the present order of things as the natural one. But whilst women were cast as weak and silly but basically fluffy and harmless, the negro was cast as a dangerous creature, a moral, sexual and religious threat.

This particular fairy story was only written a few hundred years ago, and yet we're still struggling to dispose of it today. The trouble is the combination of this legacy and the legacy of inequality. As I'm always harping on about, folks in our society are very much wedded to the idea that bad things don't happen to good people, so when we see that the developing world, much of it our former colonies, are still, well, developing, we suspect that they're just not as Great as we are. And when we see problems in impoverished areas of the inner cities with a high black population, we tend to think that there must be something wrong with black people, as opposed to those particular people and the society in which they live.

And the greatest tradegy is that the same mentality allows us to excuse or apply moral relativism to the slavery which carries on both in the UK and elsewhere. Those people don't really know any better. They've got themselves into trouble. If they were really suffering, and they had their wits about them, well then surely they could get away and do something else?

Two important points about this post. The first is that I've use the first person plural in the vaguest of senses. It wasn't really us or we that did this stuff, but it is my society that carries the legacy I describe. The second is that the picture is much bigger than this, but I only know my own country.

The weirdest media coverage of the abolition anniversary was a radio play on Radio Four called Slavery... the Making Of, which you can listen to any time the next week. It starred Lenny Henry and Brian Blessed. No, I am serious. I am yet decided on whether this was immensely brave, or immensely silly. I'm thinking probably a bit of both.


Anonymous said...

I can see why black nations are irritated at these celebrations of white abolitionists.

Personally I am irritated that nothing is being said about the history of white slaves, and I don't mean an euphemism for sex slaves. You and I and most people in the UK and Europe and Russia, Goldfish, are almost certainly descended from slaves. Slaves of our own people. It was the Black Death and one or two Revolutions put paid to the home market. The American colonies - ours, French, Spanish - were originally built using white slaves. But they died too quick from the new diseases whereas imported African slaves had partial immunity to many of them and could keep going.

But the fact is, that all societies until very recently practised slavery. The British contribution was no more and no less normal at the time. It was seen as a matter of economics, not morality.

As long as a civilization depends on muscle power for its maintenance, so long will it compel servitude, and hereditary servitude to breed a future supply.

It is no coincidence that slavery began to be perceived as "wrong" in those nations who were undergoing industrial and agricultural revolutions which were ensuring that their civilizations could depend on captive machines not captive men, women and children.

Which is why we British were among the first abolitionists. What is being carefully not said by the breast-beaters, is that this country paid out millions of ££ to other European nations to stop them trading in slaves, as well as making it illegal ourselves.

I see no point in these specious "apologies". I wasn't there, I didn't do it, and the people who were and did practised on my ancestors first.

The Goldfish said...

Hmm. Of course you're right about historical contexts. One of the things I dislike so intensely about this discussion is the idea of casting roles, when in reality we must all have heroes, villains and victims in our bloodlines. And of course, we're all a great 'racial' mix.

However, I do think that the Transatlantic Slave Trade is particularly important because it established a dynamic recently enough for us our society to still be feeling the effects. Which has nothing to do with whether or not today's victims of racism are descended from slaves, but to do with the prejudice they experience is an echo from this time.

Elsewhere in the world of course, the effects are even more profound.

Anonymous said...

Did you know that, as late as the eighteenth century, European slave traders carried out raids along the English South Coast and Bristol estuary? Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, and Somerset were all targeted in exactly the same way as the African Coasts. We aren't hearing anything about that these days, either.

My point is, it wasn't a matter of race, or colour, at all. It's been made into one. And by so doing, the whole picture and history of slavery has been distorted.

fluttertongue said...

This is such a complicated debate. It includes so many moral, economic and political areas that it is almost impossible to talk about it - however, you've made a lot of sense out of many of the arguments. I believe it would be totally hypocritical to give money in the form of moral oneupmanship reparations whilst taking it away through the structures that maintain the heirarchy of rich taking money from poor. It makes very little difference to redistribute wealth without changing these structures because the relative value will simply change. Plus the amount involved would no doubt be tiny.
It is the human rights element of slavery that needs to be addressed - and the only way to do that is to educate and to remind people that human rights abuses still happen, albeit under a different name.
The economic and the moral areas of this debate need to be detangled otherwise we risk making the whole situation even worse.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I haven't got enough brain to read this properly, so I may have missed points or be repetitious.

Firstly I think you've underplayed how crap (British) servants lives could be -

They weren't always allowed to marry (due to their masters, rather than social/family pressures).

Masters were allowed to sleep with their servant's wife on their wedding night (although, usually they extorted money instead).

Surely rape must have been not uncommon - even if in a "better keep the master happy" kind of way.

And, although technically you weren't owned by your master, when it was a choice between working from, say, 5am to 11pm and starving, well not much option.

Having said all that, the transatlantic trade does seem more inhumane to me - and I'm not sure (if my ancestors had been slaves) it wouldn't seriously piss me off that the owners got compensation at the time of abolition, whereas (of course) the slaves didn't.

Mary said...

The slave trade was a fact, and it should not be forgotten. Bad things were done by people, to people, and it's a good thing it's mostly stopped now, and we should continue trying to stop it as much as we can, helping victims, and so on. Brushing it under the carpet or pretending it didn't happen or saying it was okay because [whatever], is inappropriate.

BUT, I don't feel that I am morally inferior (or superior) to Bob down the road who just happens to have darker skin than me. I don't think I owe him an apology either. I also wonder if Britons with one black parent and one white parent are supposed to be apologising to themselves...

Anonymous said...

I meant to say that I don't think historical monetary compensation ever really works - and it could be argued in this case that British descendants of slaves have, on the whole, better life chances than many Africans.

Where that isn't the case - surely better to target the money by trying to eradicate child poverty (still, I believe, disproportionately a black problem).

And as for apologising - actions speak louder than words, so how about we get tougher where slavery still exists (From Our Own Correspondent did a piece, I think, from Malawi where a shockingly high percentage of the population is enslaved). And then there's the virtual slavery of "free" trade.

I do recommend Coram Boy by Jamilla Gavin which is, partly, about the slave trade, but also sets it in the context of a pretty grim time - especially for children. It is a teenage book, but perfectly written.