It is very important that we read history and try to learn from it – otherwise there is a real danger that we will continue to repeat the errors and evils of the past (as I fear this is what we are doing in the Middle East and Afghanistan). I therefore greatly welcome this lecture series and all the other activities that have taken place to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the 1807 Act abolishing the Atlantic slave trade in the British Empire. However, I fear that some of the dominant messages of the commemoration have been misleading. I fear that the impression given to many people is firstly that Britain took the lead in abolishing the trade and was therefore more advanced and civilised than most other countries, and secondly that abolition came about because William Wilberforce – a Conservative MP from Hull – who represented Yorkshire in the House of Commons – combined with a small group of men of Christian conscience and worked tirelessly in Parliament until they won the argument and passed the Act of Parliament that abolished the trade.
The basic facts are of course true. Britain did pass legislation before others – to abolish the trade – but not slavery itself. And it is true that William Wilberforce repeatedly introduced Bills to abolish the trade until the legislation passed in 1807 but if that is all we know, we will be left with a very distorted view of history and of the forces that were at work that led to abolition. And if we fail to understand the history, we will not understand the aftermath of the trade and the lessons we need to learnabout how historical change comes about how historical change comes about and how we can go about changing similar evils in the world in which we live today.
The reality of the slave trade was that 12 million Africans were taken by violence from their homes – and families held in prisons for many months and then packed into ships like sardines – the total amount of width one man had in a ship’s hold was 9 inches, so each man had to lie on his side. The journey across the Atlantic took 8 weeks. There were major revolts on 1/3 of all ships. 20% of slave ships’ crew members died during the voyage. The Africans were then sold to plantation owners – who beat and raped them – and also deliberately sold family members to separate them so that bonds of family would be broken. One third of all people captured died within the first three years of their life on the plantation. On average there were 200 enslaved men, women and children on each plantation. There were constant slave revolts. Constant attempts to run away and enormous brutality and violence to hold the slaves down.
The trade lasted over 300 years and completely distorted the relationship between Europe and Africa. When Henry the Navigator of Portugal first went by ship down the West Africa coast in the fifteenth century, Europe and Africa met as equals. The feudal kingdom of Portugal met up with the feudal Ashanti kingdom and young princes and princesses made exchange visits to each others’ courts. It is true that there was a tradition of domestic slavery in Africa, just as there was across the world from biblical times on. But the industrial scale of the Atlantic slave trade reached such a size and brutality that it became a different phenomenon. Britain was the biggest transporter of slaves of all countries. One third of the slaves carried across the Atlantic were carried by British ships and the sugar, tobacco and cotton produced by slaves in the Caribbean and Americas created vast fortunes for British families and companies that is clearly reflected in some of the buildings that can still be seen in Glasgow, Liverpool, Bristol and London.
Brutality, violence and oppression inflict great harm and suffering on those who are oppressed and slavery inflicted unimaginable suffering on millions of African people. By 1850, the population of Africa was 25 million and in proportion to that the consequence of the capture and enslavement of 12 million people was obviously enormous. It is true that Africans were involved in the capture and sale of other Africans from different communities and language groups. Obviously they share moral responsibility for the evils of the trade. But the major moral responsibility for the trade rests with the slavers. They bear major responsibility and 1/3 of that responsibility is British. And everyone in Britain must be clear that some of the economic benefit that people in Britain currently enjoy is built on the exploitation of slaves.
Another aspect of the brutalisation of slavery is what it does to the slavers. Anyone who could participate in such a trade and profit from it was obviously brutalised by it. And people always make up stories to excuse their own evil and thus the slavers created a deep racism, a pretence that black people were inferior and that Africa had no history before the coming of the European. These myths are still widespread in the world today. There are 120 million people of African ancestry who now live in the Americas and Europe and all of them have experienced the injustice and racism that flows from European and American attempts to rationalise the evil of their own behaviour.
The Christian churches also profited from the trade. Christians who shared their faith with those who were slaves were banned and prosecuted. It is worth remembering that Christianity spread through the Roman Empire as a religion of the slaves, because it taught that everyone was equal in the sight of God, but by the 18th century the Church managed to live hypocritically with slavery and profit from it.
But it is also worth remembering that the impetus for abolition came from the constant uprising and revolts of the slaves – which made thinking members of the establishment conclude that it would be easier to employ workers and pay them wages than face the constant threat of revolt. But the other major force for change came from people of sincere moral conscience, many of whom were real Christians.
The Quakers to their great credit played a major part in the foundations of the movement. And it is true to say that in Britain, the anti-slavery movement was the first philanthropic mass movement in our history, with meetings, petitions, protests and campaigning taking place across the country. By 1791, 400,000 British people were refusing to eat plantation-grown sugar in support of the campaign of the abolitionist movement. Blake writers and campaigners like Equino wrote and spoke about the evils of the trade and were widely read and people like Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp dedicated their lives to the abolition of the slave trade. And it was the resistance and revolts of the slaves and this campaigning that led to the change of view amongst the British establishment and eventually in the House of Commons.
Thus, William Wilberforce should be credited with taking up the cause, led by a mass movement, into the House of Commons, but it is misleading to imagine that William Wilberforce alone and the small elite around him brought about this change. It is also important to remember that the British mass movement against slavery helped to influence movements in other European countries. And it also helped to sow the seeds of social reform – campaigns to extend the suffrage, to establish rights for women and better conditions for workers all took hold after the campaign to end enslavement. And thus, we must remember that progressive movements spread their values more broadly and those who participate become wiser, stronger, more generous people who learn that by banding together they can win change that can bring benefits to vast numbers of people.
Before concluding, I think we should ask ourselves what are the equivalent evils of today which we are colluding in and failing to denounce and abolish. There is the evil of bonded labour involving about 12 million people, mostly in Asia, who are so poor that they sell their future labour to a landlord in return for working as a slave and for their children and grandchildren continuing to work for nothing more than basic food and a place to sleep. I have met bonded labourers in Nepal who had moved from their bond to live elsewhere but who had to work to earn a living to pay off their bond. When I advised them that they should not pay because bonding was wrong, they pointed out that the authorities in their country would drive them back into bondage if they failed to do so.
On top of this, there are over 100 million child labourers unable to enjoy their childhood or to go to school working on farms, in quarries, making rugs and in domestic service. And there are large numbers of human beings being trafficked across the world. People who are so poor that their relatives are willing to sell them into bondage, or who are tricked into going to work in appalling conditions or to come into our country to work as sex slaves. I attended a talk some months ago by the Deputy Chief Constable of Sheffield who had investigated this problem and called it modern slavery. Young, pretty girls from Africa, East Asia or Eastern Europe tricked, brought to Britain, raped, and sold for prostitution. And after they have been used over and over again, sold at a cheaper price to another owner. Our government has recently and reluctantly agreed to support a Council of Europe Convention that would give such young women – and probably boys, too – the right to come forward and remain for a month so that those who misuse them in this way might be more easily caught. But in my view, this is inadequate. If the word was spread that anyone who had been trafficked should come forward to give evidence and would be able to study and work for at least a year and then be able to return home with dignity, we might begin to eliminate this evil trade. But such is the establishment’s fear of asylum seekers that they argue that such a concession might encourage more people to come to the UK.
All these evils should be challenged by mass movements of people, but my own conclusion is that they rest on the abject poverty of a billion people in our world. As we in the UK face a growing problem of obesity threatening serious health problems for a growing percentage of our population, nearly a billion people live with inadequate food, lack of clean water or access to education or health care. I believe that this gross inequality today is as immoral as slavery 200 years ago and that despite the protestations of governments world wide, they are not committed to the changes necessary to create a more equitable world order in which all people have the basic necessities of life. The truth is that they way we are living – the 20% of humanity who live in the OECD countries – is completely unsustainable. And if China and India live like us, as they are starting to do, the world simply cannot sustain such a way of life. And if we want to live like this then the people of China, India, Africa, Latin America and everywhere else are entitled to the same. This will inevitably bring mounting catastrophe, war and conflict and threatens an end human civilisation. And thus we need a new mass movement for a more equitable world order that provides all with enough, but is no longer driven by greed and unending unsustainable economic growth. We need a new, more just and sustainable civilisation so that people everywhere can live a better and more fulfilling life. The question is, are we as big and brave as our ancestors who campaigned alongside the slaves for the abolition of the great evil of their times?