A government pamphlet about the upcoming bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, published last month, interprets history in a way that serves government concerns.
On 25 March, the government published the pamphlet Reflecting on the past and looking to the future: the 2007 bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. A joint effort by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Home Office, the pamphlet has been distributed free to a variety of cultural organisations and community groups around Britain.
Divided into four sections, it gives a brief history of slavery and the abolition movement; reflects on how the past has affected the present; discusses contemporary inequalities and what the government is doing to tackle them; and finishes with the specific plans the government has to help community, cultural and faith groups celebrate the bicentenary.
Although the government’s desire to remember and mark the start of the end of British slavery is no doubt laudable, any attempt to make the past serve the political agenda of the present should be looked on with suspicion. In this case, the government clearly wishes next year’s bicentennial celebrations to be an empowering, inclusive multicultural affair and so the history of abolition is presented in these terms.
This is probably why the pamphlet omits to mention the less altruistic reasons for the slave trade’s demise, like its increasing economic unviability in the dawning era of industrial capitalism, or the sustained and often violent resistance of the slaves themselves. The contentious issue of reparations is also noticeable by its absence. Remembering just how much some sections of White society profited from the enslavement of Black people and how resistant to relinquishing these privileges those sections were, does not fit the government’s celebratory, multicultural script. And whether people from African and Caribbean heritages would agree that the history of slavery and abolition belongs equally to all sections of British society is for them to decide.
The pamphlet jumps straight from ‘Reflecting on the past’ into ‘Looking to the future’. This, and a very narrow definition of slavery that mainly focuses on people-trafficking, allows it to gloss over a whole range of issues that are contemporary forms of slavery tolerated and, in some cases, actively promoted by our government. ‘In addition to reflecting on this country’s diverse past, 2007 is also a chance to make a collective commitment that in another two centuries’ time no-one should feel the need to express regret on our behalf for our actions today’, explains the pamphlet.
In 200 years, however, it is likely to be the spread of economic slavery in the Third World caused by multinationals and global capitalism, the prolonged incarceration of political prisoners without charge under the war on terror and the detention and violation of the human rights of people seeking asylum in Britain that will be the subject matter of government pamphlets about 21st century slavery. And future readers may well think our society was just as morally bankrupt as we now see slave-trading Britain before 1807.
Vague promises for the future
Instead of engaging with these thorny issues of contemporary enslavement, or giving specific information on how the government plans to decrease the racism and discrimination it says are a legacy of historical slavery, the second half of the pamphlet makes statements so vague and equivocal they are rendered meaningless. A representative example is the following sentence about another government pamphlet, Improving Opportunity, Strengthening Society, published last year. ‘It signals the government’s intention to give greater emphasis to the importance of strengthening society by helping people from different backgrounds come together, supporting people who contribute to society and taking a stand against racists and extremists’ waffles the pamphlet meaninglessly.
Elsewhere we are given a more specific pledge that one of the objectives of the government’s new Ethnic Minority Employment Task Force is that, ‘[i]n seven years’ time no-one should be disadvantaged in their employment prospects because of their ethnicity’. But as no information is given on who is currently disadvantaged and in what ways and there are no details on how the task force hopes to achieve its objectives, it is just an aspiration masquerading as a strategy.
Funding for bicentenary events
The pamphlet concludes with a short section on specific plans for the bicentenary and how groups can apply for funding if they wish to run events of their own. Although the government is directly funding a national educational project, Understanding Slavery, the funding allocated to all other bicentenary events is being disbursed by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The role of the government’s bicentenary advisory panel, convened in January, is therefore only to coordinate and publicise the various events and projects that are being planned by others.
The panel is chaired by John Prescott, a prestigious figure, certainly, but otherwise not generally identified by his personal commitment to or knowledge of the issues surrounding ethnic diversity and racial equality. But then the tradition of great and good White people being appointed to decide what’s best for Black and minority ethnic communities is long and deeply held. In this respect, at least, the government perpetuates one historical inequality even while trying to celebrate the demise of another.