Slave trade and national pride

Longrider makes some points about the slave trade, specifically whether the City of Britstol should apologise for its role in the ‘slave triangle’:

Why should a twenty first century population apologise for something that happened two hundred years before they were born and therefore cannot have any responsibility for? There is also rank hypocrisy here that stinks like a slave ship. The Bristol slavers did not act alone. Their slaves were rounded up and sold to them by Africans. (via DK).

Quite true, but a question springs to mind: Does this hold when the opposite scenario occurs, and the 21st Century population wants to take pride in something achieved by the 19th century population? Ideas of patriotism, the sense of pride in one’s nationality, seem to be rooted in having some connection with our forefathers. If we’re not going to take responsibility for their misdemeanours, in a way we sever that connection. “Cockle-doodle-do!”
On a related point, what I find odd about the particular dialogue in Bristol is this: Was anyone operating under the assumption that the current residents were pleased by this particular piece of its history!? Of course not. Our political discourse takes slavery as an obvious ‘wrong’ – surely its abolition carrys an implied apology? I might go further, and ask that if the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807 is not an apology for slavery, what is? I hardly think a memo from Bristol City Council will cut it…

13 Replies to “Slave trade and national pride”

  1. Sure. When I say “responsibility” I guess i’m thinking of it in a wider sense… Perhaps “attribution” would be better.
    What I’m driving at: If we celebrate certain events as ‘good’ British, we also have to declare other events as ‘bad’ British. You can’t have one without the other. A trivial point maybe, but one that usually sees me labelled as some kind of self-hater…

  2. I don’t see it as self-hater. And I don’t differ in that we should look back with clear vision; recognising both good and bad. Bristol should be proud of John Cabot and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, just as it should deplore the slave trade. Certainly I’m not aware of anyone looking back at it as a good thing – and you’ve acknowledged as much in your piece.
    My problem is with going a step further and taking personal responsibility for the actions of others; long dead and being presumptuous enough to apologise on their behalf.
    One of those people at the debate said that he did not feel the necessary contrition to give an apology. Of course not. He wasn’t there and did not commit the offence – how could he feel contrition?
    My other concern is the focus on Bristol – which as a British city shares in Britain’s decision to abolish the slave trade. Yet slavery still exists. Nothing is being said about this. I find the hypocrisy deeply repugnant. It is, to reverse the argument, a kind of racism; only white slave traders are to be censured. Black and Arab ones appear to be conveniently ignored.

  3. If we celebrate certain events as ‘good’ British, we also have to declare other events as ‘bad’ British. You can’t have one without the other.
    What nonsense! Do we now have to trawl over every event in British history and apply a “Good” or “Bad” label as progressive society in the UK deems fit? Why should people who wish you celebrate good things also have to have some unrelated burden of guilt dumped on them by the handwringing left? Is there some kind of perverse Newton’s law of motion, that dictates for every period of enjoyment there must be an equal and opposite period of misery?

  4. I’m sure Tim Newman is a very nice chap, but his point is quite erroneous, and, I would say, a bit naughty, not to mention ethically suspect.
    Yes of course there’s a variant of Newton’s law of motion, but the only thing “perverse” is the way Tim seeks to apply it. Where does the enjoyment/misery dichotomy come in when we are talking about “good” and “bad”? Good things and bad things may indeed cause enjoyment or misery, but the fact that there is not a one-on-one mapping is kind of irrelevant and does not speak to the aptness of the analogy.
    The slave trade was “good” for some people, and “bad” for others, causing both “enjoyment” and “misery” simultaneously. Those who “enjoyed” the benefits of the slave-trade did not happen to care to see or acknowledge or validate the “misery” of those who suffered from it, or appreciate that the benefits they enjoyed were founded upon the misery of others (of course not, that would be way uncomfortable) – presumably they would agree with Tim that his interpretation of the analogy with Newton’s law of motion is that it is indeed “perverse”?
    Tim’s comment is, in the words of the Bard, “an admirable evasion of whoremaster man” – he would do well to consider the reverse of the law as he states it, however uncomfortable that may be – for every suffering of misery, there will be an enjoyment of related benefits (whether or not the relation is acknowledged or understood) – it is not just about variations over time, but also across space and individuals/groups of people – it is perverse and “bad” to willfully deny what is demonstrably true, I would say.
    It is offensive really to equate having a social conscience and knowing right from wrong (good from bad) with “lefty hand-wringing”, and to seek to disparage those who wish to act and live ethically, just because the reality of the whole picture is too uncomfortable for one to look at.
    Even if one doesn’t buy the “equal and opposite” claime, “good” is still a relative term, so how I do wonder how Tim thinks you can have “good”, or even identify it, without “bad”?
    I think as socially responsible and ethical people, we do indeed have to consider where we stand on various aspects of British history as to what is “good” and “bad” (of course, some things may be neutral), and not just evade our responsibilities by disparaging the whole endeavour towards ethical living.
    It’s just as hypocritical as being happy when your football team wins, and interpreting a win as evidence of quality, but dismissing a loss as bad luck/bad ref/cheating/not indicative of performance and so on. It’s like a selective blindness, and no good will come from it.

  5. Why should people who wish you celebrate good things also have to have some unrelated burden of guilt dumped on them by the handwringing left?
    My problem is when the “good things” the development we experienced thanks to the Empire… a success that did involve exploiting others.
    Am I bashing a straw man here? Do people delight in the Empire in the way I am suggesting? My question is more over whether we can truly apply words like “pride” and “apology” to our history at all, it being something that we cannot reverse or escape.

  6. I don’t think you are bashing a straw man as long as there are people who reckon the guilt is unrelated to the good things they celebrate or enjoy.
    I think if one accepts the pride for the good things, then one also has to accept the shame for the bad.
    But I also think there is a problem with being proud of things you didn’t do, just as there is a problem with being ashamed of things you didn’t do. If we are proud of our forefathers for some of the things they did (which is different from being proud of the thing itself), then we can also be ashamed of them for other things they did.
    On the other hand, there is a trade-off, in that many of the good things people feel proud of, pinnacles of art and technology and so forth, would not be or have been possible were it not for the inequity in wealth distribution. If we regret slavery and empire and so forth, then we must also regret all the developments that it enabled.

  7. If we regret slavery and empire and so forth, then we must also regret all the developments that it enabled.
    Or, we simply do not apply concepts of regret, or pride, to those developments.
    I would be wary, however, about suggesting that all good things come about because of the bad thngs, as you seem to be suggesting. A catalyst is not a cause, and one would hope that the ‘good things’ can rise of their own accord in the future, not as a by product of some Newtonian/Manichean equation.

  8. Well, yes. That’s why I said *if* we regret…etc
    I don’t think I was suggesting that ALL good things come about BCAUSE of the bad things.
    Firstly, I was just pointing out that rather a lot of the good things were built upon the back of empire/slavery and so forth. Which is not the same as ALL. Secondly, I certainly wasn’t implying a causal link, ie to suggest that bad things CAUSE the good things (or vice versa). That would be bizarre and whacky indeed. I was just pointing out that rather a lot of the good things *would not have been possible* were it not for the bad things. A surplus of wealth and leisure time, cheap/slave labour and such like were and are necessary (though by no means sufficient) conditions for a great many of the things that people now like to be proud of/pleased with.
    I’m afraid good things of the sort to inspire national pride typically do not arise ‘of their own accord’, however nice it would be to believe that they do – railways do not get designed, great literature does not get written, grand ideas, if they are had, do not get carried out very often in conditions of gross poverty, no education, and scarce resources, as I think you’ve mentioned elsewhere.

  9. I cant shake the feeling that this is one those manufactured debates, given life by activists looking to puff up their own relevance. I’m not sure it is likely to achieve very much other than nurse a sense of grievance in one group of people and irritation in another
    Britain abolished slavery 199 years ago and used its naval power to drive other nations’ slave ships off the seas. Maybe we can all get together as a nation, Black and White, and celebrate the 200th anniversary of that world-changing achievement next year
    In the meantime, there are plenty of other, more relevant, things that our nation has been involved in in more recent years that we should think about apologising and, more importantly, making up for

  10. Yes! Making amends for things is MUCH more important than an apology. Saying sorry for things we didn’t do is an empty gesture, and not a meaningful or valuable alternative to redressing or correcting the effects of bad things our predecessors did.

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