Slaves to our past
From Brother Ivo:
Whether we like it or not, Britain has a colonial past, rooted in circumstances, values and world-views utterly different to those we have today. We have no personal responsibility for it, and cannot change it even if we wanted to. If we were afforded the opportunity to time-travel and interfere with that history, there is no guarantee that we would like the resulting outcome any better than what we have today. It ought to be a field of study approached with scholarly caution.
As a contribution to our understanding of that past, the University College of London has published online a searchable database detailing all the individuals and companies which were compensated at the time of the abolition of slavery, and that publication has brought the class warriors out in force.
No sooner had The Independent carried the story on Monday than we had Lee Jasper tweeting his right to be compensated for the chain of events which led him to being inexplicably appointed by Ken Livingstone to be London’s Director of Policing and Equalities, on a publicly-funded salary of £127,000. Brother Ivo agrees there is an outrage here, though not perhaps in the way Mr Jasper thinks.
Slavery is a very touchy issue in a multi-cultural society. It generates more heat than light when there is a poor grasp of the history. Sometimes the unlikely turn up as heroes and vice versa. There are significant ironies.
Because slavery has existed throughout history in societies as diverse as Africa Mexico, China, New Zealand and the Middle East, it was used by philosophers from Aristotle to Aquinas to Locke to develop the idea of ‘Natural Law’. Every known society seemed to have knowledge of common prohibitions such as murder and incest, and institutions such as marriage, kingship, and slavery. The very acceptance of such common standards of behaviour resulted in the Natural Law theory which is the forerunner of ‘Universal Human Rights’. It is not surprising that such commonly-identified features of human society such as slavery were expressed in religious thought, not least in Christianity.
Slave references abound in the Old Testament without objection, and in First Epistle of Peter, slaves are advised to obey their masters. Similarly in Paul‘s Epistle to Philemon, the Apostle discusses his need for services of the slave Onesimus without ever suggesting that the institution which bound him to his master Philemon was in any sense wrong or contrary to the will of God. Jesus never spoke against slavery in plain terms: that biblical reticence fortified many slave-owning apologists.
It would be wrong, however, to regard slavery as in any sense limited to Christian or Western thought or custom. The very term ‘slave’ derives from the Balkan peoples who were the greatest source of slaves in history, being preyed upon for centuries by the Ottoman Empire. Cassanova records seducing a Greek slave girl; North African corsairs took slaves from the coastal villages of Devon and Cornwall; and the African slave trade developed from the sale of captives of war both within Africa and beyond.
If there was an early exception to this universality it perhaps began in England, where the Archbishop of Canterbury St Anselm convened a Council of Westminster in 1102 to differentiate the status of serfs from slaves. Serfs may have been tied to the land by feudal obligation, but they could own property and had rights. Free men were more productive than slaves and could contribute in taxes – a concept that is often overlooked by modern politicians.
The Council declared: ‘Let no one hereafter presume to engage in that nefarious trade in which hitherto in England men were usually sold like brute animals.’
The status of slaves brought from abroad was considered by the English Courts in 1569 in Cartwright’s case, where the defendant was observed beating another and the Court rejected his defence that the man was a Russian slave he had imported, and so not to be regarded as a legal ‘person’, but rather as ‘property’ to be treated as he wished. The Court gave that short-shrift and bequeathed to us the splendid phrase ‘that England was too pure an air for a slave to breathe in’. In essence, once landed, the slave was free.
The law in the colonies was more equivocal, but the principle in Cartwright’s case was developed in Somersett’s case When Lord Mansfield, a highly-conservative Judge who has been called the Father of the modern Tory Party, declared: “The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.”
No doubt Mr Jasper would regret the Judge’s lack of diversity-training, but Brother Ivo still applauds his moral judgment.
It may not have escaped notice that the Judge took a strict constructionist approach to judicial activity. This contrasts with the next step in the story.
The disinclination to uphold slavery had always had a connection to England’s Christian heritage. It is worth noting that the Council of Koblenz (922) declared that if someone sold a Christian into slavery they would be guilty of murder. William the Conqueror had also declared: ‘We forbid anyone to sell a Christian into a foreign land and especially to heathens. For let great care be taken lest their souls for which Christ gave His life be sold into damnation.’
It was that divide between the Christian and non-Christian that was exploited at the beginning of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but the legal decision which established the legality of slavery in the New World was taken in circumstances that confound modern-day assumptions about who would hold what attitudes towards slavery.
In 1665, Anthony Johnson brought a legal suit against his indentured servant John Casor to enforce an agreement whereby Casor was said to have bound himself to Johnson for life. The success of that suit, determined by a judge (not any legislative body) established for the first time in law the legality of slavery in the British colonies.
It is a terrible irony that both Johnson and Casor were black and Johnson a former slave himself.
It is easy to assume that former slaves would despise the institution which oppressed them, yet many did not and became slave owners when freed. John Newton, the author of the hymn Amazing Grace, was a slave-trader who was himself enslaved for a period in Africa.
Following his Christian conversion, independent of that slavery experience, Newton worked with Thomas Clarkson of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, providing the necessary first-hand evidence of the trade. He was perhaps the first significant ‘whistle-blower’. Eventually, the Conservative MP (he means 'Tory' - Ed.) and Evangelical William Wilberforce brought the legislation to fruition.
When Britain abolished the international slave-trade in 1807, it was a major affront to modern liberals. It was a unilateral act of aggressive foreign policy. It was a violation of International Law and objected to as such. Britain even engaged in regime change, deposing the King of Lagos, a key player in the transatlantic slave trade. The abolition should be seen as a complete Neo-Con forerunner of the war in Iraq.
Reading the UCL database, some have noted the mechanism of compensating the former owners and phasing in the liberation with a period of apprenticeships. The transition in societies without a welfare state was always going to be risky. In the lead-up to the American Civil War, a Southern politician graphically summed up the problem with ‘We have a wolf by the ears’. Releasing that grip was a serious concern. There was a real fear of slave revolt and bloody conflict, both of which had happened on several occasions with slave risings. The British managed their transition by compromise, compensation and without the 600,000 dead of the American Civil War.
I am sure Mr Jasper might enjoy baiting David Cameron or Douglas Hogg, both of whose family appears on the compensated list. We all might enjoy the sight of Mr Jasper locking horns with Richard Dawkins, whose family similarly benefitted. He might also go after both Barack and Michelle Obama, both of whom have slave-owning forebears.
If any of you happen to be a descendant of Anthony Johnson, however, Brother Ivo fears that it might be prudent to check your home contents legal insurance cover in case Mr Jasper gets really started.
The reparations debate has begun, and its ambit might be wide-ranging. In 2009, the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria wrote an open letter to African chieftains calling for an apology for their role in the Atlantic slave-trade: "We cannot continue to blame the white men, as Africans, particularly the traditional rulers, are not blameless. In view of the fact that the Americans and Europe have accepted the cruelty of their roles and have forcefully apologised, it would be logical, reasonable and humbling if African traditional rulers accept blame and formally apologise to the descendants of the victims of their collaborative and exploitative slave.”
Brother Ivo sees the argument as fraught with complexity and counter claims – just think of the legal fees!
It is easy to judge figures of history, but one hopes that Mr Jasper will be a little less keen to seek his money. He might be better directing his energies and indignation by campaigning against the continuing slave trade. In a more reflective mood, he might care to offer prayers for the integrity of the unlikely heroes – the Saintly Anselm, the principled High Tory Judge, the Evangelical Tory MP, and the rough seaman who paid the price for other’s convictions and liberty.
He should publicly pay tribute to the men (British and African) of the Royal Navy West Africa Squadron which did the dirty work and suppressed the slave-trade. Perhaps Mr Jasper might consider seeking a posthumous Nobel Peace Prize for these truly forgotten heroes, or even establishing a fund and inviting the families on the compensation list to contribute a little for a suitable memorial. We have an empty plinth in Trafalgar Square.
(Posted by Brother Ivo).