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Blair kicks off debate on slavery

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While our energies and attention have been focused on the 2007 Cricket World Cup and its possible significance to the region, another event promises to have as great an impact, if not on the pockets, at least on the consciousness of Caribbean people. I speak of the 200th anniversary of the Act that abolished the Slave Trade and the efforts in the Caribbean and around the world to commemorate that occasion.

It is first of all quite curious that we in the Caribbean seek to emphasize the date when the Act was passed and not the date when it was implemented. There is perhaps some logic to this for without the British Act there would have been no abolition. Furthermore the 2007 celebration is more likely to command greater international interest and support.{{more}}

The season was actually kicked off last week with two events. There was the passage overwhelmingly at the United Nations of a resolution spearheaded by Jamaica and sponsored by the Caribbean states to commemorate the passage of the bill. What, however, generated a lot of interest and discussion was a statement by the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, made in anticipation of the 2007 celebrations. The Prime Minister reeling from the fall out from Iraq and with his exit from the political scene not far away, is obviously seeking to build a legacy as was evident from his recent visits to the Middle East and Pakistan. His comments on the anniversary of the abolition of the Slave Trade, published in full in the New Nation, a black British newspaper, might perhaps have been a step in that direction. His comments have had a mixed reception, adoration from some and criticisms from others who accused him of not going far enough and falling short of making an apology for Britain’s role in the trade. He stayed clear of this, we are told, fearing the possible legal implications, after being warned by his legal advisers that an apology might play into the hands of groups seeking reparations.

The question of whether or not Blair should have made an apology is for me a non-issue. His statement was nevertheless a powerful one and he said the right things although backing away from the full implications of some of what he said. The slave trade was described as ‘one of the most inhuman enterprises in history.’ While he was prepared to glory in the fact that Britain was the first country to have abolished the trade, he felt that one should not downplay its role in the trade, a role that in his view partially accounted for its rise to preeminence. Some will disagree and describe it as critical rather than partial although he was obviously not prepared to go that far. The UN resolution puts it differently and sees the slave trade as enriching the imperial empires of that time. In expressing shame for its practice Blair abhorred the fact that at one time it had legal sanction. He saw the need to celebrate the memories of those who fought against slavery and to reflect on those who suffered because of it. He used the occasion to recognize the contribution of African and Caribbean communities to the British nation, admitting in the process that barriers exist and have to be overcome.

Blair argued that ‘Racism, not the rights of man drove the horrors of the triangular trade.’ The fact that he was prepared to single out European merchants for enslaving ‘a continent’, should have alerted him to the fact that it went beyond racism and that it was the drive for profits within the context of capitalism that lay at the heart of the issue. He referred to the impact of the trade on Africa, the Caribbean, the Americas and Europe, noting in the process that Africa and the Caribbean are facing challenges and problems arising from that encounter and recognized the need to respond to them. He then drew attention to what he called a world focus on Africa arising from the G8 Summit and the ‘make poverty history campaign’. Britain was in his view playing its part through increasing bilateral and debt relief and the International Finance facility for immunization. The Caribbean at this point seemed to have been forgotten.

The question is what will lie beyond the speeches. The United Nations resolution touches on what is at the heart of the matter; “Acknowledging that the slave trade and the legacy of slavery (were) at the heart of a situation of profound social and economic inequality, hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice which continue to affect people of African descent today.” How will Britain and Europe, in particular, assist Africa and the Caribbean in responding to the legacy of the slave trade and slavery, a legacy that bred profound social and economic inequality? Even without realizing it Blair has described a framework that explains today’s reality-

Britain rising to preeminence from the trade, Africa and the Caribbean facing challenges and problems arising from it. Once we identify and sketch those problems and challenges we can begin to understand that they lie at the heart of our very existence and of today’s reality. While acknowledging that there is more to do with regard to assistance to Africa, the motivation has evidently come out of a different context. But what else can we expect? Blair answers it “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 that it ever happened and to rejoice at the different and better times we live in today.”

The United Nations resolution itself does not take us any further. For the most part, it focuses on the fact that slavery is recognized as a crime against humanity; it accepts that a knowledge gap exists and urges the development of educational programmes on the issue and mandates the Secretary General to establish a programme of outreach. Perhaps not much more could have been expected from such a body if the sponsors were aiming at general agreement and were seeking to get others to mark the occasion.

The overwhelming support given to the resolution is therefore not surprising. It nevertheless made a link with the Durban declaration that came out of the UN Conference on Racism held in South Africa in 2001 and asked the Secretary General to report on initiatives taken by member states to counter the legacy of slavery and restore the dignity of its victims.

Let us hope, however, that the occasion is not one only for expressing regret.

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