Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: At last, the national conscience is awake

A part of me is wary that Blair is using slavery to re-establish his ethical credentials, but so what?
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Last week I was in Bristol to deliver a lecture marking 200 years since the birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. On the way to the venue my host and driver said there had been a blazing controversy in the city over the naming of a new shopping mall.

The burghers wanted to honour the old merchant class who had brought prosperity to the city. Anti-racist inhabitants objected because many of the most successful traders were slave trade profiteers who deserve posthumous dishonour not fresh accolades. The Royal African Company, a collective of avaricious venture capitalists had bases in this city, as well as Liverpool, Glasgow, Hull and London. Go to Bristol's Venturers House and see in stone the pride and self assurance of slave traders who called themselves Christians.

The protesters apparently have won the day and there is a search on for another, more apposite name. Good. All these places, and the country as a whole, reaped fortunes made out of the buying and selling of Africans, humans who were chained, starved, mutilated, beaten, burnt, whipped, raped, killed or forced to die during the voyages. Those who survived were then sold. Every wealthy old British institution, including the monarchy, Oxbridge and the churches, says the historian Tristram Hunt, has this blood on their solid capital foundations.

The national conscience is finally beginning to speak after 200 years of silence. This week, Tony Blair will say to the world what should have been acknowledged by the British establishment a long time ago. In New Nation, the impressive black British newspaper, Mr Blair is expected to agree that the trade was a legalised crime against humanity and that it is time to say "how profoundly shameful it was and how we condemn its existence utterly and praise those who fought for its abolition, but also to express our deep sorrow".

Just recently I wrote that an abiding tradition in this country is that it never apologises for its policies, past or present, however devious and destructive. Well this morning has broken like the first dawn. The self-righteous leader who never says sorry has proffered fulsome contrition, even though it will leave many natives gnashing their teeth.

For some protesters, this expression of sorrow does not add up to a proper apology. There is always a wedge of the ne'er satisfied in our colourful democracy. For other rejectionists, Blair's expressions are meaningless because they come not with a blank cheque for reparations to the descendants.

This demand is not preposterous and I have thought long and hard about back payments for this crime against the stolen folk of Africa. In the end I concluded it would satisfy nobody and would lead to inter-state quarrels and corruption and worse. We could do something imaginative and, perhaps, offer university grants for a thousand deserving Afro-Caribbean students every year for a decade. That would do some good.

Most profits of the Atlantic trade went to British and US operators and investors. Their role and greed made them the worst villains of the practice, no question. However, some money was made by African trappers and sellers of their compatriots and the Atlantic slave trade could not have happened without the collusion of these middlemen. It is appalling that the west African countries where slaves were stored and packed into ships have made little attempt to open up this history to genuine and honest scrutiny. These were their sons and daughters.

If you can still find it, read the book The Atlantic Sound by the precise and poetic British black writer Caryl Phillips. He went to Liverpool, Elmina in Ghana (also a thriving slave port) and Charleston in the US where one-third of African men, women and children were taken to be sold into bondage. All three places were in denial about the scale and savagery of the business.

In Ghana, Phillips met an African-American émigré who told him: "To go deeper into the psychological and historical import of the slave trade is not what most Africans want to do." An academic Dr Ben Abdullah seriously opined thus: "You must not be too romantic about slavery. It was a terrible thing but many of the Africans who left were not good people."

In America, African-Americans are still the most poor and uneducated, caught in crime and drugs and victims of overt white racism. Bill Clinton was a rare president who understood the generational disadvantages left by slavery. In his time, America started to recognise the history. In England - and yes, I do mean England - campaigners, black and white, are slowly breaking through the walls of stubborn rebuttals and denials. (We have yet to see the SNP and Scottish opinion makers denounce that nation's enthusiastic participation in the Atlantic slave trade.)

Afro-Caribbean activists have kept vigil for many years, simply asking that Britain should recognise the agony of their ancestors and teach the facts to future generations. Some died before the dawn arrived. Liverpool now has a gallery to stamp that history indelibly and lottery fundingto create an international slavery museum. That, after all, is our heritage as much as the heroics of Nelson and his fighting men. And plans are shaping up to mark the beginning of the end of slavery, initiated by William Wilberforce and others in 1807.

Nationalist narrators - journalists, academics, politicians, educators - continue to hawk their discredited tales, but now there is also a strong counter current calling the nation awake. White historians - such as Tristram Hunt - with a moral sense keep alive the legacy of the gentleman abolitionists. Valerie Amos, Trevor Phillips and David Lammy have taken up the baton within the New Labour establishment.

A part of me is wary that many of these loyalist black champions and Blair are using slavery to re-establish their ethical credentials post-Iraq. They probably are, but so what? What matters are not their dodgy motives, but that they are ensuring slavery becomes part of the national consciousness and education.

If we do this well, and without petulance, we could shame Arab nations who were slavers from the 7th century, and African brokers who supplied them, and the later the Europeans. They, too, need to make some gesture of recognition and regret and eradicate slavery still present in the Middle East, Sudan and some west African nations. Thus far we had no moral authority to push them. Now we do.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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