ONCE upon a time slavery was synonymous with human existence: wherever you could find people, you could find a class fulfilling the unenviable role of slave.
Point to practically any civilisation in the past and you can bet your last manacle that they indulged in a spot of slavery. To own people was a status symbol. Whereas today you may boast about your Audi or new iPhone, in the good ol’ days you’d be bragging about the numbers of souls in your possession.
Naturally there were variations in how it worked. You could be the booty of some pre-industrial tribe, or perhaps snatched from the shore by Barbary pirates and sold in an Algiers slave market. Maybe you would be a Slav slave of the Romans, or you could be lucky enough to be kidnapped by Ottomans as a boy and forced to serve out the rest of your days as a Janissary fighting for the Sultan.
Then there was the Arab slave trade, which lasted a mere 1,300 years and saw up to 18million souls enslaved. Arab trades plundered Africa for human cargo, taking them back as forced labour and often castrating them – hence the lack of African diaspora in many of these places.
Slavery existed in many more areas: ancient China, Korea, Thailand, Burma, the pre-colonial Americas, ancient India, medieval Europe, all Islamic societies, ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome. You get the idea. However if you ask someone on the street, the word ‘slavery’ will conjure just one example: the transatlantic slave trade.
The scale of the operation (an estimated 12million transported from Africa to the Americas over 400 years) is no doubt partly responsible, together with its relative recentness. Race, on the surface, plays its part too, with white people enslaving black. However that people enslave those from other races is not a historical aberration but rather the norm.
That slaves were provided to Europeans by other Africans is, too, neither here nor there in a complex tale of human morality, demanding more than the mere casting of goodies and baddies. Nuance, in such arguments, falls by the wayside, with Europeans forever cast as the progenitors of this original sin exacted uniquely by them against the peoples of West Africa.
That the most glaringly unique feature of Britain’s role in slavery is its determined abolition is an irrelevance to those who want to use it as a stick with which to beat Western civilisation, thereby crushing any pride that may still exist among the peoples of that much maligned culture.
Calls for reparations from slavery forever rear their head. Why wouldn’t they? Those who stand to benefit can see the enfeeblement of Western societies and know that most will give in immediately to anything lest they be accused of racism or intolerance. The main effort is in California, the latest suggestion being that each descendant of a slave would receive $1.2million.
That such demands are absurd is not really the point. It is people who look like people who experienced a wrong demanding money from those who look like those who committed them; a desperate reach into the sufferings of the past to sate contemporary avarice.
And what about us, the descendants of feudal serfs and the forced child labourers of the Industrial Revolution? What of my Irish ancestors and their claims of mistreatment by the British, or relatives from the Kingdom of Saxony in Germany who suffered invasion by Napoleonic France? Or those in my blood line a thousand years ago who fell victim to Viking rape and pillage?
So, on it goes. Such questions do not matter because they are responding to questions asked not in good faith, the historical battering ram of slavery being designed to discredit Western nations as a whole. Whenever questions are asked and only one possible outcome is permitted, you know you are dealing with ideology and not sincere enquiry.
Yet the trick still works. That the Royal Family has backed an investigation into its historical involvement with slavery is another instance of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. That the research will uncover links to slavery is inevitable, and so is the grovelling apology which will follow, further undermining the legitimacy of the political structures of our kingdom.
A more confident society would not shy away from acknowledging our part played in slavery, but it would reject any notion that the British are uniquely tainted by the awful practice and point resolutely towards our part in the abhorrent practice’s destruction.
Not that slavery has ended. Modern slavery exists, with an estimated 50million people living in modern slavery today. Looking at a map of the world, acute minds will quickly see where these slaves are not.
Challenging such a practice would, however, mean criticising societies that are not Western and would demand something more difficult than the endless harassment of our nation’s past. As such, you can bet your bottom dollar those who affect such outrage at the crimes of history will not bat an eyelid at the injustices carried out today.