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Durban in the eyes of the British press. (Durban).

"The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 awarded Britain the contract to run the slave trade to the Americas. This the government sold off to the South Sea Company for an incredible [pounds sterling]7.5m allowing the settlement of most of [Britain's] national debt"

Simon Jenkins, in The Times (5 Sept):

"The British government should not have gone to Durban. The money should have been sent to a relevant charity. Apart from its overt antiSemitism, Durban was planned as the first big outing for the most outrageous legal con-trick in modern history, the demand that white states pay black people 'reparations' for the slave trade. This claim is being led by American lawyers whose mouths are so salivating at the 'biggest class action in history that even the most naive lobbyist should be suspicious...

"Small wonder the British government is reluctant to apologise for the slave trade, as Tony Blair felt obliged to do in 1997 for the Irish Potato Famine. The words may not amount to a row of beans, but the government risks being assailed for years by American lawyers on contigency fees. Britain may have been only a go-between in the slave trade, and championed its abolition...

"The pretence that the ills of black people everywhere are rooted in some 'recalled ethnic memory syndrome' of the slave trade is a perversion of history, geography, anthropology and economics. It is an insult to everyone's intelligence. It is the most patronising gesture of Western moral superiority.

"The gesture implies that all black people are so helpless that thry must be awarded some Great Excuse for any shortcoming... In a nutshell, 'slavery reparation' is the most humiliating racial slur that I can imagine."

David Aaronovitch, in The Independent (5 Sept):

"I have been bemused by the lengths to which even some ordinary British liberals have gone in denying any real historic responsibility for slavery. Correspondents have written to their favourite newspapers arguing that 'we' were not entirely at fault. What about the African kings who sold the captives in the first place? Or the Arab traders who had been about the business for centuries before we took it up (and for some years after we had put it down again?...

[But] how big was the business? Who undertook it? And how did they justify it to themselves?

"Slave trading, as carried out by white Europeans after the middle of the 17th century, was conducted on what we would now call an 'industrial' scale... In their millions we chained them, sold them, divided their families without compunction and killed them for trying to be free.

"And few benefited from it, as did the British. The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 awarded Britain the contract to run the slave trade to the Americas. This the government sold off to the South Sea Company for an incredible [pounds sterling] allowing the settlement of most of the national debt.

"The first Governor of the Company was also the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Shareholders in this company included heroes such as Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift. By the 1780s, the French and British were each shipping some 40,000 slaves per year, and running up incredible profits.

"Yet there was a problem. For most of that time our forebears did not think that enslaving human beings was a good thing. It had been largely abandoned in Christendom after the beginning of the 12th century, and was yet another vice ascribed to the lustful, barbarous Turks.

"What was the thing, after all, that Britons from the 18th century on -- in the words of the stirring anthem -- never, never, never will be? [Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves. Britons shall never, never, never be slaves!]. And what were we simultaneously turning millions of Africans into? How could it be immoral to enslave one person and not another?...

"Europeans (for the most part) ran the slave trade, colonised what was left behind, killed off the native populations of North, Central and South America and of Australia (question: what is the Aboriginal view of whether white Australians should allow asylum-seeking Afghans into their country?) and have got away with it.

"Still reparations are impossible. They are a pedant's delight... It cannot help. There is a good case, however, for an apology... There ought to be a recognition of what was done and who did it."

Chris McGreal, in The Guardian (3 Sept):

"The Europeans...should apologise unreservedly. The words "racist" and "crime" need to be in there, preferably side by side. And there needs to be an admission that the slave trade was the start of centuries of abuse of Africa and Africans by the West which did not end with slavery or colonialism or the Cold War.

"There is a direct line between the dehumanising of Africans stuffed on to slave ships and the transformation of Angola into a Cold War battlefield...

"Some have questioned the need for an apology by saying the Arabs also plundered millions from Africa, so where is their regret and restitution? But Arabs did not go on to subjugate almost every nation in Africa. Arabs did not impose apartheid on South Africa or use the continent as a political and military battlefield for the decades of the Cold War. Arabs do not own most of the fertile land in Zimbabwe.

"Most reasonable people in Europe would accept, even welcome, an apology. But if they do, it is not enough to then walk away as if the crime is consigned to history... With the apology should come a recognition that those who have benefited from Africa's misery have an obligation to help reconstruct it. It would not be reparations as such, and certainly not on an individual basis...

"Proper financial support for the [New African Initiative] would give Africa the fresh opportunity it needs and which a patchwork of development does not.

"It doesn't have to be called reparations, but tied to an apology for slavery, it would be a practical recognition by the West of the shameful reality that a good part of its prosperity is built on the exploitation of Africa and the misery of many of its people."
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Article Details
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Author:Aaronovitch, David
Publication:New African
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Oct 1, 2001
Words:1027
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