Whatever you think of the Treasury tweet (The Treasury’s tweet shows slavery is still misunderstood, 13 February), we do have a lot to be proud of about the moral and political campaign, started by Quakers in the 1780s, to abolish the slave trade.
It is unclear from David Olusoga’s article whether he believes that payments to slave owners actually benefited slaves and their descendants or otherwise. If there was a better course of action available, what was it? Perhaps a physical blockade of Africa to enforce the ban on British ships transporting slaves would have helped? The Royal Navy did just that in 1808, establishing the West Africa Squadron to do so.
Britain did more than abolish slavery, it took robust action against the slave traders and strongly encouraged others to do the same. I would rather defend Britain’s record than, say, that of Ethiopia, where slavery and involuntary servitude were only officially abolished in 1942, or that of Saudi Arabia, where it took another 20 years.
• As well as the vast compensation given to slave owners, David Olusoga mentions the apprenticeship system that replaced slavery, which in 1837 Henry Sterne called “equally bad, if not worse than slavery”. Under slavery black women had fought hard for some basic rights, like a less harsh workload during pregnancy, breastfeeding time, the provision of limited childcare, and food and clothing for their children. Intended to soften the blow for slave owners, under the apprenticeship system, these rights were withdrawn. Emancipation actually led to the deterioration of black women’s lives.
• One point to add to David Olusoga’s article on the “end” of slavery in the British empire: it didn’t really end. Slavery was replaced by a system of indentured labour in the many British colonies where plantations were the main income generators.
People from India were shipped thousands of miles to work for minimal wages for a fixed number of years with limited rights. This system persisted until 1917. No mention was made of this in the history I learned in school. I wonder if it is included now?
• David Olusoga rightly criticises the Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833 for its obscene generosity of £20m granted as compensation to slave owners “for the loss of their human property”. It did not free all slaves in the empire as the countless school textbooks insist, because well into the 20th century slavery was still in existence in Sierra Leone, Gambia, Burma, Hong Kong and northern Nigeria – a fact that Britain confessed to the League of Nations in 1924.
Glorifying Britain’s role in the past is typical of the manipulation of our history which has been going on over centuries. The Abolition Act must be seen alongside other such mythologised “facts” as the “fair governance” of our colonies and “Britain alone” in 1940. It’s a shame that the all too numerous “factoids” in the history books cannot be deleted as easily as the Treasury’s tweet!
• Kenan Malik (Let’s put an end to the delusion that Britain abolished slavery, theguardian.com, 11 February) has selectively blamed the British for their role in the 17th-century slave trade. Granted, British and other European “businessmen” did internationalise the slave trade, but the practice was invented by African chiefs who had been capturing and selling slaves within the continent and to the Middle East for centuries before the transatlantic trade. Today, African leaders are still at it, driving, through corruption and mismanagement, hundreds of thousands of Africans to seek a better life in Europe. Many have ended up in the Libyan slave markets.
Executive director, African Solutions to African Migration
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