Christians support Abbey slavery protest

By staff writers
28 Mar 2007

A man who disrupted a service marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade has gained support from Christians of African descent.

Campaigner Toyin Agbetu, 39, shouted demands for an apology at the Queen and Tony Blair at the Westminster Abbey commemoration.

Speaking to Ekklesia, some attending the event who were of African and Caribbean decent said that they felt that the protest was not out of place. Many were left with 'mixed feelings' following the service.

Mr Agbetu, 39 - was a campaigner for Ligali, an African-British human rights organisation.

The group believes that the current focus on the works of European abolitionists reasserts the historic
falsehood that African people were the passive recipients of emancipation.

They also suggest that it perpetuates the myth that the European abolitionist movement was solely motivated by moral integrity.

Last week, the Bishop of Liverpool James Jones also pointed out that many evangelicals who backed William Wilberforce's campaign were motivated by a desire to 'save souls', not to do justice.

The African and Caribbean Evangelical Alliance's Rev Katei Kirby told the BBC that many in the congregation sympathised with the protests.

Mr Kirby said some people were unhappy with the tone of the service.

The event included testimony from a slave, the singing of spirituals, and African horns and drums.

However, Mr Kirby said a significant numbers of Africans and Caribbeans present had felt strongly that the impact of the slave trade on their history and heritage had not been adequately recognised.

Mr Kirby blamed the language used, saying it gave rise to the feelings of "alienation and misrepresentation" that were voiced by the protester.

He said: "A significant number of Africans and Caribbeans who attended the service share the view that it was an important and appropriate event to have, but feel quite strongly that there was insufficient opportunity for inclusion and due recognition of the impact of the slave trade on our history and heritage.

"The language used throughout the liturgy could - and in my view should - have been part of that process, but sadly in some places it was not and gave rise to the feelings of alienation and misrepresentation that were voiced by the protester in the service."

The service was almost over when Mr Agbetu began shouting: "This is an insult to us."

He condemned African Christians for taking part and told them to walk out. A number did indeed follow according to eye witness reports.

The service resumed after security guards led him outside and he was arrested.

The commemoration was held to commemorate the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act which became law in March 1807.

Campaigners however point to the subsequent political apathy which they say exposed the 'hypocrisy' of the British government and the European abolitionists who called for the gradual emancipation of African people.

It was not until February 1833 that a Bill went before a reformed House of Commons which supported emancipation. It took another five years, until 31 July 1838, before captive African people were ‘legally’ freed.

By that time, £20 million had been paid in compensation, not to the captured Africans and their families, but to the British slavers in the Caribbean to reimburse them for any loss of earnings.

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