Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Amazing Dross

Amazing Grace is a very nice film about a terribly earnest man who eventually persuaded his peers to do the jolly decent thing and abolish slavery. To be fair to the radical 18th Century politician William Wilberforce, he did dedicate his life to the then cloud cuckoo cause of ‘equality’ for all, the centrepiece of which was to end the abhorrent trans-Atlantic slave trade. The film’s release is timed to mark the 200th anniversary of Wilberforce’s fifteen year battle to get a bill passed in the parliament of the day to outlaw the kidnap, rape, murder and false imprisonment for life of any man, woman or child who happened to get in the way of a British (or Spanish or Danish or French etc) profiteer with a ship and the funding to get it to the west coast of Africa. The film has been criticised for its failure to present a black perspective. With the exception of Olaudau Equiano, the former slave who wrote a best selling book about his experiences, there are no black people in Amazing Grace. The fact is that black people didn’t feature in discussions about slavery any more than chickens would be invited to debate the ethics of battery farming today.

It’s not a bad film. I didn’t go with any huge expectations that it would cover the half a millennium in which Africans endured slavery in any panoramic kind of way. I’ve read Hugh Thomas’s comprehensive and emotionless 1997 compendium The Slave Trade : The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870. I know the facts. I didn’t expect a film to provide me with an explanation – just as well. Emerging from the cinema, I’d many questions to occupy me on the long walk home across Victoria Park. Principle among these is why the fuck is our present Prime Minister, Tony Blah Blah Blair so reluctant to make a formal apology for the part that the British establishment played in the blatantly unlawful enslavement of humans for profit and empire.

All the tiresome lame old excuses masquerading as arguments are dragged out to justify the unjustifiable. ‘Why don’t we ask the Romans to apologise for conquering and enslaving us Britons’? Well, let me think. Perhaps because there are no Romans left, the Barbarians got them all. In any case we’d all be standing in front of the mirror demanding penance from ourselves as, chances are, most of us have got some of that Roman blood in our own ancestry. Besides the Romans gave us running water, under floor heating, wine and chariot races, whereas the ongoing legacy of slavery is the Diaspora and its devastating impact on the identity of its displaced peoples.

The ‘shit happens’ apologists love to remind us that Africans participated in the capture and sale of their own people. True but there is no getting around the fact that white people who bought, transported, brutalised and exploited black people did not credit them with humanity. If it was really just a matter of plundering whatever free labour could be found, why didn’t the slave traders grab the destitute off the streets of Bethnal Green? No one would have missed them. Why were no other conquered peoples enslaved in this way? Maybe the Chinese and Indians were not considered physically sturdy enough to survive the murderous conditions of transport and a life of hard labour or maybe it was because they made buildings and grew crops and, in the eyes of Europeans, this made them ‘civilised’. Black people were more animal than human.

Some say that an apology would have ‘no meaning’. Well, I have to say, it usually works on me. If anything, the refusal to make one when there is such obvious call for it smacks of an ongoing superiority and arrogance. There are plenty of stupid people prepared to tell radio talk shows that Blah Blah shouldn’t apologise because he wasn’t personally responsible for the slave trade. No, I would respond, stretching my patience to record limits, but he is the head of the British Parliament which is the direct successor of a parliament in which many individuals reaped huge personal gain from slavery. This parliament also had the power to end this misery and refused for the best part of twenty years, even in the face of the most appalling barbarity. In the end, it wasn't conscience but trickery that turned the tide.

Suspicious minds suppose that the Government is petrified that an admission of liability might lead to an avalanche of compensation claims. I’m no lawyer but I suspect that there is no lack of evidence available when it comes to the culpability of British officials and businessmen in exploiting and prolonging the slave trade for personal gain. It probably wouldn’t hang on a confession from Blah Blah. I believe that a formal apology from the British Government would be a good start in acknowledging that millions of individual black people are living with the legacy of their ancestors’ suffering whether it be in poverty in the West Indies or southern states of North America. All black people of the Diaspora have had their culture abused and their identity molested by these events.

With the fluff of Amazing Grace out of the way, I was very grateful for Sunday night’s BBC2 offering In Search of Nanny Maroon, the Ms Dynamite narrated history of the Boudicca of the Jamaican slave rebellion. Long before Wilberforce rolled up his mutton-chop sleeves in preparation for his long crusade to find hearts in the parliamentarians of Westminster, a group of slaves escaped into the bushes and, led by the strategic genius Nanny Maroon, waged devastating guerrilla war on the sugar plantation owners and their British military protectors. Nanny is believed to be the first war leader to use camouflage. The Maroons tied fern leaves to their heads and ambushed the British, inflicting such decisive and repeated injury that they eventually accepted defeat and, in 1738, signed a treaty with the Maroons.

Freedom is never bestowed, it’s always hard won. Learning the story of Nanny Maroon provided me with a small, important piece of what is a very large hole in the big jigsaw that is the slave trade. But where are the other stories of black slaves who organised, rebelled and sacrificed their lives to change their fate and that of future generations? With the black contribution to abolition invisible, (The Maroons don't even rate a mention in Hugh Thomas's book), it's only possible to view slavery from a European perspective, with black people seen only as nameless, helpless victims. Understandably Nanny’s a national hero in Jamaica and an image of her appears on banknotes. Why isn’t she as famous as Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln or even William Wilberforce? Could it be because she’s black – and a woman?

My grandmother’s grandfather was alive while slave trading was still legal. It wasn't that long ago. Self-flagellation or wallowing in guilt aren't called for – that really would be gross and pointless, but there is a need to acknowledge responsibility for and memorialise the genocide that was perpetrated by Europeans on Africans, just as there was a need to acknowledge and memorialise the holocaust. So, Blah, Blah – as much as it pains you to apologise for anything – here would be a good place to start. Just take a deep breath and say it,

On behalf of the Government of Great Britain, I apologise unreservedly for the part that this country played in the slave trade.

There, now that wasn’t so difficult, was it?

Picture - The Old Plantation from


Janejill said...

I do agree entirely with you, but I am at a loss to know how to react to many of the experiences I had whilst in the Caribbean. I am white, but my ancestors (or some of them) were dragged forcibly across to Northern Ireland to suit first James, then Cromwell and so on;I ended up as a bit of a nowhere person - We were told we were British; the English saw us as Irish (that was a real shock); the true Celts certainly saw us as aliens, so in a way my identity was taken from me. Now just how do I convey that, plus my sadness at what the slaves endured, in a split second to a hostile and unwelcoming local?. I saw it so often and could do nothing apart from smile like a freak no matter what the attitude. There is also a huge change in standards of living in some of the islands in the last few year, but deep deep resentment and suspicion will take a long time to fade

Reading the Signs said...

A proper apology would also highlight a particular period in our history. The danger of just saying that shit happens and isn't human nature/greed awful is that we stop focussing on the specifics of wrongdoing. We have to know about the particular shit that happened, and the fall-out from all that, ask where we all stand in relation to it. That’s why I think we won’t hear any apology – yet.

That's so pants said...

Hi JaneJill - Absolutely - displacement is in a lot of people's history. I speak as the descendant of a transportee to Australia and also as one who has lived half her life in Britain and I have huge identity issues. So much so that I've pretty much turned them into a life's work. I do think that the slave trade and the holocaust transcend in both scale and intent the conquest and subjugation that most cultures have experienced at some stage in their history because of the total denial of humanity involved. Jamaica only achieved independence from Britain in 1962 so I think slavery is not the only factor in a very complex relationship.

Hi Signs - I agree. There is a certain 'it wouldn't happen now so why even go there' arrogance which can mask a refusal to accept these were actions which had direct and ongoing consequences. An apology is the appropriate response as an acknowledgment of wrongdoing. Failure to offer one carries a doubt that any wrongdoing happened.

Earthpal said...

Superb commentary there Pants. Absolutely agree with you. I blogged about this myself.

You're right to point out the issues raised by the act of "refusing" to apologise because this indeed carries wider implications.

An apology would be an act of contrition and would hopefully help to improve race relations and heal divisions because after all, gross inequalities and discrimination against the black community still exist.

That's so pants said...

Hello Earthpal - nice name. Thanks for dropping by. I will return the visit forthwith.

That's so pants said...

Dear Earthpal - I would visit your blog but the link doesn't lead me to it. Can you forward directions please.

Meredith said...

Australians have been insisting that our government apologise for years. We didn't ship anyone off to be slaves, just committed genocide & other atrocities on the people who'd been here for 40,000 years.

Why is saying sorry so hard?

That's so pants said...

Hi Meredith - it's been so long since I actually lived in Australia I didn't realise there had been no formal apology. I left for England in 1982, just at the time when the land rights campaign was beginning. I was considering referring to Australia's treatment of Aboriginal people in this post but decided against it in the end. Just as well because I would have got it all wrong. I assumed that the reconciliation process and the land transfer carried with it an acceptance of responsibility.

One thing I did consider is, although widely flouted - to the point of actual genocide in Tasmania - it was always against the (then British) law for settlers to kill Aboriginal people. I think there is a very particular evil in the government sanctions of both the slave trade and the holocaust which lawfully allowed for the killing, abuse and exploitation of a people collectively.

Having said that, Europeans judged both Africans and Australian Aborigines as more animal than human on the basis of their perceived lack of cultural 'development' and their godlessness, which was enough self-justification for their subjugation.

Is one really worse than the other? If you're the individual in the yoke being beaten and worked to death, then no.

QueenMinx said...

I want to say 'I am truly truly sorry for the United Kingdom's role in the Slave Trade' because 'my' government is too poe-faced to do it.

I agree with you, Noosa ... with regards to the government being nervous of 'compensation claims' ... after all, this country became rich on the back of the slave trade, robbing colonies, bleeding them dry, so it stands to reason that some of that money should be paid back. Or, mMaybe we just have suspicious minds.

It's not only Africa that we should apologise to ... over at Nita has written an article comparing the British Raj to the Nazi's. It's quite compelling. The comments that follow, are on balance, supportive and negative. It's not a hate campaign, though there are some very angry and bitter Indian people.


Earthpal said...

Hi TsP, Sorry about the dead link to my blog. I will try again.

I've been unpleasantly surprised at the amount of people who believe our government should not apologise. And I was totally bemused by William Hague's comment whereby he said, and I paraphrase, that apologies for the actions of previous generations sounded meaningless and that we should remember that all the nations of the world were involved in slavery in some way.

So according to the bizarre mind of Mr. Hague, the fact that everybody was doing it somehow justifies the refusal to say sorry. How does that work then?

That's so pants said...

Hi Queen Minx and Earthpal

Funny isn't it, that a lot of us don't find the idea of an apology 'meaningless'.