West African Slavery
Two dark shadows hang over the history of Liverpool: the Irish Famine and the Slave Trade. 1999 finally saw the first memorial erected to the thousands of Irish émigrés who died in the city of typhoid and cholera as they tried to flea the potato famine. It also saw the first public apology issued by the City’s civic leaders, finally recognising Liverpool’s shameful role at the epicenter of the European slave trade. Last week I traveled to West Africa to a gathering organised by President Mathieu Kerekou of Benin. I read the City’s statement to the conference and gave the President a sculpture made by the Liverpool sculptor, Stephen Broadbent. Made of black iron and standing on a piece of white marble it depicts two people locked in an embrace of reconciliation. Beyond the formalities, the Conference brought together Africans, Europeans, and Americans. No-one who went to Benin could come away unaffected. Rooted in the enormities of yesterday, what happened in West Africa in past centuries poses a whole range of questions for today.
The challenge for Africa was summed up by President Kerekou’s own story. Baptised a Catholic he became a Marxist and eventually the military leader of this small West African state. Tucked away between Togo, Burkina Faso, Niger and its huge neighbour, Nigeria, this former French colony has a population of about six million people. In 1990 Kerekou called free elections. He lost the election and handed over power to his opponents. It was the first time in Africa that a peaceful democratic transition had occurred in a free election. In 1995 Kerekou received his reward and was voted back into office. He has appointed several evangelical Christians to advisory and ministerial posts and speaks openly of the importance of religious belief to him. The official religion of Benin is voodoo. benin is the birth place of voodoo practice and is still very much in evidence. 55% of the country are said to be followers of traditional African religions; 22% are Catholic; 17% Muslim and 4% Protestant. While on a visit to the United States, Kerekou made a speech describing his own antecedents. He said that his forebears were black slave dealers, capturing and selling other Africans to the white slave traders. Many of the black American delegates present at the Conference said that this was the most shocking part of their own history and the part which they found the most difficult to confront: “How could a black brother sell their brother or their sister to be a slave?” asked Bishop David Perrin. By apologising publicly to the black American Diaspora President Kekekou lanced a festering boil.
The Sellers, The Buyers and the Victims.
Estimates of the numbers of Africans sold into slavery vary but over nearly four centuries about 12 million people were forcibly transported into bondage. Between 1701 and 1810 around 5.7 million people were taken into slavery, 2 million coming from the Slave Coast, where Benin is situated. Around 39% went to the Caribbean, 38% to Brazil, 17% to South America and 6% to North America. Many of the slaves shipped out of Africa from the Bight of Benin were taken to the port of Ouidah, which is situated near Cotonou, the present capital. Not since I visited the holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem in Israel have I experienced such harrowing emotions. Captured slaves were brought to Ouidah, where the Portuguese had built a fort (which today houses a small museum where many of the artifacts involved in this revolting trade are exhibited). Inside the fort stands the church of the Immaculate Conception, built by the Portuguese.
At the nearby Auction Place, under The Whipping Tree, the slaves were sold to European traders. From here the slaves had to walk the slave route to the shores of the Atlantic. I followed in their footsteps to a staging post called Zomai (which means, where the light is not allowed to go). From here, according to the ritual, the slaves would be taken in the dark to the Tree Of Forgetfulness. Men would be made to walk around it nine times, a woman seven times. It was believed that this would strip them of their memory – that they would lose their identity, forget their origins, their families and their country. Slavery is debasing in itself . This forced amnesia was the final assault on a person’s humanity. At Zomai sick, disabled or elderly people were picked out and thrown into a common grave. Some were buried alive. Today, the memorial of Zoungbodji marks this place of holocaust. Here we removed our shoes, stood in silence, candles flickering in a gentle breeze, and silently wondered what atonement would ever put right such inhumanity. The slaves to be deported would then be taken to the Tree Of Return. Here they had to turn three times in the hope that although their bodies would never stand on these shores again that one day their spirits would return. Then, finally on to the Door Of No Return, marked today by an archway, through which men , women and children would pass before boarding a boat waiting for the middle passage of this evil triangular trade plied between Europe, Africa and the Americas. Before leaving the Gate Of No Return some of the American delegates from the Conference started to sing the hymn Amazing Grace. I wondered whether they knew that this hymn had been written by the Liverpool based slave trade captain, John Newton. When he renounced the trade it was his evidence which would significantly help the abolitionist cause led by the Christian campaigner, William Wilberforce.
Europe’s Role: the leaving of Liverpool.
If there are unresolved questions for the sellers of slaves, there remain questions, too, for the buyers and for the victims. In the total Atlantic trade, British ships are estimated to have made 12,000 voyages and to have carried 2.6 million slaves. The trade before 1730 was dominated by London but was overtaken by Bristol in the 1730s, only to be eclipsed by Liverpool in the 1750s. In 1797, 1 in 4 ships leaving Liverpool was a slaver. Liverpool merchants handled five eighths of the English slave trade and three sevenths of the slave trade in Europe. In his Journal of a Slave-trader, John Newton wrote: “I have no sufficient data to warrant calculation but I suppose not less than one hundred thousand slaves are exported annually from all parts of Africa, and that more than one half of these are exported in English ships.” The Liverpool historian, Ramsay Muir, estimated that in 1807, a staggering £17 million pounds was generated in Liverpool through the slave trade. This was the darkest chapter in the City’s history. In a letter to the Benin Reconciliation Conference Liverpool’s Lord Mayor, Couincillor Joe Devaney, and the Leader of the City Council, Councillor Mike Storey, not only recognised the scale of Liverpool’s involvement but made the first public apology on behalf of the City. Many people from the black American Diaspora told me how moved they were by the text, which had been unanimously endorsed by the 99 members of the Council. They hoped that many American cities would follow suit – a point I emphasised during interviews for American television. The City Council’s resolution states that “..it is time the City gave expression to its sense of remorse over the effects that the slave trade had on countless millions of people and on the culture of the continent of Africa, the Caribbean and the USA. The Council will co-ordinate the use if all its powers to foster better race relations, greater equality of opportunities and even greater diversity so that the City is itself a celebration of multi-culturalism.” To underline that this was not empty rhetoric or a hollow apology the Council also convened a special extraordinary meeting, with no other business on the agenda, so that as its last formal act of the second millennium Liverpool could formally acknowledge its responsibility, ‘shame and remorse’ and its hope that reconciliation would be the basis on which the City would begin the new millennium.
Addressing the Black Diaspora.
What struck me most at the Benin Conference was the willingness of people who had suffered so much at the hands of others to recognise that it was time to clean the slate and to forgive. The victims of the slave trade have every right to fell anger and bitterness. Who could blame them for becoming prisoners of their history? – refusing to forgive and hating the heirs of those who pursued this villainous trade. One delegate put it well when he said “We sometimes forget that the white people today are not the same white people who pursued the slave trade. Those are the whites of yesterday, not of today.” I vividly recall the young black woman who said to me at the time of the Toxteth riots in Liverpool in 1981, “Since the slave trade, 200 years ago, we have simply moved half a a mile up the road.” In other words, many of the social injustices, racism, and prejudice on which the slave trade was built continue to manifest themselves in the treatment of minorities today. The consequences of the slave trade for the uprooted black Diaspora have to be addressed in our own times.
How To Move On
If we are to be released from the burden of our involvement in the slave trade we need to find a way to move on. The Benin Conference passed formal resolutions of apology and black leaders formally accepted these. It reminded me of the old Chinese proverb that any journey of a thousand miles begins when you take the first step. It is never too late to say sorry and to seek to make amends, but it is never too soon either. In my address to the Conference I said that this Release would come through Remembrance, Repentance, Reconciliation and Reform.
In remembering the infamies of the slave trade we should also remember those black and white people who saw it for what it was and who refused to collaborate and who denounced it. In the British Parliament, the young William Wilberfoce led the abolitionist cause. He spent forty long years fighting huge vested interests. In 1792, on introducing a Bill for Abolition, Wilberfoce began his speech with this cry from the heart: “Africa, Africa, your sufferings have been the theme that has arrested and engages my heart, Your sufferings no tongue can express, no language impart.” In 1807, Wilbeforce persuaded Parliament to make the trade illegal – against fierce opposition led by men like Captain Hugh Crow of Liverpool, one of a thousand captains who sailed from the port to obtain African slaves. In 1831, as Wilberfoce was dying, the news was brought to him that Parliament had finally abolished slavery throughout all its territories. During the 1807 debate Liverpool’s Member of Parliament was William Roscoe. A Unitarian whose memory is celebrated in his chapel in Liverpool’s Ullet Road, he and the Rathbone family were resolutely opposed to the trade. Roscoe only sat in the Commons for three months but it was during that time that the vote was taken on the Wilberforce Bill. He voted for it and said “I consider it the greatest happiness of my existence to life up my voice on this occasion, with the friends of justice and humanity.” On his return to Liverpool he was assailed by the mob, and pulled from his coach and horses in Castle Street. He spent the remainder of his life working for the abolitionist cause. He penned an epic poem, “The Wrongs of Africa”, in which these lines appear: “Blush ye not to boast your equal laws, your just restraints, your rights defended, your liberties secured, whilst with an iron hand ye crushed to earth the helpless African; and bid him drink that cup of sorrow, which yourselves have dashed indignant, from oppression’s fainting grasp?” He went on to warn his countrymen: “Forget not Britain, higher still than thee, sits the great Judge of nations , who can weigh the wrong and who can repay” The stories of Wilberforce and Roscoe – who both stood against the prevailing climate – remind us that not everyone collaborated or acquiesced in these crimes against humanity. They also remind us that when small stones move, landslides can happen.
In remembering we must not become trapped by events which we cannot now change. Remembrance must be followed by Repentance and by forgiveness. We must repent of attitudes which diminish human dignity and which discriminate against other men and women because of their race. We must repent of laws and political priorities which continue to institutionalise racism, which lead to racist attacks – like the one which led to the brutal dearth of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence – and which perpetuate the presumptions on which the edifice of slavery was first erected. Repentance can easily be ridiculed or attacked – as phony, insincere, tokenistic or an empty gesture. Some say it is impossible to accept any responsibility across the generations for those who failed to atone, either for what they did or for their unwillingness to take a stand and to speak out. Repentance is likely to be thrown back in the case of those who atone. But without it there is no way forward, no way to grow. It is the only way to wipe the slate clean and to move on.
From Remembrance and Repentance we can at last move on to reconciliation. First we have to stand in another man or woman’s shoes and to try and see events and issues from their perspective. In Northern Ireland an absence of repentance and an unwillingness to feel the insecurities of the other side has bedeviled the peace process and mad reconciliation extremely difficult. The reconciliation process is obstructed when, as one delegate in Benin put it “the elephant you see, is not the elephant I see.” We have to make sure that we are both on the same page, seeing the same thing. But when forgiveness is sought or is received it leads to incredible healing and cures us of our paralysis. Without reconciliation there can be no progress and no end to the pain. Our problem is that we have created a culture of blame and got into the habit of blaming one another when things go wrong. The opposite of reconciliation is revenge. This means taking an eye for an eye – and the problem with that is that if you go on doing it for long enough, the whole world will become blind. Being reconcilers requires us to * take civic and educational initiatives which teach the truth about past events; * promote programmes which recognise contemporary injustices, social and political, and which tackle poverty and lack of opportunity for black people – in Africa, America and here; and to * seize opportunities to speak out against contemporary slavery and the culture of death in all its guises.
. Reconciliation is worthless unless it is undergirded by personal, political, civic and institutional reform. When we change ourselves we can change the world. As a boy I was given a jigsaw puzzle. On one side was a picture of a man. On the other was a picture of the world. As a seven year old I could never get the world right; it was simply too complicated. The picture of the man was much easier; but the great thing about the jigsaw puzzle was that when you turned the picture of the man over, the world came right anyway. Getting the man right means moving on from our Caveman’s Culture – a culture which diminishes the uniqueness of each human being and still treats us as materialistic objects.
There are many practical proposals which came out of the Benin Conference – not least the right of people in the Diaspora to have an international African travel document and passport and the opportunity to own land in Africa. Recreating the destroyed identity of millions of people must be addressed. Liverpool’s Maritime Museum is a fine example of what can be done at a communal level but every person and every family will always want answers to the questions “who am I?” and “from whence did I spring?. One woman told me that all she could take home to America was some soil – there were no family trees to trace her genealogy, no knowledge of where her forbears lived and died. It will take a long time to come to terms with the enormity of what people from seemingly civilized countries did to other human beings. As I left West Africa I brought away with me a mixture of emotions. I left behind a small piece of sculpture which bears the legend a gift from the people of Liverpool to the people of West Africa. President Kerekou has asked that the Reconciliation statue should be cast in a much larger form and placed at the Gate of No Return. Perhaps some young people from Liverpool might help in its construction, working alongside the sculptor and Beninoise young people.
Opening The Way
Benin’s President, Mathieu Kerekou, told the Conference that “We owe it to ourselves never to forget, to acknowledge our share of responsibility in the humiliation and opprobrium, to feel shame, to look differently as the false images, to surrender to forgiveness and to start afresh. we must pursue our goal towards progress and free ourselves from misery without succumbing to the vanity of material possession. For Africans this awareness opens the way to forgiveness and reconciliation. For Europeans the challenges are exactly the same.
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