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Wake up and smell the coffee!

Britain must come to terms with its slave past argues Patrick Vernon and this includes an apology

Over the last several weeks I have been involved in chairing and speaking at events and numerous media interviews on the bicentenary of the commemoration of the 1807 Slave Trade Act. In addition, I attended a state banquet at Buckingham Palace in honour of the President of Ghana as part of the country's 50th anniversary of political independence from the UK. As a Councillor in Hackney I have also been involved in promoting the local exhibition at the Hackney Museum on the slave trade and national curriculum resources developed for local schools in the borough. This is a model of good practice giving a different and arguably correct perspective to young people on the slave trade and how it relates to issues of citizenship and community cohesion. Finally, I just recovered from a 13 week campaign in Bristol West as part of the selection process to be a prospective Labour Parliamentary candidate.

The bicentenary commemoration's major focus is on the role of abolitionists particularly William Wilberforce, and the passing of the Slave Trade Act in 1807.This is the first time at a national level that people from all quarters of society have discussed the issue of the slave trade. Not since the landmark US drama series Roots, back in 1977, based on the Alex Haley book, have we have been given official sanction to discuss the slave trade and Britain's involvement.

Growing up in multicultural Wolverhampton and attending a primary school which was officially opened by the late Enoch Powell, the slave trade was only discussed fleetingly in school for my O level and as part of my A level economic history at the local FE college. I remember this made me feel embarrassed and ashamed as a young person. It was left to supplementary and Saturday schools up and down the country to teach black history and the achievements of Africans and the diaspora community. Not since the heady days of the GLC and ILEA in the early and mid 80s that led to the UK creation of Black History Month back in 1987 have black and white liberals, socialists and democrats, fully embraced the legacy of slavery. This may have been yet another reason for Thatcher dismantling regional government in the capital.

So after 20 years of Black History Month a public debate is welcome, albeit often one sided focused on what Africans contributed to the slave trade and modern day slavery. But we haven't explored the legacy and impact of the slave trade in politicised way at all. This should be the start of a process where we ask some soul searching questions about human rights and equality issues which we have failed to address over the last 500 years.

The facts are that the bicentenary year and the government and Church inspired events do not reflect the underlying historical issues which still create an unequal power relationship and inequality between black and white people in Britain today. Our class system reinforces the inequalities in access to influence and power. That's why we still have a significant under representation in public life and senior roles in the corporate, public and voluntary sector. So it is legitimate for many within the black community to raise issues about reparations, an apology and racism. Isn't the Attorney General who gave the legal opinion to Tony Blair regarding the ramifications of apologising about the slave trade the same guy who said it was legal to invade Iraq?

Ken Livingstone has been one of the few UK politicians outside Westminster to publicly apologise for slavery. He knows that this country is in denial of its past and therefore not honest in its relationship with the black community, and other ethnic minority and faith communities, in creating an environment of respect and community cohesion. The international community has also recognised this and that's why in 2001 at a major UN Conference in South Africa a resolution was passed that slavery is a crime against humanity. The only people jumping on the band wagon are apologists and revisionists who actually have the audacity to transfer their guilt to black people about the African involvements in the slave trade. This approach simply attempts to justify why it was lawfully and morally OK to make profits, accumulate wealth and to amass artefacts which were stolen and misappropriated by major museums and private collectors from Africa.

Plantation owners in 1807 were compensated to the tune of £20 million, equivalent today of £1.5 billion, by the government, although slavery continued up to 1833. A number of academics even claim that Britain did better financially after the Act of Parliament. Plantation owners continued the slave trade using other foreign vessels such as the Spanish and Portuguese ships, to avoid the law, a modern day version of tax avoidance or off-shore companies. ‘Indentured labour' from India and China was used to supplement enslaved Africans on the plantations. Britain started the process of colonisation in Africa leading to the partitioning and carving up of Africa with other European powers in Berlin in 1878.

In this context William Wilberforce was a small player in a complex picture of the on-going oppression of Africans leading to anti-colonial struggle and the independence of Ghana in 1957 as the first sub-Saharan country to gain its freedom from Britain.

Even so, it's important to acknowledge the role that Britain played in the abolition of the slave trade and the contribution of William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson in the abolition movement. We must all remember the Royal Navy's role in blockading slave ships on the high seas and the economic boycott by women and working class people of sugar and products connected with the trade.

Although, Wilberforce should be recognised for his contribution, this fell short of abolishing the entire system of slavery which continued up to 1833. Wilberforce, like other Parliamentarians, did not believe in giving black people (or the working class and women) full freedom and representation. We have been taught and mis-educated with a rose tinted version of history which continues to give negative messages to young people from all ethnic and faith backgrounds. Moreover this message becomes a corrosive disease for young black people, giving a wrong perspective of their ancestors and descendants submission, collaboration in the trade and that black people had no or limited civilisation or contribution to world history prior to this period.

Thus films like Amazing Grace should be banned from all cinemas, or accompanied by a strong health warning and any profits used by Hollywood to make a more historically correct film to counter the lies and misinformation.

Black people played their own role in self determination through the creation of Maroons' societies and independent states across the Caribbean and South America. There is a strong history of lobbying, resistance and rebellion from freed and enslaved Africans over the entire history of slavery. The role that black people played is still not reflected in public debate and the national curriculum. They range from Olaudah Equiano,Ignatius Sancho (fore-runners of the abolition movement prior to Wilberforce),Queen Nanny of the Maroons and her brothers who fought against the British in Jamaica for over 50 years in freeing enslaved Africans from the plantations to Toussaint L'Ouverture who lead the Haiti revolution from the French.

Sam Sharpe played a crucial role in lobbying and organising a rebellion against slavery in Jamaica in 1831 which led to his subsequent hanging by the plantation supported militia. His was an act of brave defiance leading Parliament into having two inquiries and subsequently led to the 1833 Act and the formal emancipation of African slaves in the British Caribbean. In 1975 Sam Sharpe was made a national hero in Jamaica to reflect his contribution in fighting for the freedom of black people.

Between 1st and 5th August every year across the Caribbean, Emancipation Day is celebrated as the proper date when slavery was abolished. The Bicentenary is simply one milestone on a very long road to the freedom which black people with support of white people had to fight for all the way. And slavery is still not a thing of the past.

The only European country to apologise for the transatlantic slave trade has been France. An apology is still worth while doing if this country is prepared to come to terms with its past and be honest enough to recognise that a mutual healing process is needed. Resources and support need to be available to help the descendants of enslaved Africans and European slave owning families to rediscover their family history and regain their humanity.

Britain did not start the slave trade. That was Portuguese and the Spanish. However, Britain made sure that it dominated and became the number one European power to manage, control and legalise the enslavement of Africans and benefited financially from the slave trade. This is without going into the rape, sexual assault, molestation, murder, torture, chastisement and mental cruelty, brain washing, of men, women and children over a 400 year period. Many of us retain the surnames of those who benefited from the unpaid work of our ancestors in the British Empire and then invited us to work in the ‘mother country'. That is why Britain is at the heart of the trade. It is a great pity that this nation cannot recognise and show some respect, recognition and humility to black people in the past and today and be honest about its involvement.

Nevertheless, open debate about the slave trade and its impact will foster better race relations and empower black and white to work together for a better society.


Every Generation Media and Foundation is a leading social enterprise in creative and cultural industries. It created the 100 Great Black Britons Campaign (www.100greatblackbritons.com) in 2003 with Mary Seacole being voted The Greatest Black Briton. EGM has recently published a major book on the history of Africa as part of the 2007 commemoration of the abolition of the slave trade called When We Ruled (www.whenweruled.com), written by black British academic Robin Walker. It brings together over 200 years of research on early history and heritage of Black people. In partnership with the British Film Institute a campaign called 100 Black Screen Icons is in the pipeline www.100blackscreenicons.com