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For centuries there has been a trade in human misery that serviced the affluence of many European economies and by right of colonisation it spread to the “new World from the old. It is based on the concept that one human being can own another in the same idiom that a farmer might own a milk cow, beast of burden or a sheep, it is the slave trade. The practise however was not restricted to the adventurers that supplied slaves to the sugar plantations of the West Indies, or the cotton fields and tobacco plantations of what became the USA. In the “New World” some aboriginal native Indian tribes kept slaves as a “Right of conquest” over neighbouring tribes, the Cheyenne, Sioux and Blackfoot made slaves of both the Crow and Pawnee taken in battle and the Apache` were not above keeping a Hopi slave or two. In Europe the same practise existed, Egyptians Romans, Greeks, Vikings vandals and Goths all kept slaves as a consequence of conquest but it was not until the middle ages of our own prehistory that “The slave trade” became a business that won and lost fortunes in a growing world market of “Trafficking human life” across the worlds oceans for the profit motive of “Slave Labour”. Slavery also existed on several levels amongst the native African tribes, in South and Central America with the Aztecs, Inca and Mayan civilisations and in the far eastern orient but the facet of the slave trade that springs to mind whenever the subject is broached is the “Ebony trade” between Africa and The Americas. The prosperity of a great many of the present day more affluent western economies was founded upon the slave labour “Harvested” from the African coasts and transported to be sold as slaves to plantation owners that needed a cheap source of labour.  The African native tribal kings were not above selling slaves taken by right of conquest to slave traders because the traders had something they needed to expand their kingdoms and increase their power and status, guns. The means to increase their power lay in their ability to subjugate neighbouring tribes by conquest at the point of a gun and sell their captives for more weapons. The “Trade” already had its slave masters when the demand for more slaves began to rise with the advent of the colonisation of the Americas and for a while the slave ships collecting “Cargoes” from Africa were content to buy their slaves from Arab slavers who regarded the African native as little more than cattle to be culled at frequent intervals but as prices began to rise the “Buyers” sought to “Cut out the middle man” and secure their own cargoes at nil cost and thus increase their profit margins. The slaves were secured not as a right of conquest but as a consequence of plunder, murder and downright kidnapping of whole villages by slave traders who were no more than pirates. Throughout the fifteenth sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the slave trade flourished and whilst Arab slavers enslaved white European slavers at the point of a gun or sword took some many more.
The transportation of the cargo was not without its dangers, once captured the slaves faced a hazardous journey across at least one of the worlds most treacherous oceans and many did not survive the voyage to be sold on “The selling blocks” at the end of the journey.
Of all of the countries most involved in the slave trade there were two countries that could be said to have been the leaders in this reprehensible trade, Portugal and Great Britain. Portuguese slavers had been plundering the African continent from 1440 onward and England began soon afterward though Portugal was the most involved England came a close second. Between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries it has been established that Portugal [which monopolised the slave trade between 1440 and 1660] could lay claim to the supply of four and a half million slaves to the new world whilst England is thought to have been responsible for a further two and a half million. The transportation of seven million slaves is documented but it is still thought that it was merely the tip of a very big iceberg.

In England it is almost two hundred years since the abolition of slavery and there are still reminders dotted around the country of England’s murky past but whilst England was where many of the slavers came from very few of the slaves came to its shores by comparison with the numbers shipped directly to their final destinations. Paradoxically, though England was a major player in the slave trade it was in England that the first moves to abolish the trade began and were finally successful in 1807 levying fines of 100 per head on any slave found on a British ship. Whilst the slave trade was under threat from the penalties from the transportation of slaves the existing slaves in the Indies and the Americas continued to be enslaved. The slaves in the British Empire and British colonies were not freed until 1833/4. The movement against slavery employed many of the tactics that we see in peaceful protests today, leafleting, lobbying, public speaking and non-violent protest, the traits instilled by the early campaigners like the Quaker movement. Freedom for slaves in France came in 1848 and in the USA following the civil war with the 13th amendment to the constitution in 1865. Portugal was the last of the biggest five slave traders to abolish slavery in 1869.

The bicentenary of the abolition of the trade is in 2007 and in preparation for the commemoration of the abolition the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair has made a statement that was published in “New Nation” a newspaper aimed at the readership of the “Black community”. The form of words are said to be a statement of regret but however regretful they stop short of an outright apology for what must surely be seen now as a “Crime against humanity” but at the time was legal and well within the laws of England.
The Statement reads: -

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 could ever have happened and rejoice at the better times we live in today.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century William Wilberforce and many of his contemporaries were engaged in the fight to abolish slavery but they had their opponents one of whom was The Admiral Lord Nelson who regarded their efforts as “A damnable doctrine” and he fought to preserve the trade. Nelson was a national hero and was offered the office of Prime Minister several times. If he had taken up the offer the Abolition bill would have failed and black history might have been very different and the British Navy once charged with protecting the ships of the slave trade might never have been the instrument that hunted down the ships carrying slaves.

The reprehensible trade in slaves cannot be denied by Britain but its condemnation also undermines the stature of several national heroes and countless men of greatness who in their way made it possible to put an end to the trade despite their views which were at variance with the mood of the times. To say that slavery stopped two hundred years ago is to ignore the fact that it took another 29 years to abolish the trade. To say that it does not still exist today is to ignore certain countries in Africa where it is still possible to buy and sell a slave. To say that slavery is a thing of the past that no longer happens here is hypocritically disproved by the “Slave masters” that procure illegal immigrants for the sex trade or “Gang masters” that run the black economy in every facet of chap labour drawn from the international trade in people trafficking so prevalent in this country.

If the Prime Minister is serious about Britain’s role in the slave trade should he not assure himself, if no one else, that after two hundred years it has been eradicated from Britain or is his statement only intended for the consumption of an ethnic minority who not only want the apology he has failed to give but also financial reparation too.


Posted: November 29, 2006 ,   Modified: December 1, 2006

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