Tony Blair: Slavery Our Shame

Article excerpt

The celebration of the 200th anniversary of the day the Abolition of Slavery Bill was finally passed by the British Parliament in 1807 will kick off in Britain on 25 March. Dubbed "Wilberforce 2007", this major commemoration will run for 34 weeks, ending in October, traditionally Black History Month in the UK. It will include a wide range of exhibitions, conferences, debates and a full spectacle of the march of the abolitionists. A 200-mile Meridien Walk from Hull in northeast England to Westminster, the seat of the British government in London and a Sankofa Walk which will link London, Bristol and Liverpool in a triangle to symbolise the triangular trade has also been planned. In this opinion piece, Prime Minister Tony Blair explains the importance of the commemoration and why Britain should express its "deep sorrow" at its role in the transatlantic slave trade.

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The transatlantic slave trade stands as one of the most inhuman enterprises in history. At a time when the capitals of Europe and America championed the Enlightenment of man, their merchants were enslaving a continent. Racism, not the rights of man, drove the horrors of the triangular trade. Some 12 million Africans were transported. Some three million died.

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Slavery's impact upon Africa, the Caribbean, the Americas and Europe was profound. Thankfully, Britain was the first country to abolish the trade. As we approach the commemoration for the 200th anniversary of that abolition, it is only right we also recognise the active role Britain played until then in the slave trade. British industry and ports were intimately intertwined in it. Britain's rise to global pre-eminence was partially dependent on a system of colonial slave labour and, as we recall its abolition, we should also recall our place in its practice.

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It is hard to believe that what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at the time. Personally I believe the bicentenary offers us a chance not just to say how profoundly shameful the slave trade was--how we condemn its existence utterly and praise those who fought for its abolition--but also to express our deep sorrow that it ever happened, that it ever could have happened and to rejoice at the different and better times we live in today.

The people who fought against slavery came from all walks of life. They included slaves and former slaves like Olaudah Equiano, church leaders, statesmen like William Wilberforce and countless ordinary citizens who signed petitions, marched, lobbied and prayed for change. The bicentenary is an opportunity for us all to remember those who were bought and sold into slavery and those who struggled against its injustices.

Community, faith and cultural organisations, with the support in many cases of the [UK] Heritage Lottery Fund, are already planning events to mark the bicentenary. We in government, with local authorities, will be playing our full part. And the UK is cosponsoring a resolution in the UN General Assembly, put forward by Caribbean countries, which calls for special commemorative activities to be held by the United Nations to mark the occasion. …