Difficult topic this, but at least it is taking my mind off the problems I am having trying to get Linux installed, so I will try to limit the sensibilities I offend here.
I bought the Guardian newspaper today and it has a few news items which revolve around calls for Britain to apologise for the slave trade. Page 12 (or read the online version) is dedicated to an item called “Marching to London to hear a single word … sorry” which is about a group of people on a protest march, the letters page has more than it’s fair share on the topic (“Slavery, abolition and apologies” online) and on the comments pages, Joseph Harker has a piece titled “A shameful open sore.”
All very interesting and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that slavery is a horrific thing for anyone to endure. The activities of those involved in slave trading were (and still are) deplorable and it is shocking that slavery still exists in the world.
However, I do not for one second feel the need to say sorry over this.
It seems to me that we live in a society which is enamoured with public displays of contrition – no matter how irrelevant or empty these may be. It seems to me that it is more important that public figures keep saying “Sorry” about things, than actually being sorry and wanting (and able) to make amends. The western world is still somewhat suffering from “middle class guilt,” in that people who live reasonably affluent lives see the suffering of others (mainly others in different countries – the suffering at home is easily ignored) and create a feeling of guilt about it (I blame Catholics…). Personally, I have two issues with the calls for “sorry” over the slave trade.
The first is that, to me, this furore over the Slave trade is taking it to a farcical conclusion. The trade in African slaves to work on European plantations was horrific. It was deplorable. Sadly it has a precedent in human history. Pretty much all human cultures have practiced slavery in some form. Ancient Greeks did it (Wiki), the Romans did it, the Vikings did and so on (does Exodus ring any bells?). Deplorable it may be, slavery is certainly something which happens a lot. It can be argued that the classical civilisations were a bit less racist in their collection of slaves and that the African slave trade is wrong because it is characterised by nothing more than pure racism – the slaves were not the vanquished after heroic battles, nor were they poor people trying to ensure they didn’t starve. Interestingly, not all the African slaves were “captured” by the evil Europeans – lots were sold to them by other African nations. However, if we accept the argument that the biggest reason to say sorry of the African Slave trade is the racist nature of it, this implies that slavery is OK as long as you keep multicultural slaves…
Now, that minor point aside, if it can be argued that Britain has to say sorry for it’s part in the slave trade, I would also like to call for the Italians (especially the ones living in Rome) to apologise for bringing Carpathian slaves to Britain and forcing them into servitude. I also feel the Germans should apologise for subjugating the indigenous population between the fifth and tenth century AD (I refuse to use BCE/CE), the Danes, Swedes and Norwegians should apologise for their raiding parties killing people and taking away women as slaves, then a big apology from them for steal a patch of what became France from the Franks and invading England, deposing the legitimate king. Thanks to the Normans we have a class society in the UK which kept the majority of the population in servitude, while not called slaves the differences were minimal. In a similar vein, I am sure every world culture can follow this request to a reductio ad absurdum.
This leads me neatly to my second point. I was not involved in the slave trade. No one alive today was. Any apology I, or the PM or any other Brit makes, is meaningless. I might as well apologise for Stalin’s purges, the Tienanmen Square massacre, the Killing Fields in Cambodia or any other of the numerous atrocities in which I had no part at all. When I say sorry, what does it do? Does it mean I feel really bad and wont do it again? (Ok, sorry, I promise to never gun down Chinese students again) Does it mean the people who suffered at the hands of the slave traders three centuries ago will suddenly be free? (No) Does it mean they can rest better in their afterlife? (Meaningless and still No).
It means nothing. Saying sorry for something you had no part in is totally pointless. From my family tree it is unlikely any of my ancestors were even involved. During the slavery years, the average Briton was far from the free thinking member of an open and accountable democratic society as they are today…. It was only in the sixteenth century that Villeinage was removed from Britain (unless you were Catholic…) and even then the majority of people were too poor, too powerless and to subjugated themselves to have any opinions on the slave trade in Africa. This creates the possible argument that the Royal Family / Aristocracy should apologise but most of them are German anyway… If they were going to apologise, then the remaining African nations have to as well – who do you think the slaves were bought from?
All in all, I think slavery is a terrible thing. I feel sorry for all the people throughout history who have been slaves (whatever their skin colour or nation of origin, I dont like to discriminate) and appreciate they suffered terribly.
I am not going to say “I am sorry” though.