Over the last few months both the British government and the media have played around with the topic of what shape an apology for slavery should take, and if indeed any apology should be made at all. Britain’s ethnic majority have consistently voted quite conclusively on this issue; “If you make and apology you do it not in my name”. The ironic tone of the themes surrounding Britain’s 2007 commemoration of the abolition of the 1807 slave trade Act is quite profound.
Next year, the government and its cronies will be spinning the myth of William Wilberforce and his merry band of abolitionists. We will be told tales of how Britons both ‘black’ and ‘white’ joined hands in unity to petition the British government for the gradual abolition of the trafficking of enslaved Africans. Wilberforce, they will sing, was a moral crusader whose belief in Christianity led him to end a shameful chapter in Britain’s history.
The factual inaccuracy of this fairy tale myth has led to a myriad of historically inaccurate assertions being bandied around the British media and various discussions on 2007. Illustrating this lauding of factually and historically false premises, the Independent newspaper recently wrote; “Next year the country marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade - surely one of the most remarkable legislative reforms in British history in that it was driven primarily by moral and religious considerations rather than by fear of a baying mob outside Parliament or purely economic considerations”.
Amazing Grace, the Hollywood movie planned for release in February next year, includes a scene where Wilberforce, the so-called heroic crusader, is lying flat on his back in a field of grass gazing at a spider web. Wilberforce, who is played by actor Ioan Gruffudd, cries out – “I know I should be in the houses of parliament right now but as I wonder at the miracles of nature I realise that I did not find God, God found me”. It is one in a series of nauseatingly corny scenes aimed at Disneyfying the Wilberforce legacy and a perfect example of the onslaught of historically inaccurate cultural propaganda being targeted at the British people next year.
Unsurprisingly, when they are asked to vote on the issue of an apology as they did earlier this year in Bristol, a BBC poll of nearly ten thousand people revealed that over 90 per cent were strongly opposed to any form of apology that acknowledged responsibility for inheriting and abusing the privilege that has resulted from exploiting the legacy of socio-political inequality affecting African people world wide. Online debates on the issue of Blair’s statement continue to support this view. It is a position shared by the majority of Britain’s majority ethnic community who agree with the sentiments of Matthew Wright, the topical debate presenter who states “I don’t really see what there’s to apologise for, sure it was a terrible business but us Brits have done lots and lots of terrible things over the centuries”
Yet in spite of this glaring indictment of unethical impropriety, ‘liberal’ organisations, out of touch politicians and of course, the government, are promoting the works of abolitionists and disingenuously asserting that a spontaneous moral ‘group think’ miraculously led to the passing of the 1807 Act, despite the first ‘true’ abolition of slavery Act being passed later in 1833 and another version in 1838.
When addressing the national media, many championing the fairy tale of magical abolitionists fail to explain why or even acknowledge the fact that grass root African organisations are boycotting Wilberfest 2007 and taking part in Truth 2007, an educational programme established in Bristol to repair the socio-cultural damage that will ensue during a year long campaign promoting a distortion of history that further institutionalises the marginalisation of revolutionary Africans in order to assert the myth of european moral superiority and African docility.
In Blair’s statement to the New Nation newspaper he states;
“The transatlantic slave trade stands as one of the most inhuman enterprises in history. At a time when the capitals of Europe and America championed the Enlightenment of man, their merchants were enslaving a continent. Racism, not the rights of man, drove the horrors of the triangular trade. Some 12 million were transported. Some three million died.
Slavery’s impact upon Africa, the Caribbean, the Americas and Europe was profound. Thankfully, Britain was the first country to abolish the trade. As we approach the commemoration for the 200th anniversary of that abolition, it is only right we also recognise the active role Britain played until then in the slave trade. British industry and ports were intimately intertwined in it. Britain’s rise to global pre-eminence was
partially dependent on a system of colonial slave labour and, as we recall its abolition, we should also recall our place in its practice.
It is hard to believe that what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at the time. Personally I believe the bicentenary offers us a chance not just to say how profoundly shameful the slave trade was – how we condemn its existence utterly and praise those who fought for its abolition, but also to express our deep sorrow that it ever happened, that it ever could have happened and to rejoice at the different and better times we live in today.”
Despite the myth being constructed around 1807, it was actually the 1833 Act which ‘legally’ abolished the formal enslavement of Africans. However, the British government and their agents do not want you to read the actual text of the latter Act. To do so would be to destroy the mythos being constructed around Wilberforce and his movement for gradual abolition and reveal why no African of good conscience can celebrate or commemorate the morally reprehensible actions of the British government who paid reparations to their slavers to the tune of £1.4 billion in today’s current terms and transformed their apparatus of enslavement into one of ‘apprenticeship’ and then into the odious and brutal institution of colonisation.
I recently had a discussion with a representative of the Equiano Society, who are working in partnership with Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to utilise a £653,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to create an exhibition and education programme, who claimed that the government were not setting a Wilberforce agenda and that the Ligali organisation was deceiving the community and had no evidence of such a plan.
This is untrue.
Prime Minister Tony Blair had previously spoken about “the campaign to abolish the slave trade, led by William Wilberforce with so many Christian organizations in support - culminating, after two decades of tireless persuasion in and beyond parliament, in the abolition of the slave trade throughout the British empire in 1807. 2007 marks the two hundredth anniversary of that great reform. The government enthusiastically supports the work of the churches… to mark the bicentenary”.
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said; “William Wilberforce's achievement and the suffering of so many must be remembered in 2007”.
Culture Minister David Lammy has also stated; “2007 offers a timely opportunity for the people of Britain to recognise the reality of the transatlantic slave trade, to mark the abolition itself and the role of ordinary people, alongside other Britons, Africans and Caribbean people to help bring slavery to an end. My hon. Friend has eloquently reminded us of one of the great heroes of the abolition movement—William Wilberforce. His conviction, his strength and above all his belief and sense of purpose, still shine out to us over the intervening years”.
Last year the British government issued a national request for heritage and community-based organisations to apply for funding for projects inspired by Wilberforce and the 1807 abolition. To date over £20 million has been awarded to several partners.
The Wilberforce House Museum Development Project in Hull has been awarded £800,500 to recount the Parliamentary campaign of William Wilberforce for the abolition of the enslavement of Africans and to participate in a full programme of events under the name Wilberforce 2007, led by the City Council and others.
This is only the tip of the iceberg with organisations such as the BBC, the soon to be abolished Commission for Racial Equality and museums up and down the country all making a nice little earner whilst wallowing without remorse in the bloody legacy of enslavement.
Toyin Agbetu is founder and Head of Social and Education Policy for the Ligali organisation
Lessons to learn
The British media was deliberately being deceptive when they asserted Blair’s letter of regret was an apology for slavery. Furthermore the insult of Blair’s refusal to say sorry is compounded by the fact that he could not even be bothered to make a televised announcement addressed to the nation on behalf of the British government which would have ensured his ‘statement of sorrow’ was seen by an national and international audience. The intent behind Blair’s gesture politics was so transparent that not even the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Newsnight deemed the story worth reporting on.
By the Governments own inactions, Blair’s insincere expression of regret has been exposed as a precision worded legal document designed solely to appease both europeans and cultural disinherited Africans in Britain. Speaking on the BBC, David Lammy, the leading African British minister on Wilberforce 2007 defended Blairs statement and said; “black and white people across this country are please with what the Prime Minister has said, it is the right tone for moving forward in the spirit of reconciliation”
His failure to apologise and address the injustices wrought upon Africans residing on the Continent, the Caribbean and Americas ultimately reveals the deep level of contempt that he and the majority ethnic community in Britain have for the lives of all the African people still disadvantaged by the legacy of the Maafa. This shameful and sorrowful sham of political duplicity shames not only the Prime Minster for writing it but also those Africans insincere enough to accept and laud it.
The lesson we must learn from this is that “it is for the shamed slaver to beg forgiveness from those they enslaved, for only a slave would ask for a sorry without first an acceptance of blame.”
External LinksOperation Truth10 things about BBC Slavery MythsBristol 2007The Bristol debate: City says no to Maafa apologyMaafa
Community unite against 2007 myths2007 slavery whitewash must not be taught in schools
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"It is for the shamed slaver to beg forgiveness from those they enslaved, for only a slave would ask for a sorry without first an acceptance of blame." - So why didnt Blair say sorry?
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