On 25 March Britain will mark the 200th anniversary since the abolition of slavery with both a sense of pride and a degree of shame.
The transatlantic slave trade was an inhuman, degrading business. Over the course of three hundred years, some ten to twelve million Africans were shipped to the Americas to provide agricultural labour. They were transported in dreadful conditions, subjected to torturous ordeals on arrival in order to be ?broken in? at seasoning camps, and were often mistreated by their masters. But the story of the slave trade has, in more recent decades, been hijacked by the politically correct, who have distorted facts and vacuously linked today with the past in order to explain and apologise for contemporary racial divides.
In a recent article in his own promotional newspaper, The Londoner, Mayor Ken Livingstone fell over himself to condemn the slave trade. Presenting a one-sided and historically inaccurate picture of the trade, he kowtowed to ethnic minorities to promote his own benevolence and generosity in staging a series of events to acknowledge Britain's role in slavery. But an unquestioning account of the slave trade is neither helpful nor honest, and it is a fallacy that by emphasising white culpability two hundred years ago, tensions can be soothed now.
As Afro-American scholar, Thomas Sowell, pointed out, slavery never was a white European invention?. On every continent, slavery predated written history. The Arabian slave trade, for example, began hundreds of years before the transatlantic trade yet continued into the early 1900s and involved up to an estimated 17 million slaves. Furthermore, during the transatlantic trade, the vast majority of slaves were sold to Europeans by Africans themselves either directly or via Arabian merchants many slaves had been prisoners captured and traded by their enemies as a result of intertribal African warfare, the theory being that it was rather useful to have one's enemies shifted to another continent.
The trade in slaves in Britain was actually made illegal in 1102, yet in the eighteenth century, black slaves began to be brought into the country to be used as servants (although they could not be bought or sold) and in British colonies slave labour was invaluable to the burgeoning agricultural industries. In 1783, however, an abolitionist movement began to emerge in Britain which called for slavery to be outlawed in the entire British Empire.
When the slave trade was finally banned in this country in 1807, it had been a result of both white and black pressure. The abolitionist movement, led by a little-known Tory backbencher, William Wilberforce, obviously played a significant political role in the passing of the Slave Trade Act, which imposed fines of £100 on ship owners for every slave found aboard. Yet infamous slave rebellions such as that in Haiti, and the efforts of prominent black activists in Britain and the colonies, equally created momentum for abolition. The idea that white people bestowed upon their impotent black captives their freedom is both misguided and patronising.
For political, economic and moral reasons, following the 1807 Act, Britain itself aggressively pushed for slavery and the trade of slaves to be outlawed across the globe in an unprecedented foreign policy effort. Cash incentives were offered to Portugal and Spain to end their trades, and Britain even attempted to impose a ban on slavery in Africa itself.
The slave trade was a black and white crime, its abolition a black and white achievement. Where to apportion most blame can be argued over endlessly, but certainly nobody should now be trying to score easy political points over this dark moment in our history.
The real issue today should be how to prevent our modern equivalent of slavery: human trafficking. It is this most unpleasant by-product of globalisation in the labour market that now scars our communities, and which now deserves our urgent attention. There is little doubt that many thousands of non-UK nationals currently work in degrading and dangerous conditions, often selling sexual services in conditions no better than the slavery whose abolition two centuries ago we celebrate. It is estimated that around 4000 trafficked women currently work in
Britain as prostitutes, with criminal gangs selling these poor women for up to £8000. These modern day slaves are voiceless and vulnerable, stowed in the untouched shadows of our society. It is time that the slavery debate casts off the shackles of race politics and starts to focus on practical solutions for the victims of today?s ugly and shameful trade.