Slavery: Britain We Are Guilty!

Slavery: Britain We Are Guilty!
  • PublishedOctober 4, 2011

Another October is here, which means another New African Black History Month issue – which this year has something special for the activists of African descent fighting for reparations for the Transatlantic Slave Trade. They now have a shot in the arm.

New African has in its possession an old and rare official record of British parliamentary debates in June 1806 in which both Houses of Parliament accepted that the UK, as a nation, had sanctioned and encouraged the “African Slave Trade” via various Acts of Parliament, and therefore it had responsibility to not only abolish the “great evil” (as some members of parliament put it at the time), but also “atone” for it. In other words, Britain said way back in 1806: “We are guilty”.

Comparing the integrity and forthrightness of European politicians of old and their descendants of today, at least judging from the descendants’ recent escapades in Côte d’Ivoire, Libya and other such places, where a “no-fly zone” and the “protection of civilians” become a licence for regime change, is like comparing chalk and cheese – if a recently discovered treasure trove of British official records on the Transatlantic Slave Trade, dating back to 1806, is any guide.

In those halcyon days when politicians respected integrity and a good name better than deceit and spin-doctoring, British members of parliament stood up in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and proclaimed the guilt of their small great island in the Transatlantic Slave Trade and asked their motherland to “atone for the African Slave Trade”.

That must be the elusive legal peg that the African-descended slavery reparation activists, scattered to the four winds of the world, can use to make their case against Britain, Europe and America for the parts they played in the “African Slave Trade”. It is a legal peg they have been looking for for years without success – but now they have it!

Two volumes of British parliamentary records published by the now defunct publishing house, Phillips and Fardon of George Yard, Lombard Street, London, and also sold at the time by John Hatchard of 190 Piccadilly, London, have been discovered gathering dust in Ghana’s National Library in Accra (the roots of which go back to the pre-independence Gold Coast Library Board).

Ghana gained independence from Britain in 1957, and the two volumes of parliamentary records were certainly brought into the country by the then British colonial government as they are stamped with the Gold Coast Library Board rubber stamp. And what a treasure trove this is!

The first volume came with the lugubrious title: “Substance of the Debates on a Resolution for Abolishing the Slave Trade, which was moved in the House of Commons on the 10th June 1806, and in the House of Lords on the 24th June 1806, with an Appendix, containing Notes and Illustrations”.

The title of the second volume was equally a mouthful: “Abstract of the Evidence delivered before a Select Committee of the House of Commons in the years 1790 and 1791 on the part of the Petitioners for the Abolition of the Slave Trade”.

While the first volume contains an abridged verbatim report of debates in both the House of Commons and House of Lords on a Resolution to abolish the African Slave Trade introduced by Britain’s first ever foreign secretary (or secretary of state) Charles James Fox, the second volume is an abstract of the evidence given before a House of Commons Select Committee by both pro- and anti-abolition campaigners of the time.

The publishers, Phillips and Fardon, explained in the Preface of the second volume thus: “In consequence of the numerous petitions which were sent to Parliament from different counties, cities, and towns of Great Britain, in the year 1788, for the abolition of the Slave Trade, it was determined by the House of Commons to hear evidence upon that subject. “The slave merchants and planters accordingly brought forward several persons as witnesses, the first [on] behalf of the continuance of [the] Slave Trade, and [the] latter in defence of the Colonial Slavery. These were heard and examined in the years 1789 and 1790.

Several persons were afterwards called on the side of the Petitioners of Great Britain to substantiate the foundation of their several petitions, and to invalidate several points of the evidence which the others had offered. These were examined in the years 1790 and 1791. “This abstract then is made up from the evidence of the latter, in which little other alteration has been made than that of bringing things on the same point into one chapter, which before lay scattered in different parts of the evidence; and this has been done to enable the reader to see every branch of the subject in a clear and distinct shape.”

Phillips and Fardon further explained that: “The evidence for Africa and the Middle Passage, on the side of the Petitioners of Great Britain, is given by persons who have been to almost all the conspicuous parts of Africa, from the River Senegal to Angola.

Many of them have had great opportunities of information, from having been resident on shore, or having been up and down the different rivers, or from having made each of them several voyages.

“Among these, as well as among those who have only had the opportunity perhaps of a single voyage, are to be reckoned several respectable persons of education, observation, and leisure, and it is to be observed that the information of the whole goes to things at different periods from the year 1754 to 1789.”

Written By
Baffour Ankomah

Baffour Ankomah is New African's current Editor at Large. He has spent much of his 39 years of journalism at the magazine, having served as its Assistant Editor for 6 years, Deputy Editor for 5 years, and Editor for 15 years, retiring from active service in 2014. In 39 years of his journalism career - Africa and his many causes have been his passion. His personal column, Baffour's Beefs, which has been running continuously in New African since 1987, is a big hit and a must-read for the magazine's worldwide readers. He is now based in Zimbabwe, where he and his wife Elizabeth run their own media consultancy and fashion house called "African Interest" which trades under the trademark "I am African".

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