I blame Alex Haley*…

Much as I have a deep and abiding loathing for ‘reality’ television, and not just artificially induced freak shows like Big Brother but also those interminable earnest documentaries about people with disabilities that all convey the same message – it’s okay to gawp as much as you like as long you feel sorry for them – the one kind of reality show I will occasionally watch is the kind where they get a bunch of people to have a DNA test as part of going in search of the ‘roots’ and identify where in the world they actually come from.

Don’t get me wrong here, I still couldn’t give a shit about the ‘personal stories’ of the people fatured in the programme, that’s just window dressing. No, the bit I like is the pay-off, the bit where they sit down with the scientist to get the results of the test, because its at the point that you’re reminded that the universe has a wonderfully perverse cosmic sense of humour as you watch the biggest twat on the show get their come uppance:

So, give me the news. Where do I come from? I’m a descendent of the Masai, aren’t I? I’ve always felt a reall affinity for them so that must be my roots coming through.

Errr. No.

Well it must be West Africa then? Some noble tribe of great warriors who once ruled large tracts of Nigeria or the Gambia?

Errr. No.

Well, where am I from then? Come on, tell me…

Well. I don’t know how to put this but…

Yes…

Errrm…

Yes….

Well, according to the test, you’re from Chingford.

Whaaaaaaaattttt!

The very first of these kind of shows I saw ran pretty much down these lines. It was the young guy who was really into the whole ‘back to Africa’ thing and who took the test as means of vindicating his sense of ‘Blackness’ whose main ancestor turned out to be a White European. And even when they did another test as traced a different part of his ancestry to a tribe in West Africa, giving him the opportunity he wanted to indulge his romantic notions of heritage, he promptly went out there, chose himself an African name, which he took from a historical tribal leader who sounded like he was ‘the business’ – the whole ‘great and noble warrior’ thing – only them to discover afterwards that this historical figure was also one of more notorious slavers in the tribes history and they there, was therefore, even chance that he might the one yo have sold his real ancestor in slavery.

It’s the cosmic humour of moments like that that I really like, in fact a recent programme on the same basic theme, that I unfortunately didn’t see, managed to top that first programme by revealing that Garry Bushell, of all people, has a genetic ancestry traceable to sub-Saharan Africa. Garry Bushell has black ancestors, just how poetic a piece of cosmic justice is that.

The serious point here is that more often than not, when people start harping on about ancestry and their ‘roots’, in particular, what they’re talking about isnot reality but some sort of romantic fantasy about their origins that, more often than not, has little real basis in historical fact – hence we have Oprah Winfrey announcing that she believes herself to be a Zulu, even in the face of Zulu historians pointing out that:

If there were Zulu people taken as slaves they would have most likely been taken eastwards by Arab traders or to South American colonies.

Those who ended up in North America, say in Mississippi where Miss Winfrey comes from, were mostly of West African origin.

The whole ‘Back to Africa’ thing is, for the most part, no more than a modern myth, a romantic fantasy whose real roots lie not in Africa but firmly in Europe. In anthropological terms there is nothing particularly special or remarkable about the nature of African tribal society prior to European intervention on the continent, any more than there was about the Incas, Aztecs, Native Americans, the various tribes of the Amazon, the Celts or even Cro-Magnon man. The dream of going back to Africa to find one’s own noble heritage is a European myth, one born out the European Enlightenment and Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ and then pumped up out of all sense of by 18th/19th Century Romanticism and the Romantic nationalism of the all-too German Johannes Herder and Johannes Ficter.

The harsh truth in all this is that idea that one has ‘noble’ roots is, for the most part, about as real as the belief in past-life regression under hypnosis, particularly when the latter leaves someone firmly convinced that they used to be Cleopatra or, even better, Guinevere (a character for whose existence we have no historical evidence at all).

The relevance of this to current events is, of course, the news that Tony Blair will, today, express his ‘deep sorrow’ for Britain’s role in the slave trade; Blair being particuarly good at apologising for historical events for he cannot be held responsible – he’s already apologised for both the Irish Potato famine and the expulsion of Jews from England by Edward I – but not for his own contemporary screw-ups.

Blair is, apparently set to say;

“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 it ever happened, that it ever could have happened and to rejoice at the different and better times we live in today.”

…But stop short of offering a full apology in case that gives rise to a claim for reparations, which rather emphasises the complete absurdity of this whole situation.

Reparations for what, exactly? For one’s ancestor having been transported as a slave some 200-300 years ago? The idea is completely absurd. If we’re going to pay reparations to the descendents of slaves, assuming those decendents can offer satisfactory evidence of their ancestry, then why stop there – why not pay reparations to the descendents of all those British people who driven from the land by the various enclosure Acts leading up to the Inclosure Consolidation Act of 1801. Maybe we should compensate the Roman Catholic Church for its losses arising from the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII or sue the present Italian government for negligence of the Roman Empire in leaving Britain undefended in the 4th Century AD and causing the Dark Ages.

Watching this debate unfold, in anticipation of next’s year 200th anniversary of the ‘abolition’ of slavery in the UK one cannot help but marvel at the pure sophistry of the debate.

For one thing, historical accuracy seems rather thin on the ground in this debate.

Next year is not the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery but of the outlawing of the trade in slaves. No one was emancipated by law in 1807, instead the 1807 Abolution of the Slave Trade Act simply imposed a fine of £100 for every slave found abord ship, in all a very New Labour way of going about things, although its not clear whether Wilberforce, who led the campaign against the slave trade in parliament, ever got around to talking about summary justice, on the stop fines or ABSOs for slave traders. We didn’t actually get around to putting an outright end to slavery until the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833, so for around 25 years, the legal status of slaves was akin to that of endangered animal species today – you can’t transport them from the ‘wild’ but it was okay to keep them as long as their were bred in captivity.

And contrary to popular myth, Britain was NOT the first European nation to abolish slavery; that honour goes to France and to the Jacobin National Convention, which abolished slavery on Feb 4 1794. If you really want to see how slavery was first abolished by a European nation, then one needs to read up on the history of the Haitian revolution and, in particular, the history of Toussaint L’Ouverture, one of least know and yet most remarkable figures to emerge from the French Revolution; a slve who emancipated himself by first teaching himself to read and then teaching himself the art of war (and generalship) from the works of Julius Caesar before leading a revolution that eventually fought off Napoelon’s efforts to reintroduce slavery to Haiti and create the first Black republic. By way of contrast, the story of the abolition of slavery in Britain seems, well, all rather tame and uninteresting.

Then there’s the overweening hypocrisy of those demanding a full and formal apology for the slave trade. To illustrate the point, the subject on an apology for slavery was featured on this morning’s BBC Breakfast news in its usual fashion – i.e. a pair of talking heads on the sofa. As I was getting my daugther ready for school at the time, I wasn’t paying too much attention to the conversation until the subject of the African end of the slave trade, which is still alive today in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, was brought up, at which point the Black ‘talking head’ responded in stentorian tones to the effect that you can’t condemn Africans for the actions of the few ‘collaborators’, so slavery was all the responsibility of the European who instigated it in the first place, before wittering on about genocide.

All of which is complete and utter rubbish. Africans were trading in slaves both internally and with Arab slavers long before latter day Europeans got involved in matters. Slavery did not begin in Africa will the arrival of Europeans into the picture, and the involvement of African tribes in slavery was anything but confined to a few supposed ‘collaborators’.

Terrible as the conditions aboard European slave ships were, a 20% death rate in transit was about average – and, of course, conditions hardly improved if one survived the journey – the slave trade was not genocide, which, to remind everyone, is defined as, ‘the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group’.

And, equally, its absurd to suggest that Britons (or Europeans) have some collective responsbility for the slave trade, when the vast majority the British population of the time were treated only marginally better than slaves by their own ruling class – unless those who buy into this warped interpretation of history somehow think that my one ancestors, or at least that branch of my family that earned a crust first from digging canals and then working on them, we all given personal african slaves to mind their shovels while they hacked away at the ground with a pickaxe.
Both the exculpatory nonsense about African involvement in slavery being confined to a minority of collaborator and the characterisation of the slave trade as genocide are modern myths with no real basis in fact or historical reality; the former, in particular, being the product (again) of Rousseau’s idealised ‘noble savage’ coupled with the myth of the existence of a pan-African ‘racial conciousness’ that was popularised by the ‘Back to Africa’ movement, particularly in the US but whose history stretches back only as far as the early part of the 20th Century and the influence of Marcus Garvey.

Unsurprising, a quick trawl through the newspaper opinion columns finds Yasmin Alibhai-Brown picking up on this issue, and reminding me of point I really need to pick up with Sunny Hundal and the New Generation Network, this being the urgent need to remove from the public discourse around race and identity the half-baked sub-Marxian view of racial ‘politics’.

Alibhai-Brown’s article drags out all the usual tropes of this strand of thinking for a good airing, starting, as usual, with an attack on the mercantile class that profited most directly from the slave trade.

Last week I was in Bristol to deliver a lecture marking 200 years since the birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. On the way to the venue my host and driver said there had been a blazing controversy in the city over the naming of a new shopping mall.

The burghers wanted to honour the old merchant class who had brought prosperity to the city. Anti-racist inhabitants objected because many of the most successful traders were slave trade profiteers who deserve posthumous dishonour not fresh accolades. The Royal African Company, a collective of avaricious venture capitalists had bases in this city, as well as Liverpool, Glasgow, Hull and London. Go to Bristol’s Venturers House and see in stone the pride and self assurance of slave traders who called themselves Christians.

Alibhai-Brown error, here, is one that is so common place as to have become the epitomy of banality in discussions of history – she judges the actions of the mercantile class of the 18th Century by reference to modern beliefs and modern ethical standards of behaviour, as if to suggest, somehow, that in profiting from slavery they were perfectly aware that what they were doing was wrong and unChristian to boot.

This is far from being the case. The prevailing Christian worldview of the time was one in which the world operated within a highly stratified social hierarchy ordained by God. A place for everything and everything in its place – and the place of Africans, and other indigenous people, was at the very bottom of the pile and ripe for exploitation. There is no sense in which the mercantile classes of the time were acting contrary to their Christian beliefs, because the manner in which Christianity was interpreted at the time entirely supported their actions. It’s not that an 18th Century slave trader would disagree with the moral worldview expressed by Alibhai-Brown, they simply wouldn’t recognise it as its based on an understanding of the world and the nature of society that did not exist at the time and which arose only in the wake of the Enlightenment, the philsophical developments of which made it possible to challenge, and eventually, overturn the ‘old order’. And even that took time as some of the more lauded figures of the Enlightenment period were slave owners; Thomas Jefferson being just one example. I wonder, would Alibhai-Brown consider him worthy of ‘posthumous dishonour’.

It makes no more sense, rationally, to condemn from hindsight those who profited from the slave trade in the pre-Enlightenment era any more than it does to condemn the civilisation of Classical Greece for its acceptance of pederasty as a social/cultural norm. To compare either to a modern sense of morality is to compare apples and oranges.

Before launching an assault on the moral character of the mercantile classes of the 18th Century, Alibhai-Brown would do well to reacquaint (or perhaps simply acquaint) herself with Isaiah Berlin’s work on the history of ideas and, in particular, his work on (and biography/analysis of) Giambattista Vico.

To compound matters further, it seems that Alibhai-Brown hasn’t been paying much attention to Blair’s unabashed propensity for faux public contrition:

Just recently I wrote that an abiding tradition in this country is that it never apologises for its policies, past or present, however devious and destructive. Well this morning has broken like the first dawn. The self-righteous leader who never says sorry has proffered fulsome contrition, even though it will leave many natives gnashing their teeth.

Which turns out to be a rather embarrassing omission as in its main coverage of Blair’s upcoming statement it provides a handy list of past apologies, even if it does miss the apology for Edward I, but then that was at a private event to mark the 350th anniversary of the lifting of the expulsion, by Cromwell, so I suppose it doesn’t quite count.

British apologies

* POTATO FAMINE

In 1997 Tony Blair said sorry for Britain not doing more to relieve suffering from Ireland’s 19th-century potato famine.

* DESERTERS

This year some 300 First World War soldiers shot for refusing to fight (many of whom were shell-shocked) were pardoned.

* MAORIS

In 1995, the Queen officially apologised to the largest Maori tribe in New Zealand for the devastation wrought on their land in the 1860s.

* AMRITSAR MASSACRE

In 1997 the Queen visited Amritsar in the Punjab, scene of a massacre of up to 1.200 people in 1919. She said it was “distressing”, and said: “History cannot be rewritten, however much we might sometimes wish otherwise.”

Moving on with her arguments, she tackles the thorny question of reparations head on (and badly):

For some protesters, this expression of sorrow does not add up to a proper apology. There is always a wedge of the ne’er satisfied in our colourful democracy. For other rejectionists, Blair’s expressions are meaningless because they come not with a blank cheque for reparations to the descendants.

This demand is not preposterous and I have thought long and hard about back payments for this crime against the stolen folk of Africa. In the end I concluded it would satisfy nobody and would lead to inter-state quarrels and corruption and worse. We could do something imaginative and, perhaps, offer university grants for a thousand deserving Afro-Caribbean students every year for a decade. That would do some good.

So her prescription for a salve for our guilty consciences is a thousand university scholarship for African-Caribbean students (tsk ‘Afro-Caribbean’, Yasmin? That’s so un-PC). So that’s £3 million straight out of the gate in tutition fees, for starters, before we get on to the question of whether our contrition demands that pay a maintenance grant as well.

And who, exactly, is to pay for for this prescription? Do we, as taxpayers, pick up the tab, or is this something that only those descendents of the profiteering mercantile classes should be charged with paying for? And, while we’re on the subject, what’s you’re suggested repayment period for this cultural ‘debt’? 10 years? 20? 50? In perpetuity, perhaps? How long will it take to wash away the ‘stain’ on Britain’s character?

Yasmin doesn’t say, but then I doubt she’s really given this as much thought as she claims, at least in terms of the pacticalities of such a scheme.

You might think that, having already pumbed the depths of absurdity, there is little prospect of Yasmin digging herself any deeper into a hole – and of course you’d be wrong.

Most profits of the Atlantic trade went to British and US operators and investors. Their role and greed made them the worst villains of the practice, no question.

Well, actually, there’s an interesting question in its own right. Britain certain got rich off the back of slavery, for time, and those profits certainly assisted in the ‘construction’ of the British Empire, which, at its height, ruled over something like a quarter of the globe. But…

One of the historical facts about Empire that rarely, if ever, gets a mention these days, when we’re all supposed to be ashamed our Imperial past, is that the profits of Empire flowed in more than one direction. At its peak, in the mid-late Victorian period, around a third of Britain’s capital was invested overseas, most of it in the colonies of the British Empire. How much of that capital investment filtered down to the indiginous populations in a beneficial form of the Empire is anyone’s guess, but what it does show is that in economic terms, the impact of the slave trade was not quite the one-way street that its often presented as being.

But then, the culpability of British merchants is only half the story:

However, some money was made by African trappers and sellers of their compatriots and the Atlantic slave trade could not have happened without the collusion of these middlemen. It is appalling that the west African countries where slaves were stored and packed into ships have made little attempt to open up this history to genuine and honest scrutiny. These were their sons and daughters.

Again we enter the realms of passing judgment in hindsight based on cultural values and social mores that did not exist at the time, such that the history of the slave trade is largely removed from its proper historical context. But that’s not quite all that she has in mind here:

If you can still find it, read the book The Atlantic Sound by the precise and poetic British black writer Caryl Phillips. He went to Liverpool, Elmina in Ghana (also a thriving slave port) and Charleston in the US where one-third of African men, women and children were taken to be sold into bondage. All three places were in denial about the scale and savagery of the business.

In Ghana, Phillips met an African-American émigré who told him: “To go deeper into the psychological and historical import of the slave trade is not what most Africans want to do.” An academic Dr Ben Abdullah seriously opined thus: “You must not be too romantic about slavery. It was a terrible thing but many of the Africans who left were not good people.”

There are two very different and interesting views in that second paragraph, both of which Alibhai-Brown characterises as being ‘in denial’.

The views of the unnamed African-American émigré perhaps deserve such a characterisation although she rather misses the significance of the suggestion that going deeper into the psychological and historical import of the slave trade would be undesirable. This has little real bearing on how African’s perceive their historical role in this trade; the majority, one doubts, give it too much thought being rather more concerned with getting on with their lives. It does, however, nicely emphasise the hypocrisy of those, in Britain, who are most vocal in demanding an apology for the slave trade and, particularly, those who buy into and promote the exculpatory line that seeks to minimise the public perception of African involvement in this trade to that of a few ‘collaborators’.

The central message here is one of ‘don’t look too closely – you might discover that things are not all that they appear and that Africans are not quite the universal victims we’d like you to think they are’.

By contrast, Dr Ben Abdullah, appears to offer a more rational view of the slave trade in noting both that there is an element of romanticism surrounding the slave trade, as far as African involvement goes and implying that not all those who were transported to the Caribbean and North America were necessarily ‘good people’. This suggests that, at least in part, the slave trade may have been used in West Africa as a means of ridding themselves of their ‘criminal element’ much as Europeans once transported their own criminals to the colonies as a means of punishment. While it would be undoubtedly the case that the ‘judicial’ process by which such decisions we taken would fall some considerable way short of modern standards of justice this does suggest that, at least in part, the African view of the apparent ‘utility’ of the slave trade was not so very different from our own at that time and that there may have been rather more mutuality in the arrangements between African tribal societies and European slave traders than is usually admitted, at least publicly.

Frustratingly, Alibhai-Brown neglects to provide sufficient information about Dr Ben Abdullah to enable his views to put into context against his academic background – how much store one might place in his opinions will naturally differ according to whether his academic credentials mark him out as having some expertise in the history of the slave trade, or not, but as far as one can reliably tell, it seems likely that the Dr Ben Abdullah, cited here, may well be Dr. Mohammed Ben Abdullah, a Ghanian and the country’s former secretary of Culture and Tourism and head of its National Cultural Council.

Alibhai-Brown’s contention that African’s are in ‘denial’ about their own role and involvement in the slave trade throws a nicely-weighted paradox into her article. To explore fully and honestly the historical realities of the slave trade in Africa is to being to light an uncomfortable truth that is entirely of keeping with the romantic myths harboured by the ‘Back to Africa’ movement, the idea that no one society, African, European (or Arab) is entirely innocent here. Where this takes us is towards what one might consider Africa’s ‘dirty little secret’, a historical reality in which European slavers did not so much instigate the trade in African slaves as provide a pre-existing, indiginous, slave trade with a new, and profitable outlet for its services.

African involvement in supplying slaves to European traders was rather more organised than the ‘collaboration’ myth suggests. Alongside an informal trade in slaves in which bounties were paid to ‘freelance’ raiding parties, the European traders of the time also entered into formal trade agreements with the coastal African Kingdoms for the supply of slaves, this being far from the picture that some are keen to promote at this current time. But then a full and open acknowledgement of the existence of an indiginous African slave trade, which was endemic across most of the continent long before Europe took an interest, and its role in servicing the ‘European market’, beyond the deliberately minimised view of this trade as comprising only a few ‘collaborators’ is not exactly the view of the slave trade that those demanding currently demanding an apology (and whom Alibhai-Brown professes to support) actually want the public to see.

There is rather more going on here, by way of denial, than simply Britain’s own perception of its role in the slave trade, indeed it seems entirely possible that those now demanding an apology for slavery are as much, if not, more in denial of the historical truth than those who built their personal (and corporate) fortunes on the back of the trade.

The idea that Europeans bear exclusive culpability for the slave trade, like everything else in the debate, is a modern concept, one derived from the same strand of sub-Marxian analysis of ‘racial politics’ that also holds that racism is function of the prevailing social hierarchy and the relative position of a specific ethnic group in the global power structure derived from that hierarchy, i.e. it springs from the same well that holds that ethnic minorities cannot be racist, only prejudiced, because they do not belong to the dominant ethnic group is society.

This is complete and utter rubbish; the result of a lazy transposition of race/ethnicity into Marxist notions of class-consciousness, the proof of which is manner in which adherents to these notions promote a view of Africa (and Africans) as a single, homogeneous cultural unit rather than a continent whose people are rich is variety and diversity like almost nowhere else on earth.

The last point of note in Alibhai-Brown’s article is one that needs to be met head on, that of the alleged ‘generational impact’ of slavery:

In America, African-Americans are still the most poor and uneducated, caught in crime and drugs and victims of overt white racism. Bill Clinton was a rare president who understood the generational disadvantages left by slavery. In his time, America started to recognise the history. In England – and yes, I do mean England – campaigners, black and white, are slowly breaking through the walls of stubborn rebuttals and denials.

This seems to be a common theme amongst those seeking not only an apology but reparations:

Ester Stanford, the secretary of the Rendezvous of Victory Campaign, said: “This statement of regret does not go far enough.

“What is now required is a dialogue about how we repair the legacies of enslavement, and we’re talking about educational repairs, we’re talking about economic repairs, family repairs, cultural repairs, repairs of every kind that we need to recreate and sustain ourselves – it will cost.”

Rendezvous of Victory, it transpires, is a Marxist organisation, of sorts, which styles itself as being ‘inspired by the vision and words of Aimé Césaire‘, a french left-wing intellectual whom, much as I loathe the term, could best be described as ‘fellow traveller’ – indeed their website exhibits all the classic signs of left-wing pseud-ism, and then some:

…our Heritage Learning movement that seeks to continue and advance globally, the historical work of Communities of Anti-Slavery Abolitionist Resistance….

…We hope you enjoy the journey through our pathway charted in the footsteps of the legendary Ananse. For, ours is a portal of journeying not only cybernetically but also spiritually into the Anansekrom web of Anti-Slavery Abolitionist Heritage Learning. As well known in traditional Afrikan folklore that became one of the weapons of Anti-Slavery Abolitionist Resistance, Ananse the Spider, links through its own natural worldwide web of global communications, various generations not only of Afrikan people of the continent and diaspora but also all of humanity in the universal quest for the Truth that will set all free in Mind, Body and Soul.

Loosely translated, what all that actually means is, ‘we’re a bunch of pretentious twats’.

There is a very basic problem with this general concept of ‘generational disadvantages’ arising out of slavery and, in particular, the idea of ‘repairing the legacies’ of enslavement – it is impossible to say definitively what these disadvantages and legacies are.

We’re dealing, here, with an argument that is entirely counterfactual in the sense that its impossible to say quite what course Africa, and its many different cultural/ethnic groups might have taken in the absence of European intervention, whether this is in the form of slavery or, a little later on, by way of colonial rule.

It is impossible to assess the real legacy of slavery or even say that such a legacy exists given that there is no benchmark against which assess its impact and no means by which we can isolate its effects, if any, from a myriad of other social, cultural and hsitorical factors that have gone into creating the position in which African-Caribbean communities find themselves today.

The Rendezvous of Victory website includes an article that purports to explain impact and legacies of ‘chattel enslavement’ that rather nicely encapsulates the problem with this strand of thought, not least by its opening sentence:

The human misery, economic exploitation and social disorder caused by Chattel Enslavement are impossible to quantify.

What a great opening line – slavery was a bad thing, just don’t ask us to explain how bad it was because we don’t really know… and as you might expect, its all downhill from there.

There are some ‘higlights’ in the article that are worth mentioning, if only for the paucity of reasoning they exemplify, for example, there is this:

…the trade in African peoples was about plunder and brutality and a complete lack of respect for the human rights of Africans who were enslaved.

The problem with this being, of course, that European society had no real concept of human rights until the end of the 18th Century (and the Enlightenment) such that argument is entirely moot – how can one respect something that one cannot conceive of?

It removed Africa’s young and healthy workforce, as well as destroyed agriculture and industry and increased political and military conflict among African states, which was largely encouraged by European traders as a way of acquiring slaves. It forced people to move away from their homes, their communities, their farmlands and from any kind of economic stability they had.

The first thing to say is that this sounds rather more like a description of colonialism than the slave trade, in terms of the presumed impact on agriculture and industry and it is equally facile to talk in terms of African ‘states’ as the concept of the nation state had barely taken root in Europe at this point in time, let alone found its way to Africa. And as for the assertion that European intervention increased political and military conflict between the putative African ‘states’, such a view is only sustainable if one accepts that the slave trade arrived in West Africa with European traders, when the reality is that is endemic long before Europe provided a new trading opportunity, and indeed persists today in some parts West and Sub-Saharan Africa.
And to add to this already discursive mix, we also have:

Racism as we know it today began as a justification and rationalisation by some sections of European society, of man’s inhumanity to man. The difference in complexion and appearance between Africans and their European oppressors made it possible for advocates of slavery to popularise the idea that Africans were a lower form of human life, or not even human at all.

This is, to some extent, correct, in the sense that the origins of the modern concept of biological racism lie, ironically enough, in changes in the prevailing Christian worldview arising, first out of the Protestant Reformation and then latterly from the influence of the Enlightenment, giving rise to the view that ‘all men were created equal’. Africans, logically, then had be recharacterised as ‘sub-human’ in order to justify the continuation of slavery while remaining consistent with the newly adopted Christian precept of equality. However, far from clarifying matters, this muddies the waters even further as it poses the question of whether one can legitimately ‘blame’ the alleged generational disadvantages experienced by African-Caribbeans on slavery, for giving rise to the modern ideas of racism or whether the fault lies instead with the failure of society to reevaluate its ideas on race in the wake of having abolished slavery, and therefore removed the original raison d’etre for racism.

None of this takes us any closer to a rational explanation as to why we should now offer an apology to, and compensate, the descendents of those who were transported to the Caribbean and Americas by the slave trade or how financial reparations might somehow set everything to rights – it won’t, in fact the one wholly accurate statement that Alibhai-Brown makes in here article is this one:

In the end I concluded it would satisfy nobody and would lead to inter-state quarrels and corruption and worse.

Apologies for historical events that now are no so far in the past as to be well beyond living memory serve no real purpose at all. save that of providing a sop to those who harbour wholly romantic and unrealistic notions of their own heritage and identity. No one will be any better off for receiving such an apology and to bow before such demands is to reinforce the idea that one can play the politics of victimhood to one’s own advantage and not only get away with it but benefit from it, an idea that is already far too prevalent in Britain today.

If, nearly 200 years on from the abolition of the slave trade, we have any real duty at all to those who were transported from Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas (and to their descendents) that such a duty extends only so far as to give a full and accurate historical accounting of their stories and to learn the lessons of history and ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of our own ancestors – and nothing more.

Apologies are meaningless – what matters is that we remember and we learn, and that we use that construct a better future and not wrangle over the past.
* BTW, I don’t really blame Alex Haley for any of this, I just thought it would make for a nicely provocative and attention grabbing title. 

One thought on “I blame Alex Haley*…

  1. Interesting…but I worry that every time the ‘well the Africans we’re at it as well’ argument crops up, it’s less as an explanation of the complexity of slavery and more an attempt not to talk about history and/or racism at all, let alone the specifics of the European trade in slaves, though that’s not what you’re about here. As for reparations, maybe the govt’s shiny new DNA database will help .

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