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Paul Gilroy on commemorations of the end of the slave trade

This article is over 17 years, 1 months old
Leading black intellectual Paul Gilroy spoke at a very successful Socialist Worker meeting last week attended by 300 people on ‘Who Really Ended the Slave Trade?’ It discussed the commemoration of the 1807 Act that formally ended the trade in the Briti
Issue 2048
 (Pic: Tim Sanders)
(Pic: Tim Sanders)

‘The commemoration is a fantastically important moment for this country. It’s a chance to reflect, a chance to remember, a chance to honour a history of struggle.

But it’s also a chance to make an assessment of black social life in this country, about the shape and place of racism here and about the contemporary relevance of racial divisions to the politics, economics and cultural life of this country.

Like many of you I’m sure, I really wanted to support the commemoration. But I found it hard to join in the official version of it.

For me it felt too much like a “business as usual” operation.

It was missing the elephant in the room – capitalism – and what the history of slavery tells us about the transition of capitalism from its mercantile to its industrial forms, and what these commemorations tell us about the condition of contemporary capitalism in our country.

Slaves were property, they were pieces of property. And their sufferings and their resistance offer, I would claim, a deeper commentary on the idea of private property than the one that comes out of the Marxist tradition.

Perhaps here we can agree that the history of slavery requires us to think about capitalism and its continuous mutations.

But there’s another point, a point about the commemorations themselves as a kind of property, a point about the critique of life as property, of humanity as property, and of history as property.

Those of us whose ancestors were property shouldn’t relate to this history as if it were now somebody’s private cultural property. It doesn’t belong to anybody.

CLR James in 1969 wrote an essay on Black Studies which was rising up in the academic sense at that time. He says, “To talk to me of Black Studies as something only of concern to black people is an utter denial.

“This history is the history of Western civilisation. I can’t see it otherwise – this is a history that black people and white people – all serious students of modern history and the history of the world – have to know.”

We do hear a lot about Britishness these days. It seems to me that part of the explosion of official commemoration is about that.

They say it’s a matter of British “values”, and this commemorative process is about a celebration and affirmation of the values they want to claim and they want to monopolise.

I think that the idea is to show that their capitalism, and the colonial imperial adventures that they’re trying to bring back now, are somehow clean operations, infused with the moral spirit of the legacy of abolitionism.

That view is affirmed in the “Great Man” theory of how the slave trade was brought to an end, by William Wilberforce above all.

I have nothing against Wilberforce – I admire him and he should most certainly be celebrated.

I like the idea that British people might be made to identify with a humane figure, one who made efforts to achieve this notable source of good.

But I don’t think he achieved these things by himself, or that the amount of good he did personally corresponds exactly to the volume of the bad stuff that preceded it.

1807 isn’t the biggest deal in any case. The Danes decreed abolition in 1792, and of course after the abolition of the trade, slavery continued.

In 1816, eight years after prohibition, the African Society of London told Lord Castlereagh, the foreign secretary at that time, that an estimated 60,000 slaves were being shipped across the Atlantic every year.

British interests supported and provisioned that operation, mostly in Spanish ships carrying slaves to Brazil and Cuba. That process continued through the 1840s.

The vein of work established by Eric Williams, the great Trinidadian historian, argues that directly and indirectly, the profits obtained from the triangular trade between Britain, Africa and the New World colonies provided one of the main streams for the accumulation of capital which financed the industrial revolution.

That work has been vilified and attacked systematically over and over again for at least 60 years.

Williams’ critics want their liberal tradition to be clean and wholesome. They want to dwell in a world where moral sentiments might be seen, even now, to dominate economic imperatives.

They are disoriented by the idea that capitalism remains a brutal and unchecked system which continues into the present, enveloped in violence.

So the history of the slave trade, in a distorted official version, becomes a way to keep the histories of capitalism and liberalism clean, to keep them sanctified.

That’s what the commemoration is addressed to, rather than the rapacious turbo-capitalism and the new imperial adventures of the present.’

Paul Gilroy is a professor of Social Theory at the London School of Economics.

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