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In 1751, after the Duke of Argyll had left Africa with its cargo of slaves, the captain wrote home to his wife:
“I have lost sight of Africa, innumerable changes and difficulties, which, without a superior protection, no man could escape or surmount, are, by the goodness of God, happily over.....I am going to walk on deck and think of you; and, according to my constant custom, to recommend you to the care and protection of God.” Two days later he had to deal with a slave rebellion which emergency he overcame with “Divine assistance.”19
Later that former slave trader, John Newton, was to see the error of his ways and he reflected on the degradation of the trade and the way that participants were blinded to the true nature of what they were doing:
“The real or supposed necessity of treating the Negroes with rigour gradually brings a numbness upon the heart and renders those who are engaged in it too indifferent to the sufferings of their fellow-creatures.”20
In using the term “fellow-creatures”, Newton showed that the most fundamental change of heart had occurred, because the rationalisation for the trade was largely based on the assumption that the African slave was in some way sub-human.
In the light of all this evidence, what is an appropriate response from the Christian community today?
First of all surely it is important to tell the truth. How many schoolchildren in Britain today would know that this was the greatest crime against fellow human beings which this nation has committed? It is good to tell the story of abolition, but not before our responsibility for the slave trade has been well understood. It is important too, to educate about the legacy of the slave trade and to understand the reasons for the anger which many Afro-Americans still feel. James Walvin perceptively comments on the fact that the major race riots in England in the eighties occurred in the former slave ports of London, Liverpool and Bristol. “Was it mere accident that those cities should be plagued, long after slavery had died, for the sins of their fathers?”21 These are the kinds of questions that should exercise our minds and hearts.