For much of next year, Britain will commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of Transatlantic Slavery, but will Queen Elizabeth II apologise for "Britain's shameful past"? More so, when William Wilberforce's words: "you may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say that you did not know", will ring in her ears all year?
New Africans and Africanist activists be prepared--as I mentioned in this column last month--during most of next year, starting on 25 March, the 200th anniversary of the day the Abolition (of Slavery) Bill was finally passed in the British Parliament, a major commemorative campaign dubbed "Wilberforce 2007", will be held. It will include a wide range of exhibitions, conferences and debates, thus hopefully providing another opportunity for an up-to-date critical re-examination of the infamous slave trade.
Sponsored jointly by the City Council of Hull (William Wilberforce's birthplace), the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation (WISE), and Sierra Leone's capital city Freetown (long twinned with Hull), the commemoration is planned to last for 34 weeks ending in October, traditionally Black History Month in the UK.
In the same way that Jews justifiably resist the mixing of their modern Holocaust with other historical instances of genocide, Africans should not allow Transatlantic Slavery to be lumped together with other forms of enslavement. Even the term "black slavery" is inadequate as it would have to include the even older Islamic practice which, although formally only abolished in Saudi Arabia in 1962, still persists informally elsewhere in some parts of Africa.
Transatlantic Slavery, the specific cause for the abolitionist campaign, still ranks as a singularly long and shameful event in human history--partly because its development was unplanned as it arose from the "discovery" of the so-called New World, but above all for the catastrophic and lasting impact it had on Africa and upon black people in general, and the yet scarcely acknowledged contribution it made to the colonisation (and eventual rising) of the Americas, and Western capitalist supremacy.
Moreover, unlike the Jewish Holocaust for which punishments and compensations have long been exacted, the surviving victims of Transatlantic Slavery saw the slave masters financially compensated while they were left open to further suffering and racialist exploitation in the Americas.
At the academic level, and particularly in the US, studies on slavery have been snowballing at such a pace over the past few decades that they now form the base of a new socio-historical discipline by itself, rapidly exceeding that of Holocaust studies. But internationally, news or information (again except for African-American activist groups) on Transatlantic Slavery still meet with prejudiced ignorance, and even a degree of defeatism concerning the scale and the morally uncomfortable nature of the subject.
In popular British encyclopaedias, as I have noticed, while the entry for slavery might occupy half-a-dozen paragraphs referring to its antiquity, the cross reference to "see Abolition" is met with an entry often, significantly, much bigger and better illustrated.
One of the most timely books on Transatlantic Slavery and, perhaps consequently, one of the best, is Bury the Chains--The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery, (London and Yale 2005) by the award-winning academic journalist Adam Hochschild. A teacher at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, USA, who does great honour to his profession, Hochschild also wrote, amongst others, the impressive book, King Leopold's Ghost, on the infamous reign of colonial terror in the so-called Congo Free State when King Leopold I of Belgium had the place to himself.
Bury The Chains provides ample disturbing evidence that slavery, far from being eradicated after its formal "abolition" was, in fact, practically transferred to Colonised Africa by old and latter-day colonialists after the "scramble for Africa" had ended. …