THE TRANSATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE... continued

In Britain we have been encouraged to take part in the Nazi Holocaust Memorial Day. I do not minimise the awfulness of that, but it is worth remembering that the Jewish population in the UK is much smaller than that of Africans of the Diaspora and the Nazi atrocities lasted a short time compared with the 400 years or so of the Atlantic trade.

a) The Nazi atrocities lasted a short time compared with the 400 years or so of the Atlantic trade.

b) The Germans have expressed repentance for what they did, while apology from Europeans for the slave trade has been limited. Often our history books in the UK emphasize more about what we did to abolish the trade rather than admitting the extent of our participation.

c) The evidence that Germans profited from slaughtering Jews is contested. However there is no question that Western Europe and North America benefited hugely from the trade and the poverty in West Africa, the Caribbean and US cities is a continuing legacy from it.

The benefits of the Africa trade were well understood at the time that it was in full swing. In 1745 Malachy Postlethwayt, an economist writing in support of the Royal Africa Company stated that the British Empire was "a magnificent superstructure of American commerce and naval power, on an African foundation." 9 A contemporary historian, Professor David Dabydeen shows that the unprecedented wealth creation based on the slave trade was "the hinge between medieval Britain and the modern state." 10

Another little known fact is that by the early nineteenth century the slave trade had become primarily a trade in children. By that time, traders had discovered that children survived the rigours of both the inland and sea voyages better than adults and they could pack more of them in the holds.

The history of the slave trade is full of ironies and glaring inconsistencies for those who call themselves Christians. The trade involved people of all the major denominations. In France, Huguenots were proportionately more involved than Catholics in ports like La Rochelle, Bourdeaux, Nantes and Le Havre. In 1642, the Protestant Synod in Rouen censured "over scrupulous persons who thought it unlawful for Protestant merchants to deal in slaves." 11 In New England, before the Quakers became prominent in the cause of abolition, they both kept slaves and financed voyages to obtain slaves. So we have the contradiction of ships like the Reformation sailing for slaves from Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love!12 The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel kept slaves on the Codrington estate in Barbados and branded them with the name "SOCIETY."13

The names of slave ships often bore testimony to the distorted theologies prevalent at the time. One of the first slave ships from Liverpool was the Blessing and the blessing of God was sought in many a slave trading voyage. Foster Cunliffe, a successful slave trader and three times mayor of Liverpool, was decribed on the plaque to his memory in St Peter's Church as "a Christian devout and exemplary in the exercise of every private and public duty, friend to mercy, patron to distress, an enemy only to vice and sloth."14 Hugh Thomas mentions a director of the Royal Africa Company, Richard Craddocke, who was said, "...to live with his prayer book in his left hand and a company prospectus in his right, without letting either know what the other held."!15

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."16

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 numbeness upon the heart and renders those who are engaged in it too indifferent to the sufferings of their fellow-creatures."17 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?"18 These are the kinds of questions that should exercise our minds and hearts.

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