My family lived near Bristol when that city would have been living high on the hog from the profit of slave trafficking. Yet if we got our hands on any of that cash you have my solemn oath that none of it has trickled down the generations. So I was rather annoyed to learn last week that the government is planning to apologise on the nation's behalf for the slave trade.
A committee headed by John Prescott is considering something called "a statement of regret" to be issued solemnly on March 25 next year, the date that marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. This is not technically an apology, but is something that parents will recognise as the next best thing. It is the government looking at its feet and mumbling a few words because it knows that otherwise it will be spending the next half an hour on the naughty step.
I don't know who will be making this apology, but I would be very grateful if they would make it clear that they have no authority to speak on behalf of the White family, late of Westbury-on-Trym in Gloucestershire. Because, like many other families throughout the land, we do not appear to have actually done anything. Not only did we play no part in slavery, but when we had a moment off from ploughing fields and building dry stone walls and sucking up to the Saxe-Coburgs we might even have been swept along in our modest way by the moral outrage that gripped the country in the late 18th century.
Far from being apologetic about slavery this country has much to be proud of. The abolition campaign had government support from an early stage. It was William Pitt, the dominant figure in the politics of the day, who urged his friend William Wilberforce to push the measure through the House of Commons.
Of course, we know that any apology is not really about slavery. It is about a much more modern issue: the uneasy relationship between black people and white people that can partly be blamed on the legacy of slavery in the West Indies and America. But slavery is not entirely what would be referred to these days as a white-on-black crime.
Years ago I watched a documentary about a group of black Americans who were on holiday in Africa, touring the slave sites. Many were in tears, having just discovered what went on at this end of the operation. They had just learnt the awful truth that the main suppliers of African slaves were themselves African. It was common practice for many years for the victors in battle to enslave their opponents. Suddenly, these victors discovered that they could also make a bit of money.
Jolly good business it was, too. King Tegbesu, who ruled what is now Benin, apparently made 250,000 pounds a year from selling slaves in 1750. According to my own rough calculations, this is the modern equivalent of 25 million pounds a year. And he is not the only African who grew fat on the profits of slave trading. The word "slave" is derived from the Slavs who were shipped from central Europe across the Mediterranean to Africa. From a book called The Slave Trade by Hugh Thomas, I also learn that 30,000 Christian slaves were sent to Damascus when the Moors conquered Spain in the 8th century. According to the Domesday Book there were 25,000 slaves in England in the 11th century.
So let's all enjoy a good knees-up in March. Let's have street parties and debates on Start The Week and we might even sit quietly while Prescott makes a speech about Wilberforce and Hull. But let's not pretend that the British were wholly responsible for the plight of African slaves. Slavery was a long established and widespread evil: the difference is that the British were one of the first to recognise it as evil and to do something about it.
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