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December 05, 2006

Peter Mullen thought we had apologised for slavery - two hundred years ago

Posted by Peter Mullen

Rev'd Peter Mullen - Rector of St Michael's, Cornhill & Chaplain to the Stock Exchange - thought we had already apologised for slavery, two hundred years ago.

Tony Blair has expressed his deep sorrow for Britain's involvement in the slave trade. Of course this doesn't go far enough for the knockers who delight in condemning every aspect of British history and enterprise. They want nothing less than a full and formal apology. But we have apologised already - 200 years ago - and in the most practical way possible: by abolishing the slave trade. This is how it came about…

In 1805 the House of Commons passed a bill that made it unlawful for any British subject to capture and transport slaves, but the measure was blocked by the House of Lords. In February 1806, Lord Grenville formed a Whig administration. Grenville and his Foreign Secretary, Charles Fox, were strong opponents of the slave trade. Fox and William Wilberforce led the campaign in the House of Commons and Grenville led it in the House of Lords.

Greenville made a passionate speech where he argued that the trade was:

contrary to the principles of justice, humanity and sound policy.
He criticised fellow members for:
not having abolished the trade long ago.
When the vote was taken, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Bill was passed in the House of Lords by 41 votes to 20. In the House of Commons it was carried by 114 to 15 and it become law on 25th March, 1807.

British captains who were caught continuing the trade were fined £100 for every slave found on board. Some people involved in the anti-slave trade campaign such as Thomas Clarkson and Thomas Fowell Buxton argued that the only way to end the suffering of the slaves was to make slavery illegal. And in 1833 Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act. In summary, the slave trade was abolished by Christian parliamentarians and abolition was enforced by the Royal Navy.

When we start to apologise, where do we stop? Should Lancastrians and Yorkshiremen say sorry to one another for their parts in the Wars of the Roses? Or Italian ice cream sellers apologise for the Roman Empire? One thing you can guarantee: the Hobsbawms, Benns, and Livingstones and assorted fellow travellers will never admit they were in the wrong to back the Soviet system against western capitalism - Stalin's forty millions dead notwithstanding.

In the midst of all this ridiculous mania for apologising for our past, certain key issues tend not to get so much as a mention. For example, the biggest slavers of all were the Muslims. As the historian Bernard Lewis wrote recently:

The processes by which Muslims acquired and transported slaves imposed appalling hardships. But from a traditional Muslim point of view, to abolish slavery would hardly have been possible. To forbid what Allah permits is almost as great an offence as to permit what Allah forbids.

Slavery was authorised and its regulation formed part of Sharia (holy) Law; more importantly of the central core of Islamic social laws which remained intact and effective even when other sections of the Holy Law were tacitly or openly modified and replaced by modern codes.

Perhaps I was watching the cricket when central Muslim authorities apologised for their much bigger involvement in slavery? Of course it is right to own up when we're in the wrong. But it is equally right - especially in the clash of cultures in which we now find ourselves - to celebrate and be proud of things we did right. Let's have less national self-abasement and more national pride.

Rev'd Dr Peter Mullen is Rector of St Michael's, Cornhill & Chaplain to the Stock Exchange. He is the author of The Politically-Correct Gospel.

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