The Blog

Slavery? What the Hell Were We Thinking? How the (White) British Should Be Angry (and Shamed) About Our Ancestors

Britain too has its social legacy from the slave trade we instigated and benefited from. We live with our own racism and tensions based on that shameful legacy.

Imagine if this story was the plot for an epic Hollywood blockbuster:

Two brothers clash, let us call them John and David. John steals from David, mistreating him, defiling and humiliating him, taking everything and more from his sibling...

What happens in the next generation, when the mistreated David's children grow into adulthood? Do they forgive and seek reconciliation with their unrepentant cousins, John's own children? Or do they seek justice or revenge?

If we were watching that Hollywood movie, who would the audience sympathise with? I think you are with me on this so far, we would most likely all root for the unfortunate David and his children?

So why don't we, then? Let's take another scenario, a white kid in America, when the topic of contemporary race and racism is raised.

'Why should I feel guilty? I didn't make slavery happen. And I haven't taken any land from Indians. So you shouldn't try to make me feel bad.'

But really? White privilege is not about feeling guilt. No one needs that. It is also not about being or not being 'a racist'.

In fact, very often racism is prevalent among people who do not think they are racists. The act of ignoring (or denying) one's white privilege is itself a form of racism.

In his most recent book, Between the World and Me, the American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates points out that

'There are no racists in America', [because] '... the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration'.

Nobody, not even racists, wants to be thought of as 'racists'.

Coates cites the example of the white residents of Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1957, who

'argued for their right to keep their town segregated. "As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens," the group wrote, "we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community."'

And he also gives us the anecdote of an entertainer, who insisted 'I'm not a racist', as his explanation and defence after having been being filmed repeatedly yelling at a heckler: 'He's a n*****r! He's a n****r!'.

Conjugating the verb 'to have white privilege': They are a threat. We are white. I am not a racist.

It is not surprising, perhaps, that Michael Mark Cohen highlighted the term 'douchebag' as the white-racist slur we've all been looking for.

But what I am talking about here is not the shame of being 'outed' as an inelegant racist. It is about recognising that there is real harm, and real pain caused by our racist histories, whether we feel good about ourselves or not.

So, why should we be angry for slavery?

Because it happened. And in having happened, it dehumanised us. Like the Jewish holocaust in central Europe, the descendants of the perpetrators cannot ever come close to atoning for that evil, that mundane evil, unless we recognise that it was done by people very like 'us'. Ordinary people allowing themselves to commit heinous, barbaric acts against other people.

Yes, in the history of British slavery there was William Wilberforce, anti-slavery, and so on. The people and groups that challenged and stopped the system's brutality.

But they were the bare minimum. Of course history should have thrown up an anti-slavery movement. But it came along at a very late stage -- indeed there was over 250 years of British slave trading before it was finally ended. It took that long for a Wilberforce to emerge, at last. Two hundred and fifty years.

And yes, others did slavery too... the Spanish and Portuguese, French and Dutch and Arabs, etc. But that is no excuse. It is like saying we should not worry so much about the Shoah in Germany because of what happened in Rwanda, Cambodia, and so on. The fact is that some appalling things were done in the name, and with the backing and support, of the British state.

Slavery is not some incidental thing. It required the kidnap of a person. Their imprisonment in captivity. Their shipping across an ocean, in the most barbarous of conditions, and then their sale and resale, as a commodity, a piece of 'property'. It involved the wrenching apart of families, husbands from wives, wives from husbands, children from their parents. It involved a system of force, of violence, of rape, to keep individuals and groups 'in their place' -- as slaves.

It was a system that dehumanised humans. Not only the people held in violently enforced captivity, but also the people who did the enslaving.

And 'we' -- the white British of today -- owe much of our good fortune and privilege to that system, even though it has long gone.

And so coming to terms with that today, in the twenty-first century, is not merely about opening our eyes to the things from that sordid past that we have chosen to ignore. The 'racial wallpaper' that is all around us. The Confederate flags and monuments in the US, the statues and the wealth of families of slave owners in the UK. The wealth and power of these two nations that were built on that economy of stealing human property.

A small example of this shouted out at me as I drove home this evening. A billboard advertising a prominent independent school in Perthshire, with a long and distinguished history of excellence. The advert displayed prominently that is was 'founded by Gladstone in 1847'. That is the man who later became Prime Minister, who had recently helped his slave owning-father receive £106,000 in compensation in 1834 (today's equivalent would be £83 million) for the emancipation of his 2,500 slaves.

If we scratch the surface of much of British public life, we will find the indelible stain of such slave-ownership.

Yes, we should open our eyes and see such things, and remember what our ancestors did. Because we have been taught to forget, to ignore, to brush these things under a rug of benign history. Alright it happened, we think, but it was a long time ago. We have moved on since then.

And that, in itself, is also something we should also be angry about: the seeming benignity of being encouraged to forget, and to believe we have been forgiven. Whoever told us that it was alright to forget? It was the people who themselves profited from the slavery.

Despite our best efforts to move on, in fact that history is still with us. We have a prime minister (David Cameron) whose life has been shaped on the back of his ancestors' slaves, his privileged education, his social position, his impeccable accent, all a result of the cascade of slave-earned wealth down to his parents and onwards.

When slavery was abolished in the British empire in 1834, the people who were compensated were the slave owners, not the freed slaves (many of whom took years to become free). A total of £20 million was paid the owners in compensation, the equivalent of around £16 billion today. A mind-boggling amount of money that set up many families for generations.

Even more so, the history is still with us in another way. America is still a nation created and molded by slavery -- between white slave powers and their descendants, and black African slaves and descendants of slaves. A society that moved from slavery to Jim Crow, to segregation, to unequal opportunities in education, employment, housing. It is a society in which the black population literally fear for their lives when a police car drives past them. It is a society where a Twitter hashtag of #BlackLivesMatter causes controversy.

From the viewpoint of Britain, though, we have drifted into thinking of slavery as a distant evil -- in the Caribbean and north America -- away from the day to day living of normal, everyday life. But this was a country at the apex of the north Atlantic triangle of trade. Britain, Africa, America, Britain -- it was the British who benefited most from the flow of goods and people as goods. And eventually, many of the people who were forced from Africa to the Caribbean chose to connect up that triangle, and move to Britain. The African-Caribbean descendants of slaves who now make up the 2 million Black British population. The Empire Windrush helped to bring that history back to the place that first drove it.

Britain too has its social legacy from the slave trade we instigated and benefited from. We live with our own racism and tensions based on that shameful legacy.

'Having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorized... And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society. Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, "Never again." But still we are haunted.

'It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.'

This is the legacy of slave trading, slave owning, and an economy fuelled by harsh, extreme exploitation and rape. This is what has cascaded down the generations to the present day, and is being lived out in the broken bodies of Sandra Bland, Travyon Martin, Michael Brown, Stephen Lawrence, and many more.

And so, when we look back on the actions of those earlier generations of slave owners, who perpetrated such overwhelming crimes, we should not wallow in the simplicity of guilt. We should undoubtedly feel shame, since unless we acknowledge the crimes we are implicated in their consequences.

But most of all, we should feel anger. A powerful, consuming anger that we have been left to pick up the bill.

This is what we have been left: by people who built houses and empires on the flogged backs of others. Those who enjoyed the plenty and the spoils of this inhuman economy have left us to live with its inevitable mess.

And we should be angry that our ancestors never once looked forward to these future times. When the descendants of the people they enslaved would turn to us, to remind us of the injustice of what was done.

What the hell were they thinking in creating their world on the backs of slaves? How on earth did they think they would ever get away with it?

Photo credit: 'Slave Market -- Atlanta Georgia 1864' by George N. Barnard, uploaded by Rolling Thunder orig. source:. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons