This year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, in 1807. As a result, debates are raging about what should be done and, specifically, whether the government should offer an apology.
Tony Blair has expressed "deep sorrow" for Britain's role in the slave trade and called it "profoundly shameful", but has stopped short of an official apology. Campaigners demand he goes further and that reparations are paid. But, needless to say, debates about what is to be done about slavery, especially two centuries afterwards, are complicated and emotive.
No one knows the exact number of Africans who were shipped overseas as part of the slave trade. Research puts the figures somewhere between 10-million and 28-million.
The system too was linked with wars which served as a recruiting ground for slaves, and it included deadly cross-country marches, as those captured were corralled towards harbours for export. Some estimate that a minimum of four-million people died in this way.
About 12-million slaves crossed the Atlantic or Middle Passage from Europe in slave ships alone, with a high percentage dying in dreadful conditions on the way. About 17-million slaves were exported to the Indian Ocean coast, the Middle East, and North Africa by Muslim traders too. There were also African middlemen who served as capturers and initial salespersons of slaves. This highlights the global and complex nature of the phenomena that lasted from the 1500s to the early 1900s in some countries.
That said, there is little doubt who got rich from the system, namely the Europeans. The slave trade allowed new markets to be developed, and slaves were integral to processing raw materials abroad and sparked the industrial revolution.
Cities such as London and Amsterdam were substantially built on wealth generated through trading human beings. This cumulatively created a wealth gap that persists to this day, and some argue a snowballing skills gap caused by the systematic removal of generations of the strongest and healthiest citizens from certain African countries.
But does this justify present day reparations and an apology? The main problem with reparations is the question of who should be making reparations to whom, considering all those linked directly with the system are long buried. Should the present generation of Europeans pay for the sins of their fathers' fathers' fathers? Also, not all European families were implicated in the system.
Irrespective of the slave trade, what is obvious is that structural injustice exists in the world, and this remains racialised. The enormous gap between rich and poor needs attention through debt relief and allowing better market access to developing countries, no matter how the situation came about. Where reparations and apologies are important in that they can force those who like to pretend history never happened to acknowledge it, and be a rallying point to address current social injustice.
More importantly, it is a truism that fundamental distrust exists between the haves and have-nots. This has a racial dimension too that is evident in how quickly Africans turn to issues such as slavery and colonialism to explain their current problems, and how swiftly many Europeans blame Africa’s problems on present inadequacies, such as leadership, rather than looking at historical legacies.
Apologies can be a way of building trust, a way of creating reconnection and, thus, can be instrumental in generating cooperation to overcome present inequalities.
So, as a first step, an apology is necessary because the impact of slavery remains, at the very least, in the mindsets of Africans and Europeans. The fact a debate is happening about slavery two centuries later is proof in itself of this. All means necessary are needed to shift these mindsets. So it is time those with the most power in the relationship, such as the British State and the monarchy, bite the bullet and, at a bare minimum, make an official statement.
Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, February 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on13 April 2007.