11 JANUARY 1992, Page 20


Let's not be slaves to humbug


The Sunday Times reports a growing movement in Africa to put pressure on Britain and other advanced white nations to pay 'reparations' for slavery by writing off sub-Saharan Africa's debts of $163 bil- lion. There may be all kinds of good rea- sons to write off debts which African states have acquired since independence, but the issue should not be mixed up with slavery. Slavery, and the slave-trade, were not insti- tutions created by white capitalism. They are as old as human society. So far as can be discovered, slavery had always existed in black Africa. It was the usual method of recruiting labour for gold-mines, iron- works and large farms. Skilled labourers, such as blacksmiths, tended to be slaves. Slaves were also used to transport goods in long-distance trade and as a form of univer- sally negotiable currency in commercial transactions. When Europeans arrived to create the transatlantic slave-trade, they were welcomed by most African chiefs, for whom exporting slaves was a bonus on top of other rewarding aspects of the slave sys- tem. They benefited hugely from it, espe- cially in acquiring firearms, and when in due course Britain led the international campaign against the slave-trade, the chiefs were most reluctant to give it up. When Britain and the United States set up colonies of free slaves repatriated from the Americas — Sierra Leone in 1808 and Liberia in 1819 — they had to be defended by cannon and stockades from the local rulers, who rightly saw them as a threat to their profits. Descendants of these slaving chiefs are still prominent in African poli- tics.

The truth is, if the misdeeds of ancestors can be passed on to their progeny, like Original Sin, all societies have a legacy of guilt over slavery. But Britain's ought to be lighter than most because of its redemptive record. It is true that British appetites and interests were important in building up international slavery as a huge commercial force. In the 18th century, our per capita consumption of sugar was the highest in the world and successful West Indian estate- owners, who possessed thousands of slaves, were the richest people in Britain. Our ships carried a large proportion of the 11.5 million blacks transported across the Atlantic, and the rise and prosperity of Liv- erpool was due, in large part, to the profits of the slave-trade.

On the other hand, it is arguable that, without Britain, institutionalised slavery would still exist in most parts of the world. Though the French Revolutionary govern- ment was the first to condemn slavery, root and branch, and to proclaim universal rights irrespective of race, the French did little to put their ideas into practice and later reneged on them; the British achieved a great deal more in promoting these objec- tives. The great humanitarian Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), who was as influen- tial as Wilberforce in making the slave- trade unlawful, gives in his history of the abolitionist movement a substantial list of British writers who argued against slavery, ranging from Aphra Behn, through Defoe, Pope, Shenstone, Savage, to James Thom- son and Dr Johnson. Johnson, in particular, never missed an opportunity to condemn slavery and shocked the dons at an Oxford high table by toasting 'success to the next revolt of the Negroes in the West Indies'.

By the 1790s, indeed, boycotting prod- ucts produced by slave labour was a favourite activity of the English chattering classes. In 1797, when Coleridge was with Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy in West Somerset, all three used conscientiously to sweeten their tea or coffee with honey, which was Politically Correct, rather than sugar, which was not. But some chatterers denied the political correctness of tea and coffee too. Cobbett begged readers of his Examiner to use roasted wheat as a form of ersatz coffee. The Black Dwarf urged the public to make tea from hay, and coffee from a mixture of roasted peas and mus- tard. By then, of course, slavery was already unlawful in Britain. 22 June 1772 was an important date in world history, when, in the Somerset case, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield ruled that slavery was inadmissi- ble under the Common Law since it was 'so odious that nothing can be suffered to sup- port it but positive law'. That judgment cov- ered Wales and Ireland as well as England, and the Scots followed suit in 1778. We were not the first country to outlaw the slave-trade — that honour goes to Den- A money spider dropping out of the ERM. mark, which banned it in 1802, five years before Wilberforce got his abolition bill on to the Statute Book — but we were the first and for many years the only nation to enforce it with severe penalties and vigor- ous international action. We had to bribe such countries as Spain and Portugal, and bully others, like France, Brazil and the Netherlands, into following us in making the trade unlawful. Lining up a reluctant international community behind us on this issue was a primary aim of Castlereagh's foreign policy, because by this time the anti-slavery campaign had become the cause of the entire British people. As he put it, 'The nation is bent upon this object. I believe that there is hardly a village which has not met and petitioned on it.' The actu- al suppression of the trade was very largely the work of the Royal Navy. Generations of British seamen, who felt passionately on the subject, risked their lives to arrest the slavers who kept the trade going. Ending the slave-trade was the greatest and most enduring of all the triumphs of Britain's 'gunboat diplomacy'.

The role of Britain, significantly enough, was acknowledged at the time by the first black supremacist, the Haitian patriot Pompee Valentin de Vastey. Writing in the early 19th century, he argued that cultural history had been taught with a white bias, and that Africa was the real 'cradle of the sciences and the arts'. Sooner or later, 'five hundred million men, black, yellow and brown' would reclaim 'the rights and privi- leges which they have received from the author of nature'. But he admitted that 'noble and generous England' had been 'the principal power in Europe that took a lively interest in our fate', and blacks would

be 'most ungrateful and injust were we ever deficient in gratitude to the people and government of England'. Vastey also fore- saw that Britain had a 'civilising mission' in Africa, under an enlightened colonial poli- cy. What he did not foresee was that we would abandon that mission too soon, and hand over the peoples of Africa to a gener- ation of professional black politicians and soldiers, who have robbed and exploited them as ruthlessly as ever the old slaving- chiefs did. These are the men who have reduced most of black Africa to beggary and insecurity, in the process borrowing bil- lions which they have stolen or wasted. To blame the West, and above all the British, for the ills of Africa is humbug.