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It’s today’s slavery that should concern us now


TWO of the great Hebrew prophets, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, said:

‘In those days people will no longer say, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”. Instead, everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes – his own teeth will be set on edge.’

The Black Lives Matter protesters seem to think we should and can. True, we can sometimes make reparations for the sins of the fathers, but even there a statute of limitations must apply. West Germany made efforts to compensate surviving slave labourers, but the Marxists in Russia never did. Where will it end? Many whites in Britain could doubtless be traced back to slaves imported by Roman, Saxon and Viking invaders. Should the Italians and Scandinavians be apologising and making reparations? Slavery in England was made illegal in 1102, but black Berbers from North Africa and Spain (the southern part of which they had invaded) carried on their dreadful trade by kidnapping white slaves from Britain and northern Europe and selling them throughout the burgeoning Muslim empire. Should they be made to apologise?

The Western slave trade was indeed an abomination. But we need to remember that few in England realised what was going on. Slave ships never docked with their live cargoes in Bristol or Liverpool; only the sugar and coffee etc were unloaded there. The slaves were going from West Africa to the West Indies and southern settlements of North America. The English trade became industrial in scale only during the eighteenth century. Before that Spain had been the main purveyor of slaves, some from Africa, but many were enslaved Indians from the Americas (often kidnapped by rival tribes and sold on). So much so that, in the 17th century, such slaves longed to be captured by English privateers as they believed being slaves to the English would be wonderful by comparison – it probably was better (see Gordon Daviot/Josephine Tey’s The Privateer). 

When the slave trade took off in the 18th century, it was technically legal because the slaves never came to England; the few that did arrive had to be called servants because of the law; casuistry of course. But even by 1776, when Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, he pointed out that slavery was both immoral and counter-productive to creating true wealth.

It is also conveniently overlooked that it was a trade: West African tribes would go to war with their neighbours and capture slaves, selling them on to the Western slave traders in exchange for goods. Should they be now apologising? Perhaps they should, not for then but for the present day where Africans continue to trade their fellow Africans across the Sahara or through Sudan to the Middle East (mostly Islamic, such as via Boko Haram), still plying their vile trade.

When, by the end of the 18th century, it became clear what was going on, the Christian conscience of England woke up. By 1792 Parliament had resolved that slavery must gradually be abolished. It took time against opposition from those profiting by it, but the Slave Trade Act was passed in 1807, followed up by the Slavery Abolition Act (1833), enforced by the Royal Navy. From 1807 to 1865 the Navy captured 1,600 slave ships and released 150,000 slaves at the cost of nearly two thousand lives of sailors and marines. This included having to fight West African tribes determined to continue the trade, in particular the Ashanti tribe (one of my wife’s ancestors won a VC in that war).

When watching a Black Lives Matter protest on TV, I noticed just one intelligent placard among the plethora of Woke and Marxist rubbish. It stated ‘Stop modern slavery’. Now that would be a genuine good.

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Philip Foster
Philip Foster
Revd Philip Foster MA (Nat.Sci. & Theol.)

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