Black History Month and 2007

An issue of the content of commemorating the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Slave Trade Act


LONDON (19 October 2006) - SINCE 1987, October has been celebrated as Black History Month in Britain. This year more events than ever have been organised and Black History Month is now officially recognised and promoted by the media, local authorities and the government. Such recognition has led many to question the whole notion of a "Black History" month and to view it as an expression of the official multicultural policy, developed by successive governments, content to mention a "Black History" once a year but which refuses to ensure that all cultures and languages flourish on the basis of equal recognition. Then there is the question, which is seldom discussed, of what exactly is meant by "Black History" and whether this phrase is appropriate to describe the history and traditions of the peoples of Africa and the Caribbean.

This October, Black History Month is being celebrated in many places as part of the build-up to 200th anniversary of the passage in Parliament of the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, which falls in March next year. The 1807 Act made it illegal for British ships and citizens to be involved in the trafficking of human beings, millions of whom had been kidnapped from the shores of Africa during the previous three centuries. Indeed, in the 18th century Britain was the world's leading trafficker in human flesh. It is estimated that about half of all Africans who were kidnapped and taken across the Atlantic were transported in British ships. Britain even trafficked in human flesh for the benefit of its economic rivals and according to one British Prime Minister of the time, 80 per cent of Britain's income was connected with these activities. In 1713, the same treaty by which Britain acquired Gibraltar, also gave the government the highly profitable contract to supply enslaved Africans to all Spanish colonies. The government then solved this contract for £7.5 million to the South Sea Company, whose first Governor was the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The Bicentenary of the Act has already led to almost unprecedented commemoration preparations by the government. It has established its own Advisory Group, chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott; led to a joint publication from the Home Office and Department for Culture, Media and Sport; and led to government funding for a national education project, Understanding Slavery, "to promote the effective teaching of the history of the Atlantic slave trade in schools and colleges". Next year there will be many commemorative events and it is clear that the government is planning to play a leading role.

The government is presenting the Abolition Act as "an important point in this country's development towards the nation it is today - a critical step into the modern world and into a new and more just moral universe". It wishes to present itself as the natural successor of the abolitionists of two hundred years ago, a government opposed to any form of discrimination in Britain, and one which champions "opportunity for all." At the same time, in its publication Reflecting on the past and looking to the future: The 2007 Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the British Empire, the government claims to be the greatest defender of human rights abroad, the giver of "development assistance" to the poor and needy in Africa and elsewhere, with a Royal Navy that patrols the oceans in a manner reminiscent of the allegedly humanitarian role it played in the early nineteenth century.

It cannot be forgotten that only five years ago at the World Conference against Racism, held in South Africa, the government refused to accept that the slave trade was a crime against humanity and even today merely speaks of "regret" over the trafficking of human flesh, which British governments fully participated in for centuries. It stubbornly refuses to make any reparation for the crimes that British governments carried out not only during the colonial era but today too. The government's actions are still totally imbued with the racist logic of its predecessors, the notion of the "white man's burden", and so-called "civilising mission" abroad, whether in Africa, the Middle East or elsewhere. Racism and an arrogant Eurocentric and colonialist outlook are so evident in the current anti-Muslim offensive, the government's attempt to divide the polity in which it attacks one section of the population, to attack the rights of all.

Parliament's decision in 1807 was largely dictated by what were seen to be Britain's economic and strategic interests and advantage over its rivals...
By championing a commemoration of the 1807 Act, the government aims to re-write the history of the past just as it tries to represent its own crimes as the greatest humanitarian acts. The campaign for the abolition of the trafficking of enslaved African labour involved hundreds of thousands of working people in Britain, including many Africans, some of them former slaves, who played a leading role. Indeed this campaign, in the latter part of the 18th century, was one of the biggest in Britain's history and one of the first in which the working class grew conscious of its own strength. The enslaved Africans themselves, who waged a constant war over many centuries in different parts of the world, also played a crucial role. Parliament's decision in 1807 was largely dictated by what were seen to be Britain's economic and strategic interests and advantage over its rivals, and as a means to dissipate the growing opposition to the government, rather than by any concern for the enslaved. Indeed Britain's economy continued to rely on slavery throughout the 19th century and slave labour was widely used during the colonial period even in the 20th century. In part, the British government used its alleged conversion to abolition in the 19th century as a means to use the Royal Navy to interfere in the affairs and trade of all the other major powers throughout the Atlantic.

The commemoration of the Abolition Act of 1807 should be turned into an occasion to condemn the crimes and hypocrisy of the British governments of the past and of the present and to demand that appropriate reparation is made for slavery, colonialism and all crimes against humanity. At the same time, it will be an occasion to draw the appropriate lessons from history and to commemorate all those who struggled against a political and economic system which was built on and encouraged the enslavement and trafficking of Africans, as well the exploitation and oppression of all.

Source: Workers' Daily Internet Edition

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