Going about in guilt and shame

June 25, 2006

hawkinsA few days ago, a curious ceremony was enacted in the West African republic of Zambia. A young British man, swathed in chains, sought forgiveness before a crowd of 25,000 Africans for Britain’s involvement in the African slave trade.

Andrew Hawkins is the descendant of the Elizabethan swashbuckler, Sir John Hawkins, England’s first slave trader. For years now, he has been going about in guilt and shame, trying to make amends for the crimes of his distant ancestor, who seems to have been one of the original ‘roaring boys’.

So there he was, kneeling in symbolic penitence before Gambia’s Vice President, and expressing contrition for the sins of his forefathers. Graciously, she accepted his apology.

Good on him, I guess. As a personal gesture it may have much to commend it. But there seems to be something distasteful about this colonising of the past as a stage on which to enact contemporary rituals of cultural self-abasement.

Speaking of the past, here’s a flashback that may be relevant:


On March 25th, 1807, the British Parliament was the scene of an unprecedented moral revolution. After twenty years of campaigning, a movement made up of people from all walks of life, including women and children, led by the Christian evangelist William Wilberforce, realised at last their great and heartfelt ambition. That day, the Parliament passed a statute based on Christian beliefs, to which they passionately cleaved, in the brotherhood of man and the rights of each and every one of them to freedom and humanity.

They were the Abolitionists; the statute was An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

In the ringing language of the day it proclaimed:

BE IT therefore enacted by the King’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the Authority of the same, That from and after the First Day of May One thousand eight hundred and seven, the African Slave Trade, and all and all manner of dealing and trading in the Purchase, Sale, Barter, or Transfer of Slaves, or of Persons intended to be sold, transferred, used, or dealt with as Slaves, practiced or carried on, in, at, to or from any Part of the Coast or Countries of Africa, shall be, and the same is hereby utterly abolished, prohibited, and declared to be unlawful.

For the first time ever, an imperial power had acted to put a permanent end within its sphere of legal authority to a practice that had been virtually ubiquitous and unchallenged throughout the known history of the world, but which enlightened British opinion now recognised to be repugnant and morally indefensible. Slavery had been practised throughout the ancient world, in Rome, Greece and Egypt, in Africa and just about everywhere in the Middle East. Long before Europe’s penetration of Africa, Arab traders were shipping slaves to the Arabian peninsula, either sold to them by the victors of internal wars and conflicts, or acquired directly by slaving parties.

The British, too, had been victim of slavers. The Muslim pirates of the Barbary Coast regularly raided the Cornish and Irish coasts in search of slaves — males, to built the caliphs’ palaces; and females, to serve in their harems — until the practice was stopped with bombardment of Algiers in 1816.

No one had a monopoly: it was an everybody-does-it kind of thing. The European colonial powers from the 16th century on found themselves joining a well-established and thriving club.

But it was the British took first active steps to stop it, though honourable mention should go to Abolitionists in France and the United States. Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807; in 1827, it upped the penalty for carrying slaves from 100 pounds per slave to the death penalty for what were now regarded as acts of piracy. Finally, in 1833, it abolished slavery per se. As of August 1st the following year, all slaves held anywhere in the British Empire were set free. And for nearly a hundred years after the 1807 Act came into force, Imperial Britain sought to wipe out slavery from all the lands over which it had influence or governance.

You might imagine, then, with the bicentennial of the trade’s abolition approaching, that the British would think they had something to celebrate. Not so, it seems, if Andrew Hawkins’ example is anything to go by. What could have been an occasion for entirely justifiable national pride will likely be given over to an orgy of apologetics and auto-flagellation. One wonders if the descendents of the Barbary corsairs will be there to apologise as well, but that seems somehow unlikely.

Meanwhile, here’s the rakish and piratical Sir John. His motto as ship’s captain: ‘Serve God daily, love one another, preserve your victuals, beware of fire, and keep good company.’ Somehow I can’t imagine him apologising for anything.


(Wikipedia on slavery. A large and sprawling entry, linked to other large and sprawling entries — what isn’t in Wiki? — but well worth perusing.)


  1. It’s all the rage these days, this ritual self-abasement. On the plus side, people who so indulge themselves are doing the intellectual equivalent of the drunks in the road safety ads – wearing the words ‘bloody idiot’ embossed on their faces.

  2. sl, a while back a group of Christian clerics went to the Middle East and apologised for the Crusades. The Crusades! The Christians lost the Crusades, and the Muslims gained the Middle East and much of Europe. The Frankish Kingdom of Jerusalem, if memory serves, lasted no more than around one hundred years from the late 11th century. The Ottoman empire lasted until 1918.

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