Sentamu, Willams and Slavery

So, Archbishop John Sentamu wants the UK to make an apology for the slave trade? And both he and Rowan Williams marched through the streets on Saturday to mark the 200th anniversary of abolition.

I can’t really describe just how angry this makes me. But, as I’m sitting here writing, clearly I’m going to try.

I think it its arrogant and presumptuous of Their Graces to offer up an apology for slavery on my behalf. It is not their business to so do and I object to them doing it. I have nothing for which to apologise.

For a start, it is 200 years since slavery was abolished here. Absolutely no one alive now can bear any guilt for the atrocities that happened. It would be rather like me demanding an apology from all Italians for the practices of the Roman Empire (including slavery) that affected my ancestors. The only real difference is one of distance, not nature. And saying that slavery may have shaped the world we live in is no excuse. We still bear the legacy of Rome fifteen hundred years after its empire collapsed and nearly two thousand years since it was at its zenith.

In any case, those who founded and perpetuated the slave trade belonged to fairly specific strata of British society at the time. In their way my ancestors were just as exploited and indentured. It may not have been called slavery but it amounted to much the same thing. Much of British history is whitewashed and packaged to make it more palatable to modern taste, but the truth is that the common man had little or no rights in law at all, much like slaves. Yes, they may have been technically “free”, but the reality was rather different, condemned to the same types of servitude and cruelty that slaves experienced. Indeed, because slaves were classified as property, as assets, they may even in many cases have been treated rather better than the poor expendable bloody cannon fodder that made up much of the populace. And there are still [only a few] people alive who remember that kind of attitude.

But of course, this is forgotten. In these times we have to show contrition and to offer up meaningless apologia. Instead of tying up ourselves in the past and crying over things we cannot control we should be thinking about changing the things we can.

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