Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Slavery: please, spare me all the apologies

It is still not entirely self-evident as to why middle-class blacks are begging the British authorities to apologies for a social system that was abolished long before any of us were even born. Slavery was an accepted and legal social system up until abolition in 1807. There appears to be an ever-growing catalogue of groups claiming monies or apologies for events that occurred in the distant past. No doubt spurred on by more recent apologies, like Tony Blair apologising for the Irish potato famine, or the former American president Bill Clinton apologising to the Japanese for internment of their people during WW2.

If anything, the lives of today’s blacks in Britain, and the US are a million miles away even from today's Africans, let alone their ancestor who were physically forced into slavery over 200 years ago. Indeed, the only thing we as blacks have in common with our ancestors is DNA, that's about all. (1) The ever increasing calls for an apology sits quite nicely with today's Western therapy and compensation culture. It's as if apologies by our political masters acts as a therapeutic measure that will somehow help to solve any social problem there might be. (2)

However, loud calls for apologies over slavery actually end up reducing black people to the status of child abuse victims - who are apparently unable to get over the psychological trauma of being, err, well, black. From the perspective of those who argue for apologies, there is an insulting assumption that today's blacks are still shackled under the weight of slavery. An irony of sorts, given that it's black educationalists and lawyers who are the main driving force behind all this apologising. The advocates of apology have transformed themselves into a new industry that is forever redefining the meaning of suffering, and trying to turn it into ill-gotten cold cash, or apologies.

Don't get me wrong here, I welcome all the heated debates about British slave abolitionists and slave revolts - indeed, it's precisely why I call this blog neo-Jacobin, as a reminder of the work of C.L.R. James, in his historical account entitled The Black Jacobins, which detailed the Haitian Revolution, the first successful slave revolt in human history. What I really object to is the more recent prostitution of history that we have witnessed around the bicentenary 'celebrations'. (3) As Mick Hume rightfully points out, all the recent apologies around slavery are 'meaningless moral rituals'. Indeed, who ever heard of anyone going to prison for apologising for a crime they never committed?

So, what was the point of Ken Livingstone apologising? It appears as if he is trying to compete with William Wilberforce for popularity. All this apologising - but for what? So we can begin to heal some social wounds? Well, it won't work, how can it? Indeed, in a multicultural society dominated by the politics of identity and victimhood, saying that you are sorry will not be enough - no sooner as one apologies, sure enough another demand is made, and so on, and so on. No sooner had Tony Blair apologised, there were immediate calls for him to go further - even if he walked around the world in chains, it still wouldn't be enough. How could it be? You cannot compensate those who suffer from victim identity, if you could, it would render those identities redundant. For some, saying sorry is just not enough - so our political elites should do us all a favour and stop apologising.

Read on:

(1) Suing for slavery. By Josie Appleton. 2004

(2) Slavery reparation: why now?. By Josie Appleton. 2001

(3) Who's not sorry now. By Mick Hume. 2007

Photo: "The Slave Market, Atlanta, Ga". [Also known as "Auction & Negro Sales, Whitehall St."]. By George Barnard

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At 5:26 AM, Blogger Don said...

Why are the British in particular asked to apologize, when it was the British who took the lead in voluntary emancipation and in halting the Atlantic slave trade? Because Spain, Cuba and Brazil didn't manage to survive as major powers into the 21st Century and haven't so much to feel guilty about?

At 10:25 PM, Blogger Lucyp said...

I agree that an apology is an empty message, what i do object to is the way it is being spun by our Government as to wash over the fact that we were the major participants and portray it as how great the brits were to stop doing it. As i have said before, it is the equivalent of being praised for stopping punching someone in the face.

At 9:17 AM, Blogger Courtney Hamilton said...


Today it's Britain being asked to apologise, tomorrow it could very well be France.

The problem of saying sorry is that the moment you say it, you in a legal sense accept/admit liability, and you potentially open yourself up to being sued in the courts for fiscal compensation.

At 7:23 AM, Blogger Don said...

Goes beyond that. Who's to say I won't have to apologize someday for exploiting underpaid Chinese labor? I get shit for that sometimes.

At 8:28 AM, Blogger Courtney Hamilton said...

Of course, all of this apologising, and hence, compensation, for past 'crimes' certainly opens you up to an avalanche of even more bizarre demands for apologies.

Indeed, I think it's only a matter of time before the descendants of Chinese opium merchants come banging down the doors of British courts demanding apologies. What about the descendents of the Boston Tea merchants? Or the descendents of Kenyans Mau-Mau's? What about South African Boer farmers? Need I go on?

At 9:08 AM, Anonymous Longrider said...

what i do object to is the way it is being spun by our Government as to wash over the fact that we were the major participants and portray it as how great the brits were to stop doing it.

I'm not convinced that they are doing this. For the most part, all I'm seeing is the guiltfest. Given that the abolitionists and subsequently the Royal Navy were going against the societal norms of the time, their courage and tenacity in the face of majority opinion is to be commended - why should we not commemorate this?

What annoys me is the expectation that Britons should be wallowing in guilt as if ours was the only country involved in this reprehensible trade. What about America? What about Africa? What about those still doing it?

At 4:09 PM, Blogger Gavin Ayling said...

The interesting thing about this 'debate' is there are only very, very few people in favour of the apologists. In fact I've yet to meet one face to face!

At 2:26 PM, Blogger james higham said...

Courtney, I'm well known for being anti-apology on anything in the past.

Tell me, which blog is your main one to link to - this or spitfire?

Also, I must apologize for an error on the Guido post [in the present] - I didn't acknowledge you. Now corrected.

At 11:47 AM, Anonymous Ellee said...

At least past mistakes have been acknowledged and are regretted. You can, of course, apologise too much:


At 12:57 AM, Anonymous Benedict White said...

Courtney, It is a shame you don't blog more often, but then it is only worth blogging when you are driven to say something!

Excellent article.

I thin Cameron's position is right. Regret, sorrow etc, but you can't say sorry for something you have not done.

LucyP, I think you have to bear in mind that western powers did not "take slaves" they bought them, and whilst that is no excuse, you have to remember the nature of the times.

Most people were not involved in politics, those who were had money, and the slavers had a lot of influence.

It took a lot of hard work to get the trade in slavery banned.

I think those who did that deserve praise. However those who suffered obviously deserve rememberence as well.

The debate should of course move on and fast. Apologies for slavery 200 years ago are irrelevant when in practice slavery still goes on today. It needs to be stamped out.

At 11:41 PM, Anonymous Lilly White said...

I agree with Courtney. I shouldn't apologize for the slaves my family used to own. Not my fault. It's them who should apologize: one could never bring them to work hard enough. Made it hard to get a fair return on our investmen.

At 10:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You cannot have free and honest conversation with people who claim a right to "moderate," editorialize and suppress comments.

And there's no point in giving me the usual shit about blogs being private. Mail is private, so are phone calls. Blogs are public.

At 7:04 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

Read Dr Leary Post Traumatic Slave Symptom. Unfortunately it is not scientific a all, but it is a nice personal read. I think there is something in that.

At 10:01 PM, Blogger Patrick Ross said...

That's an interesting point. While it is entirely arguable whether or not the British state in general can be held accountable for practices carried out under its sovereignty (clearly, it can), there is a question of whether or not individual administrations can be held responsible for the actions of past administrations (I don't think they can -- or at least don't think they should).

Conversely, while the British state could be held culpable for slavery practices, the British state was also among the first to abolish slavery. The Abolitionist movement started in Britain.

As such (and I know this seems facetious) shouldn't black people be thanking Britain for abolishing slavery?

Just a rather odd thought.

At 11:02 PM, Blogger Laban said...

I think Professor Walter Williams has it about right :


At 11:10 PM, Blogger Courtney Hamilton said...

"Therefore, from this day forward Americans of European ancestry can stand straight and proud knowing they are without guilt and thus obliged not to act like damn fools in their relationships with Americans of African ancestry."

Professor Walter Williams.

I don't think I could, or would argue against that - thanks for the contribution Laban.


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