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January 18, 2007

If we are to apologise for the slave trade, let's make those apologies truly multicultural, argues Jon Davies

Posted by Jon Davies

On 24th March 2007 leaders of the Church of England, Archbishops Williams and Sentamu, will go on a penitential pilgrimage around London, a "walk of witness", to express remorse for slavery. Jon Davies - formerly the Head of Religious Studies at Newcastle University - argues that the Bishops should make this march of penitence a truly multicultural affair and invite their Muslim, African and Hindu colleagues to join the march so that they too can express remorse for slavery and their ancestors role in the slave trade.

47 Geo III. Sess. 1 c 36 An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, March 25 1807
March 2007 is the two hundredth anniversary of the British abolition of the slave trade - a fine time, perhaps, for celebration and thanksgiving, even a little self-congratulation? After all, this was the first time in human history that a dominant empire had set itself the task of enforcing a fundamental human right - the right not to be owned, bought and sold by someone else, the right, that is, to be free. The trade was made illegal for British citizens and for the rest of the world. After 1807, and, at British insistence, the acceptance of abolition by various (but not all) countries in 1815, the Royal Navy maintained ships on every ocean where slave traders were still active. The Royal Navy actually made the Slave Trade history. Good News, surely? Rejoice, surely?

Perhaps not. The leaders of the Church of England, Archbishops Williams and Sentamu, will, on 24th March 2007, go on a penitential pilgrimage around London, a "walk of witness", to express remorse for slavery, and in particular for the fact that the Church of England was itself, once upon a time, the owner of slave plantations. Indeed, in 1839, when slave owning was made illegal in the British Empire, the Church of England received the equivalent of $950,000 in today's money in compensation for its 411 slaves. Driven by such a history, by such guilt, and even on the very occasion of the abolition of the slave trade, our religious leaders take yet another opportunity to abase themselves. Not even good anniversaries are immune to the all-purpose grovelling of the ingratiating great.

No European, no Christian, now, needs telling how very wrong slavery and the slave trade were. We are aware that both individual slaves, and slave uprisings played a large part in the abolition movement - it wasn't all just us nice white folks. We are aware, too, that neither in 1807 nor in 1837, did slavery simply vanish because we the British said it should. After all, it wasn't until 1990 that the Organisation of the Islamic Conference announced that slavery was wrong - though, as Clarence-Smith puts it, the 54 Muslim countries party to the announcement [Islam and the Abolition of Slavery, OUP 2006, page 221]:

hedged their bets [by] stressing that all human rights were subject to the authority of the sharia.
This takes us to another favourite activity of Anglican prelates, multiculturalism. On 24th March, should these Anglicans not invite, as fellow penitents and pilgrims in the great self-lacerating procession, the descendants of Muslims and Africans whose role in the slave trade was what made the whole thing possible in the first place? Multiculturalists, particularly those associated with the various religious faiths, are always seeking occasion to get together and to broadcast their solidarity. What better occasion for a multicultural get-together could there be than this - a great chance for a major multicultural show?

The Muslim Council of Britain could join the Archbishops. Islam was always a leader in the slave trade, and incorporated the institution of slavery into its empires and nations: all of them were slave-based. Many of these slaves were white - it is a myth that slaves were always and everywhere black.

When, in the sixteenth century, Europeans became serious participants in the slave trade, they joined a global system already well in place, courtesy of the military power and commercial skills of Islam. Islam only very grudgingly generated from within its own moral theology a diffidence (one can put it no stronger than that) about slavery, being pushed into some kind of abolitionism only by the force of European attitudes and example. Arabs were the major suppliers of slaves to the European slave emporia dotted along the African coast: and after 1807, Arab-Muslim ships (dhows) were the major problem for the Royal Navy ships stationed off East Africa. When the East African Coast became part of the Crown Colony of Kenya in 1920, Arab slave-owners were given British Government compensation for the loss of their slaves, and my father spent some years in Mombasa as headmaster of an Arab Boys School built with the proceeds.

Africans, too, were active players in the slave trade. Europeans did not have to go on dangerous treks into the interior looking for victims: they were brought to them by African as well as Muslim slavers. Such slavers worked side by side with African chiefs of one kind or another, who not only rounded up fellow blacks, but provided labour and materials for the building and maintenance of slave emporia and slave stations. Archbishop Sentamu is a Ugandan. Amongst his ancestors are just as likely to be found slave traders as slaves. He might like to ponder the idea that it was British domination of the coasts and interior of East Africa which cut off slave supplies at source and made it possible, decades later, for him to be here.

Hindus should also join the London pilgrimage. The Hindu caste system, in the form of the Dalits or Untouchables, provided an exploitable human resource which is slavery in all but name. Just as with slavery in Islam, so with Untouchables in Hinduism: the caste system has never been abolished, rather modified, the better to be retained. Ghanshyam Shah and his colleagues write [Untouchability in Rural India, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2006]:

Untouchability continues to be widely prevalent and is practised in one form or another in almost 80% of the villages.
The Archbishops should join with their Muslim, African and Hindu colleagues, and march from church to mosque to temple to chapel, creating a multicultural event of deep and genuine significance. They should indeed weep for all those slaves, taken and abused by the multicultural slave traders: but they should rejoice in the Good News of Abolition, and in the dedication of the monocultural Royal Navy which ensured that the 1807 Act of Parliament became a reality.
It is the proud boast of every Englishman that all beneath the shadow of the Union Jack are free and untrammelled as the air. Once under the protection of our flag, the fetters fall from the slave, and, more than that, our British bluejackets care not what they do or dare in the attempt to free their sable brothers.

[In Cutting out a Slave Dhow, F W Ward, 1899, commemorating the death of Able Seaman Benjamin E Stone in a naval action against an Arab slave dhow, off Zanzibar in 1887.]

Jon Davies recently retired as Head of Religious Studies at Newcastle University. He is the author and editor of books on urban planning, contemporary social attitudes, and death in the ancient world; and is currently working on a book on the patterns of enmities surrounding the West.

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