A couple of years back, there was a brief fashion for historical hypotheticals. Authors speculated on how the entire course of human history might have been changed if, say, a haemorrhoid-plagued Napoleon hadn't sent Marshal Grouchy off on a cross-country chase after the Prussians just before Waterloo. Or, had Hitler concentrated on Moscow in 1942, might we not all now be celebrating his birthday in April, rather than the Queen's? And what if Stonewall Jackson had not died at Chancellorsville; would he have won at Gettysburg and would there now be two USAs?
I find this kind of speculation strangely tedious. It relies on extracting and changing a single decision among the billions available. You cannot easily unpick the past in that way, for all the efforts of national and racial myth-makers and political rewriters to persuade us to do so. This is the reason why there can be no useful attempt to make financial reparations for the slave trade, as suggested by some groups at this week's UN anti-racism conference in Durban.
Even so, I have been bemused by the lengths to which even some ordinary British liberals have gone in denying any real historic responsibility for slavery. Correspondents have written to their favourite newspapers arguing that "we" were not entirely at fault. What about the African kings who sold the captives in the first place? Or the Arab traders who had been about the business for centuries before we took it up (and for some years after we'd put it down again)? What about William Wilberforce? Wasn't Britain one of the first countries to abolish slavery and to enforce abolition on others?
Some of these arguments sent me back to Hugh Thomas's excellent history, The Slave Trade, published four years ago. How big was the business? Who undertook it? And how did they justify it to themselves? And, above all, how might we look at this were we ourselves the descendants of slaves (or, as they are usually known, blacks)?
Not good. As a half-Jew, my view of William Cobbett, the 19th century radical, has been transformed by an aspect of his ideology that my schoolmasters never mentioned: his virulent anti-semitism. So what might a black person make of those slave-holding champions of liberty, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington or slave-holding Quakers such as George Fox and William Penn (the Quakers were later to become the leading force in the campaign for abolition)? Or of those slave-trading philanthropists, who bequeathed upon the poor of their own race, charities amassed at the expense of the liberty of hundreds of thousands of Africans?
Slave trading, as carried out by white Europeans after the middle of the 17th century, was conducted on what we'd now call an "industrial" scale. A million slaves were transported between 1650 and 1700, and many more in each of the next two half- centuries. Several times as many black people were forcibly shipped to America between Columbus and the Alamo, as white people who went voluntarily. In their millions we chained them, sold them, divided their families without compunction and killed them for trying to be free.
And few benefited from it, as did the British. The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 awarded Britain the contract to run the slave trade to the Americas. This the government sold off to the South Sea Company for an incredible £7.5m, allowing the settlement of most of the national debt. The first Governor of the Company was also the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Shareholders in this company included heroes such as Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift. By the 1780s the French and British were each shipping some 40,000 slaves per year, and running up incredible profits.
The drive for these profits transformed the economies of western Africa. Contemporary sources quoted by Hugh Thomas relate how tribes that once hunted for gold now fought to enslave one another. One area became known as the Slave Coast (not a place that ever issued stamps).
Yet there was a problem. For most of that time our forebears did not think that enslaving human beings was a good thing. It had been largely abandoned in Christendom after the beginning of the 12th century, and was yet another vice ascribed to the lustful, barbarous Turk.
What was the thing, after all, that Britons from the 18th century on – in the words of that stirring anthem – never, never, never will be? And what were we simultaneously turning millions of Africans into? How could it be immoral to enslave one person and not another? Race. You had to argue that Africans were insufficiently developed or human for enslavement to be the horror to them that it would be for free-born Englishmen. Then you could go on and make your money. True, there were other voices. The female dramatist Aphra Behn, various popes going as far back as 1639, a puritan or two. But liberators were few. How long, after all, would slavery have persisted in the southern states of the USA had they not made the cardinal error of seceding from the Union in 1861?
So look at us from the point of view of those descended from slaves, and who then faced racism and discrimination from the descendants of the societies who had actually shipped them. This forced migration was, if anything was, a great historical crime. Yet there has been no Nuremberg for slave-traders. There has been no court in which black judges and prosecutors could make the case out against the white men who did these unspeakable things. There have been no gallows, no portly merchants crunching on cyanide pellets to cheat the hangman. There has been no "closure", to use the modern phrase.
Europeans (for the most part) ran the slave trade, colonised what was left behind, killed off the native populations of North, Central and South America and of Australia (question: what is the Aboriginal view of whether white Australians should allow asylum-seeking Afghans into their country?) and have got away with it.
Still, reparations are impossible. They are a pedant's delight. Should Liverpudlians pay more? But many of them are great-grandchildren of catholic Irish forced into emigration after the end of the slave trade. Should the inhabitants of Toxteth shell out (via the government) for Colin Powell? And who in Africa may be regarded as the successors of those kingdoms who profited from slave-trading? It's playing the "what-if?" game again, except with real money and genuine animosity. It cannot help.
There is a good case, however, for apology. You want to celebrate VE Day? Fine, but that's history, too. You want the Japanese to apologise for the Burma Railroad? OK, but what about the blood in our old bricks? There ought to be a recognition of what was done and who did it.
And then we move on, because the question is not who's the victim, but how easily any of us can become the victimiser. It's about how we can see the world and ourselves through the eyes of others. It sticks in my craw to watch the republican bigots of the Ardoyne claim the mantle of Martin Luther King when fighting their turf wars with the Protestant bigots of the Ardoyne. The civil rights movement didn't mark its territory with tribal tricolours. Or to listen to pundits and politicians failing to ask even elementary questions about why any Afghan who could, would want to escape, preferably to an English-speaking country, no matter what the cost.
Despite the protestations of the Chief Rabbi, no-one, not even Jews, is magically inoculated against prejudice. Nor are Palestinians. Nor are Hampstead liberals. Racism and bigotry are about denying others the humanity that we claim for ourselves. Imagination is the only antidote.Reuse content