Remembrance is not enough

Jonathan Bartley
By Jonathan Bartley
9 Mar 2007

Recently Prime Minister Tony Blair delighted campaigners by disclosing that the United Kingdom would sign the European convention on human trafficking.

The announcement was made amidst the canapés of a Downing Street reception - an entrée to the commemorations marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.

Last year, when humble pie appeared to be the dish of the season, we were told that the Government was going to apologize for the historic trade. The main ingredient however turned out to be 'regret'. An important difference. For while apology carries a sense of responsibility, the rhetoric of regret implies sorrow that things worked out the way they did - without the acceptance of liability.

Government advisors reportedly feared that claims for reparations might be made. For hundreds of years Africa was bled of its human resources, and the continent's development was severely stunted. It still suffers from the consequences. Britain on the other hand gained huge financial wealth from which it still benefits.

But how then should this legacy be dealt with? The Prime Minister announced that there will be a series of events including a service at Westminster Abbey. A new coin and stamps will bear the images of anti-slavery campaigners. Museums will be opened alongside an education drive in schools.

These are all welcome moves. But the Jewish and Christian traditions suggest that remembrance is not enough. There must also be tangible attempts to make things right again. The unfashionable word to describe how this might be done is 'repentance'. But this is not about apportioning blame and guilt. Rather it is a way of freeing ourselves from the legacy of the past, turning around and finding a new direction in which to make restitution.

The Hebrew idea of Jubilee proposed not just the freeing of slaves but that land should be returned to its original owners after 50 years. In his home town of Nazareth, Jesus proclaimed such a Jubilee after many generations had failed to observe it. This meant the righting of wrongs from even the distant past. When faced by Jesus with exploitation of the vulnerable, a tax collector, Zaccheus, returned four times what he had unjustly taken - and then gave half his wealth to the poor too.

Could the best commemoration involve imagining what a new relationship with Africa might look like? It could mean greater efforts to cancel debt and tackle the threats of climate change from which it will suffer more than most. It might mean finding ways to open our borders and provide greater access to our scarce resources. In short it would mean reconsideration of the claim that the continent might have on us. For it is we who still reap the rewards from the human trafficking of the past.

Africa needs more than hors d'oeuvres. It deserves a seat at the dinner table too.

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With acknowledgements to the BBC. This article was originally delivered as a Thought for the Day on Radio 4’s Today programme.

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