Monday, November 26, 2007

Britain's 'Moral Ground' and Slavery

Ana sent a link to a BBC report about a man who vehemently protested the manner in which Britain and the Anglican church were commemorating the 200th anniversary of slavery in their country.

The protestor, Toyin Agbetu (39), shouted demands for an apology at the Queen and Tony Blair during the Westminster Abbey commemoration in March 2007.

The report says that:"The African and Caribbean Evangelical Alliance's Rev Katei Kirby said many in the congregation sympathised with him."

I can see why after watching some of the BBC footage.

You can see video footage of the incident here.

Also watch Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams' address at the same event. I just did and was simply astounded by his duplicity (on behalf of the church), if not complicity, in hiding the brutality of Britain's role in slavery.

Williams' reduced the Atlantic slave trade to a universal problem of humanity and one that does not weigh unequally on Britain.

He further erased the need for any serious attempt by Britain (or the the Anglican church) to recognize and apologize (formally) for slavery by pointing to the caste system in India and modern trafficking in humans, among other unrelated human rights issues.

See a video clip of Williams' address here. (I found it quite amusing to watch the camera pick out the Black folk in the audience.)

Agbetu rose toward the end of the ceremony and started shouting:"This is an insult to us." He called on African Christians to stand up and walk out of the service but it is not clear from the report whether any of them followed him.

The Queen and then Prime Minister Tony Blair were seated next to Williams while security guards led Agbetu out and the service continued.

I would have to agree with Agbetu's protest. Britain and the Anglican church have hardly made amends for the slave trade. Instead of offering a formal apology for slavery, Britain used Williams' to make the issue one of personal and humanitarian redemption.

The role of the state and the church was simply made to disappear.

You can see final video clip on the role of the church in slavery in Barbados here.

I think it important to note that Britain will not seek to offer a formal apology because this will mean that the state is admitting culpability. This would open the way for civil suits aimed reparations/restitution. A formal apology would thus make the claims for reparation more 'credible' in their courts. The same is true for the US at the federal level.

Where the Anglican church is concerned, I am not aware of lawsuits that seek reparation for slavery. I would appreciate if anyone is aware of such suits, or any other related issues of importance to this discussion.

On the topic of the Anglican church, Eugene raises an important case in Canada. He wrote in a comment to the post below:

"there was a massive lawsuit by native survivors of sexual abuse by the anglican church in Canada. Raping was systematic within the church, and ... thousands of native children were raped by these folks with "moral high ground." So, the anglican church's way of dealing with the lawsuit, instead of using the truth, delayed for years. The reason being is they were hoping to outlast the lives of those bringing the lawsuit against them, thus, saving them some of that "moral high ground" money they'd lose in the lawsuit. Many did die, one I even read about committed suicide."

I was not aware of this case and I hope it will stimulate further discussion. Thanks Eugene for raising this important case.

And thank you sista Ana for your valued input that has provided further insight into the politics of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

By the way, if you have not looked at Ana's excellent struggle blog (Whenua, Fenua, Enua, Vanua) please do so. It is a very important resource and forum that documents the Indigenous struggle for justice in the Pacific.

A slightly moified version of this post appears at Indiginest Intelligence Review.


8 comments: said...

That is amazing footage of an amazing act on the part of the protester.

The archbishop described slavery, both past and present (as in sweatshops) as an "atrocity." But, otherwise, I saw a very White Queen going through basically meaningless gestures. She probably thinks that placing flowers at two memorials makes all of history OK now. (So, just get over it!)

The elephant horns and drums being beaten by real live Black folk legitimizes the ceremony to dissolve the guilt, right?

Meanwhile, the one brother who tried to speak truth was whisked away.

Who controls the present, controls the past, or something like that.

Ridwan said...

Excellent points Moonshadows.

The whole ceremony appeared to be about 'dissolving' guilt as you say.

A damn shame no doubt ... but quite expected nontheless.

Thanks for your comment.


James said...

Is it possible that this ceremony was more than just an attempt at "dissolving guilt," even if that's what it ended up being?

What would a sincere first step, by whites, to begin to address and atone for historical wrongs look like?

This strikes me as a dramatic acknowledgement of the wrongs of the past. And Britain has also spent significant money this year on education and other programs related to the anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, which seems like a good start, doesn't it?

Ridwan said...

Hello James:

Thanks for your comment. And welcome to the blog.

The questions or repair and reparation are tough ones.

I think that the ceremony was inadequate and quite offensive in the manner that it did not tackle the role of Britain in slavery.

Williams' remarks were a kind of political juggling that hardly addressed the structural reality of slavery.

I think we should see what the state should do, and what white people should do, as separate issues.

The state should start with an open and formal apology that allows for civil and other litigation about repair.

I disagree that the ceremony was dramatic in the terms that are meaningful for the descendants of slaves.

See for example the riots in Malaysia by ehtnic Indians as another example of Britain's refusal to square up to its brutal past.

I can't comment on the programs you mention. Please fill me in on what those are.


James said...


Thanks for the warm welcome to the blog.

I agree that the ceremony danced around the honest truth of the British role in slavery, and ended up serving more to dissolve guilt than to address the sins of the past.

On the British programs I mentioned, I believe the British spent about US$40 million on exhibits and events to acknowledge the bicentennial, far more than the U.S. has spent so far on the bicentennial of its own abolition of the slave trade. And I've read that the British issued coins and stamps, taught programs to schoolchildren, and held serious public discussions about atonement.

So even though the British have barely scratched the surface of this issue, even in what they've said, much less done, I think they've already taken the lead from the U.S. in this area.

Now we just need to work on honestly confronting the past, and perhaps we can face up to the reality of the present, as well.


Ridwan said...

Hi James:

You are absolutley right that the US has not even moved to address the legacy of slavery.

I think that the states like Maryland and Virginia who have formally passed legislation to apologize are to be commended.

It should not stop there and I expect you would agree.

Randall Robinson in his "What America Owes to Blacks" makes a case for moving beyond the notion of reparation.

He develops the notion that rehabilitation is a better frame for dealing with the abuse of the past because it seeks also to address present inequities.

I am drawn to this argument in my own academic work.

I have argued that repair is an ongoing task. And I prefer to use the term restitution. In part, because dealing with the trauma of the past cannot be seen to be a onetime affair. It is an ongoing struggle towards ideals of inclusivity, justice, and universal humanity.

There is a need to raise the consciousness of generations who live in the shadow of slavery, colonialism, Nazism, caste, apartheid, etc.

And it cannot only be a state affair. This is where the issue of white people becomes relevant.

I think that white folk will need to find the space to confront the past in terms that are also outside of the state as agent.

One such arena is in cultural expression, the arts, literature, popular culture, just to name a few avenues.

The issue of personal confrontation is also important, but not the kind that is about blame and guilt.

I have used the argument that confrontation is necessary, much like Judith Herman has argued.

Herman puts it simple and elegantly when she says "The past will refuse to be buried" ... it simply won't go away.

Thanks for your further comment.


10:33 PM

James said...

I think that's amazingly well said, Ridwan, and I couldn't agree more.


Dione said...

When we think about how long slavery went on in America, no doubt it SHOULD take an even longer time to try and heal. Some of the best steps in that direction are like you mentioned, states that address the issue, and admit to slavery and that something needs to be done about it.