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December 12, 2006

No apology for slavery - no deep sorrow: Christie Davies explains why apologies for centuries-old wrongs are not in order

Posted by Christie Davies

We should not be offering apologies today for the slave trade, argues Prof. Christie Davies.

Soon we will be celebrating the anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade by Britain, a matter of some importance, though not one we should feel uniquely smug about, since we were briefly beaten to it by the Danes and the French. We should be sending Mr Prescott to Copenhagen to acknowledge Danish moral superiority and to apologise for the British navy's bombardment of the city. Nonetheless, even though we came in third, it was a major moral advance.

What is disgraceful is that two hundred years later there should be an agitation in process to obtain an apology from the British government and by implication from the British people for the fact that the slave trade ever occurred at all.

Behind this agitation is an unscrupulous grab to get resources at the British taxpayer's expense for corrupt governments in the West Indies and West Africa and possibly for a few indignant West Indian British citizens. It is sheer impudence for the West African descendants of those who sold members of other tribes "down the river" to the slave-traders on the coast to seek to get their fingers in the till.

Even today when there is a dispute between British Nigerians and British Jamaicans and it gets to exchange of abuse time, middle-class Nigerians will reach for the word "slave!", as in "I don't take that kind of talk from a slave", because they know it will enrage the Jamaicans more than any other epithet.

It is equally difficult to see why present day West Indians and British West Indians in particular should get in on the act, given the much higher standard of living and life expectancy they enjoy relative to those who stayed in Africa. Fruits beats roots. No doubt most vociferously sniffing at the trough are the white, "human rights", no-win no-fee lawyers hoping to do well on the proceeds. I've heard of ambulance chasing but slave-boat chasing is absurd.

There will be accompanying agitation as part of a general left wing campaign to make the British feel bad about themselves and bad about their history. It is for this reason that we should firmly oppose any special teaching about the slave trade in schools which will achieve nothing, will prove divisive and is part of an ideology we need to repudiate. There must be no apologies at all and - to those who demand them - there must be the simple message, clear off.

Mr Blair has adroitly avoided the possibility of compensation claims by limiting himself merely to an expression of great sorrow at the cruelty, suffering and deprivation of liberty which the slave trade necessarily entailed. Any humane person will feel sorrow on reading the history of those times, as indeed of more recent times in which individuals have suffered terribly and lost their freedom, but this is as true of anything that might have happened in China or Turkey or Ethiopia as it is of the Atlantic slave trade. We are all equal when it comes to a capacity for suffering and it makes no sense to single out any particular very distant event for special public mention.

The sinister idea that lurks behind demands for expressions of sorrow or contrition for the deeds of distant ancestors is racism. The very essence of racism is that individuals are judged not by what they do but by what their ancestors were or did. Sometimes it takes a slightly different form as when the Soviets would exile someone to Siberia because they were the son or daughter of a former Tsarist official - or the Maoists would exile someone because they were the descendant of a landowner or prosperous peasant. To ascribe blame and penalties in this way is quite simply wrong.

It is particularly surprising in the case of the slave trade that the language of blame - which after all is a necessary accompaniment of a demand for an apology - should be used by the very same kinds of progressively minded people who are not willing to regard individual muggers or burglars as fully responsible for their actions. It would seem that we have no autonomy in deciding whether or not we commit wickedness in our everyday lives but that somehow we are responsible for the actions of ancestors whom we cannot possibly have chosen.

It is this kind of muddled thinking that also leads to a confusion between a rightful pride that we can take in having abolished the slave trade and the idea that we should apologise for ever having taken part in it. We can take pride in having abolished the slave trade because it was a new departure. We need not apologise for the previous three hundred or so years of slave trading because it was taken for granted that slave trading was normal.

Most of human history has known slavery, and much of it has been based on the movement of slaves from one part of the world to another. Are we really going to visit the Italian government with a demand for an apology and compensation for the British slaves carted off by the Romans? Are we going to march through Rome chanting "remember Caradog", to get Prodiboy to prostrate himself in the castra at Caerleon, to express deep sorrow for the seizure of Caractacus and the Silurian slaves. The Italians do after all still glorify their Roman triumphs as the source of their more recent military prowess. You can't have it both ways.

When the British got into the slave trade, it was already a flourishing enterprise. We did not invent or initiate it. The African slave trade has its origin partly in local institutions - the small West African tribes and kingdoms habitually made slaves of their prisoners of war and indeed anyone on the losing side. In some ways this was a moral advance because prior to that they would simply have been killed. In this respect I doubt if the history of Africa differs very much from much from that of much of the rest of the world. Vae victis.

If there is a villain, it is the Muslim Arab slave traders who turned a purely local abuse into a systematic trade across the Sahara (as well as in the Indian Ocean) and for fourteen hundred years saw nothing wrong in rendering those who did not share their religion or something similar to it into slavery; their nearest and most vulnerable reservoir of such slaves happened to be black Africans.

The torch of slavery was then taken up by the Portuguese and the Spaniards, who took black slaves to Brazil, to the West Indies and to the Atlantic coast of central America. Their descendants still live there today. It may have been wrong for Britain's Elizabethan sailors to get involved in this immoral trade but it can hardly be said that they were responsible for initiating it.

What horrifies us today about the twentieth century behaviour of the Nazis and the Soviets in using slave labour and in transporting it for great distances under appalling conditions is that it was atavistic. It was a throw back to something that civilised people had long ago abandoned and repudiated. By contrast those British adventurers who had had no experience of slavery at home yet perpetrated it abroad must have been influenced by its sheer normality in the tropical Atlantic when they first arrived there. Besides, it was all a very long time ago in an Elizabethan age that can not be regarded as humane in general by today's standards.

It makes no sense to be ashamed of one's ancestors if one has long ago repudiated patterns of behaviour of a thoroughly bad kind with which they were associated. It only makes sense to be proud of one's virtuous ancestors if one continues or at least has continued to practise the same virtues. The British did so. Not merely did they give up trading in slaves but they used their considerable naval power in the 19th century to put a stop to the activities of other slave traders.

It is a measure of the bad faith of those who are now criticising Britain that they should claim that British anti-slavery activities were merely intended to deprive their trading competitors of cheap labour. This can hardly be said of the drive to rid the Indian Ocean and the eastern side of Africa of the Muslim slave trade which was extensive and involved Arab raiding parties penetrating deep into the interior of Africa as far south as Zambia and Zimbabwe to kidnap slaves. Once again Britain's critics are now claiming in bad faith that the anti-slavery movement exaggerated the scale of the Arab slave trade for imperial reasons, so that the British navy could push the Arabs out of the area. What is far more to the point is that the Muslims would never have given up their own slave trade voluntarily, nor indeed seen anything wrong with it. It is part of their religion.

No one is ever going to demand that the Muslims and the Arabs apologise for their slave trade because they know it is quite impossible to get Muslims ever to apologise for anything. They have a view of their own history as divinely inspired and so no injury ever done to the wretched "kafirs" is of any moral consequence. Aurangzeb is still a hero for them. Who reveres Torquemada? I would be very surprised if any of the countries of East Africa were ever to support an agitation to gain an apology from the Muslims with an eye to getting their hands on some of those oil revenues. They know that any such attempt would be futile.

There is no self-consciously slave descended population in the Muslim world. A high proportion of the male slaves who were transported were castrated and the women were treated as sexual slaves. We are left with the irony that because of the very low status of women in the Muslim world, the offspring of these women have been absorbed into the general population, something not possible in a society where monogamy and female equality prevent the recognition of the children of slaves. This does not in any way reduce the monstrous nature of the Arab slave trade; it merely explains why there is less of a lobby against the past. Furthermore, in the more backward Arab Muslim countries slavery was not really finally abolished until the 1960s, and then begrudgingly and under Western pressure.

Ironically one of the last cases where British horror at the slave trade took effect was when Ethiopia applied to join the League of Nations after the first World War, sponsored by the Italians. The British government opposed Ethiopia's admission because of the continued existence of slavery in that country, for much the same reasons that it had existed in the tribal kingdoms of West Africa during the earlier slave trade.

The British government also objected to the Ethiopians' habit of raiding across their border with the Sudan, then under British administration, in order to grab slaves to be sold in their own country. From the point of view of the Sudanese it is difficult to see why the experience of being seized and sold into captivity by a fellow African should have been any less harmful and degrading than being victims of the Atlantic slave trade. To deny this is to be racist, and we don't want that, do we? Rastafarians please note. It is curious to note in this respect that there is still slavery and slave trading in the Sudan today, though for different reasons and by different perpetrators, but this seems to affront the progressive mind rather less than dwelling upon British behaviour in the 18th century.

If the reintroduction of slavery were a present danger in Britain it might make sense to apologise for it in the past as a way of heading it off in the future. However, only a few eccentric Marxists and Muslims have been willing to justify slavery during the 20th century. You will still hear of "respected Marxist professors" who are willing to justify the sending of kulaks to the forests of Siberia or the goldmines of Kolyma on the grounds that it was necessary for Soviet industrial development. This is most likely to be true of orthodox Communists and their descendants, but other factions, such as the squabbling Trotskyite sects, known only by their acronyms, would have done exactly the same had they been in power.

What lies behind their willingness to consider slavery as valid is their rejection of a free market in labour, the very essence of a mature capitalist economy. Rather than accept capitalist development and yet at the same time being determined to pursue economic growth, they are inevitably forced to embrace slavery. Socialism is slavery. Yet I have never heard of anyone demand of these wretched people that they apologise for the slavery which they knowingly supported and justified within the lifetime of many of us, though of course they tried to deny its existence while asserting its necessity. I suppose they thought it was all happening far too far away and that Slavs and Chinese don't count. Yet an apology is called for, since these events are near in time, and those who actively supported them are still alive.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain. He has travelled extensively in East Africa and lectured on his research there at a number of Indian universities. He has an academic article on the Soviet slave trade in press.


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My mother used to say that Marxism is the fourth Semitic religion. And Professor Davies’s linking of Marxism with slavery here is most apt.

In fact, that dog’s devil Marx let loose a lot of evil in the world. He hated the Gentiles for not letting him into the German upper class because of his Jewish origin. Thereby hating his Jewish origin and so denying the God of Israel, he concocted his atheist monstrosity of a philosophy. Since he rejected Genesis with its tree of knowledge of good and evil, he had to redefine the terms.

Since there were many wicked capitalists, he decided that their wickedness lay in their capitalism, rather than in original sin. But the prevalence of wicked capitalists was not because they were capitalists, but rather because of a “survival of the ruthless”. As Isaiah says:

Yea, truth faileth; and he that departeth from evil maketh himself a prey (Isa 59:16a)

But having decided that capitalists, the bourgeoisie or whoever are wicked, it is of course logical for Stalin or Mao to enslave them.

Since WWII, it seems that the mind-virus (if I may borrow a concept from Richard Dawkins) of Marxism struck in the Middle East. Although, apart from a few cases, it did not produce any overtly Marxist states, there was some transfer of “memetic” material, so that the Arabs started shouting about “the people”, and “revolution”, followed later by the Iranians. It is a kind of “antibody” reaction to this, rather than support for Israel or hostility to Islam, which turned the West against the Arab world and Iran.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at December 12, 2006 10:57 PM
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i just wanted to say christie davies is an ignorant bufoon for such idiotic, racist comments.

Posted by: femi at October 4, 2012 11:59 AM
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