Slavery and persecution: who should apologise to whom?

As my wife (our family historian) and I approach our golden wedding anniversary in just eight months' time, she has produced an interesting new slant on the much debated issue of apologising for slavery, in a short article which reveals that while many of my forebears suffered severe persecution at various times and in various places, at least one of them owned slaves (he was one of the early settlers in the newly founded American colony of Georgia).  Descendant, therefore, of the victims of persecution but also of a one-time slave-owner, I am intrigued by Jane's highly topical question: who, if anyone, owes apologies to whom?  You can read her short paper on the subject by clicking here.

The number of people, especially perhaps Americans, alive today whose ancestors include at least one slave-owner and possibly more, must be very large indeed.  The descendants of my single slave-owning ancestor who are now alive and traceable must run into many hundreds.  Multiply this by all the numerous slave-owners in the days when slavery was regarded as part of the natural order, and you arrive at a truly enormous population of potential apologisers.  Those alive today, of all nationalities, some of whose ancestors suffered persecution, must constitute an even larger population of those entitled to receive apologies.  People who, unlike me, live in happy ignorance of the seamier side of their family histories should perhaps count themselves lucky.  Anyway, please read "Slavery and persecution: who should apologise to whom?" and make up your own mind about the answer.  Don't allow yourself to be unduly distracted by the numerous links in J's article to further fascinating information on the many topics mentioned.

I should of course add that I'm very sorry.


7 Responses

  1. Oliver Miles says:

    I have had minimum contact personally with the North American slavery issue. I know nothing of my ancestry further back than my grandparents. I plan to leave it that way. In that generation I have discovered nothing more discreditable than a fashion shop (patronised by royalty!) and a primary school. 

    But I have had some dealings with North Africa. Below is a note, based on a well-documented study by John Wright.  This leads me to a practical suggestion, which is that you should apologise as soon as a North African Arab statesman such as my old sparring partner Colonel Q. does so.

    Slavery in North Africa

    Nobody really knows when the Saharan trade in black slaves began, but it certainly became very important soon after the Islamic conquest of North Africa in the seventh century.  Black women and girls were in particular demand as household slaves.

    It is not possible to give accurate figures, but the best estimates are that between about AD 600 and 1900 something like 14 million slaves crossed the Sahara, averaging around 20,000 a year from 1400 onwards. Some were sold on the way, and about 20% died.  Desert routes were lined with skeletons.  A British traveller in 1824 records that in some desert trails there was not room to pitch a tent because of the abundance of human and animal bones.  He also records the names of the owners of caravans and slaves.  All the names are of course Muslim, either Arabs or Tuareg.

    If one compares this trade with the trade across the Atlantic, it turns out that the total number may have been approximately the same, say 20 million altogether.  The Sahara route involved much smaller numbers but lasted for 10 times longer than the Atlantic route.

    In the mid-19th century four British consular offices in what is now Libya tried to keep detailed statistics.  The main destinations were in the Ottoman Empire, Crete, the Aegean islands, northern Greece including Salonika, Albania and Anatolia as well as Smyrna and Constantinople.  The main source of supply was described as Bornu, at that time an African empire in the region of Lake Chad 1400 miles south of Tripoli.  But this is misleading.  Bornu was an entrepot market but the slaves came from the whole of central Africa from Darfur in the east to Nigeria in the West.

    It wasn't particularly profitable. Liverpool's palm oil trade — lubricating the Industrial Revolution and making Palmolive soap — in the mid-19th century with the Niger Delta alone was worth at least 10 times the business of a leading Saharan slave market like Murzuk. According to one calculation, one fully skilled English navvy, digging canals and building railways, was worth about two racehorses or around 30 slaves in the Sahara.  And indeed in North Africa at the time a horse could be traded for around 15 slaves. 

  2. Peter Harvey says:

    Being from Liverpool I have always been aware of the part that the slave trade played in the city’s history. When I was young no-one tried to hide it, but it was regarded as one of those things from the past that nothing could be done about (except during the Hatton insurgency, when the Town Hall’s silver plate was sold off in expiation for past sins, it was said officially; other explanations were proposed unofficially).

    Later, when I lived in Africa, I visited Zanzibar and found the old slave market in the centre of the city. It was described as such on maps but, as Oliver Miles has pointed out so effectively, guilt over slavery — indeed widespread knowledge of it — seems to be a prerogative of the west; maybe this is due to cultural reasons, or maybe the newly-powerful nineteenth-century press played a part in raising awareness of the treatment of slaves in the USA*. When I arrived in Saudi Arabia, I found that slavery had been abolished by law there only a decade or so earlier (I forget the exact date) but there were very plausible stories of its continued existence at the time (mid-1980s).

    *A few years ago I saw an American news broadcast in which a black woman was complaining that her child was being forced at school to read "a book that contains the word nigger 357 (or however many) times" and that the offending word should be removed from the book; Bowdlerisation, pure and simple. The book in question was Huckleberry Finn, as fine a denunciation of slavery and defence of freedom as you could ask for!

  3. Brian says:

    Tim Weakley has authorised me to quote this extract from a private e-mail in a comment here:

    I enjoyed your latest blog item with its link to Jane’s illuminating piece.  I’m sure I have slave-owning or slave-trading or slave-trade-financing ancestors somewhere, too, as well as persecuted ancestors, if only I could trace them.  Everyone with roots in Britain going back more than a generation or two is everyone else’s fifteenth cousin seven times removed, and indeed the spread of a small group out of Africa to settle the world seems to have taken place only about 50,000 years ago, or no more than 3,000 generations. 

    I totally reject the validity, the whole idea, of apologies now for actions by others then: an apology can only be made by the offending party;  subsequent generations may deeply regret what happened and vow that there will never be a repetition but they cannot apologise.  By the same token, the demanding of apologies for ancestral wrongs is mean-spirited.

    Brian writes:  I entirely agree about the absurdity of apologies by people who have themselves done no wrong to people who have not themselves been wronged.  Demands for such apologies all too often invite the suspicion that, if successful, they will be followed, smartish, by a further demand for material ‘compensation’!

  4. Peter Harvey says:

    One way of looking at this is to ask whether rights are inherent in groups or in individuals. Humanist opinion, especially since the French Revolution, has preferred the emphasis on individual rights though some groups, nationalists and socialists for example, sometimes claim that groups have rights that transcend those of individuals. If one accepts, as I do, that rights are exclusively individual in nature, then it follows that they must be extinguished on the death of that individual; and that a right to an apology, which can be very valid in life, has no post-mortem validity. That is not to say that we may not feel regret at the actions of our ancestors which have become a part of our culture, nor that we should not feel a moral obligation to make amends and to compensate for the comparative benefits that we enjoy as a result. But apologies as such have no place.

  5. John Miles says:

    If my great granny, hundreds of times removed, had insulted yours, or pinched her husband or slit her throat, most of us agree that it would be pretty pointless for me to apologize on her behalf.

    But what if my great granny had managed to grab yours's money and property, and ever since my family had grown richer and richer while yours had sunk deeper and deeper into destitution?

    I'd probably do my best to argue that other factors – eg my lot's energy and enterprise compared with yours's fecklessness – were really responsible, but Peter is surely right to suggest it would be only decent for me to do what I could to put things right?

    Brian writes:  You pose an interesting question, John.  In the scenario you describe, very specific harm has been inflicted on one very specific individual by another specific individual, apparently with consequences that could in principle be measured and verified.  I agree with you (and with Peter) that in such circumstances the descendant of the culpable individual concerned, if not too distantly descended (say two or three generations maximum), might well feel a moral duty to make amends in some tangible way to a descendant of the original victim.  But it seems to me that this will very rarely arise.  In particular, I see no case whatever for a kind of generic claim by (for example) all people who can show that they are descended from slaves against all people known to be descended, or likely to be descended, from slave-owners — still less a generic claim by (for example) all black people against all white people, or by all inhabitants of countries from which slaves were once exported, or which are deemed to have been exploited during a period of colonialism, against all inhabitants of countries that once ruled colonies.  I do recognise a moral duty on the part of rich people and countries to transfer resources to poor countries and peoples, but I don't accept the argument that this implies an element of 'compensation' to which the recipients have a 'right'.  The causes of one individual's or country's relative poverty and of another's relative wealth are simply too complex to be reliably identified or defined, and it's over-simplistic to single out one such cause (slavery, exploitation) as the basis for a serious claim to compensation.

    The implied lesson of my wife's article, surely, is that everyone's ancestors will include both oppressors or exploiters and victims of oppression and exploitation, and that to try to divide up the descendants of such mixed origins into oppressors and victims by inheritance, with an obligation on the part of the former to apologise to the latter — or even to pay them compensation — is patently futile.   My blog post above needs to be read in conjunction with the article.

  6. Brian says:

    Comment by Bernard Wailes: 

    Descended from a slave-owner?  This is even worse than not being born into the Working Class, and having been to a Public School, and having read élitist lily-white Classics at Oxbridge.  I am glad to hear that your sensible wife allayed your new-found guilt at least a little.

    Yes, indeed — some of your ancestors were enslaved by the Egyptians and Babylonians, others by Romans, Norsemen, and plenty of others. And some of your Cornish relatives were quite likely enslaved by the Barbary pirates (I was surprised to read recently that during the 16th and 17th centuries perhaps as many as a million people from SW Britain and southern Ireland were snatched by Barbary pirates).   I wonder what compensation might be "demanded" from the descendants of the Barbary corsairs by the descendants of those living in SW Britain and S. Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries?  Perhaps, for each family, a free holiday in Morocco, £5,000 from Algerian oil revenues, and a BIG box of dates from Tunisia?

    There could be another aspect to this:  could your children sue you for the shame of being born into a former slave-owning family?

    Brian writes:  Thanks for that, Bernard.  I'm attracted by the idea of claiming an apology and handsome compensation from the modern-day descendants of the Barbary pirates, whoever they might be (apparently anyone from Libya to Morocco)  — but distinctly less so by the suggestion of having to pay compensation to my own children….

  7. John Miles says:

    Everyone seems to agree with the message of your wife's article, that there's no need for, or point in, apologies for wrongs done long ago by people over whom you have no control. It'd be  just another exercise in the phonus bolonus.

    But it does seem to raise a perhaps more important question: what – if anything – should be done about the treatment dished out, (quite a bit of it within your "two or three generations maximum,") by European settlers to the indigeneous inhabitants of  eg the Americas, Australia, parts of Africa and Palestine?

    Obviously this is a very complex question, or rather a whole lot of complex questions, and, as you correctly suggest, there's no simplistic answer.

    Or if there is, I don't know it.

    Brian writes:  John, I agree wholeheartedly that these are very deep waters.  It seems to me that the idea of compensating whole communities or nations, or even familes or individuals, for wrongs done to their ancestors in the past, or of trying to make amends for such wrongs in any concrete way, creates more difficulties (and risks provoking more antagonisms and resentments) than it's worth.  It may be appropriate to express regret that such injustices have occurred and a determination that they will not be repeated, although even that may cross the border into apparent acceptance of guilt where none should exist, as well as encouraging a sense of grievance and a dependency culture on the part of the descendants of the supposedly wronged.  Moreover there can be very few cases where whole communities were purely victims, and others purely oppressors:  many Africans and Arabs as well as Europeans and Americans were enthusiastic, prosperous slave-owners and slave traders as well as victims of slavery, and (as noted in another Comment here) many thousands of Europeans, including English people, were taken into slavery by pirates from all along the north coast of Africa.  Contemporary deprivation, poverty, misgovernment, and other failures can almost never be ascribed solely to wrongs committed in the distant past, even if these may have contributed to them.  People need to accept some responsibility for their own conditions, rather than blaming them all on others and seeking compensation for them.  And, finally, we should beware of trying to impose our own contemporary moral beliefs and standards on those of an earlier age who saw nothing sinful or immoral in practices which we regard with indignation — slavery, the subordination of women, child labour, capital and corporal punishment even for what we regard as trivial offences, colonialism, deprivation of labour and other rights, and so on.  We can be sure that many of our own practices will be condemned as immoral and unacceptable by future generations:  are our descendants to be penalised, or others compensated, for what we have done in good conscience according to our existing codes?  The only sensible and defensible course, it seems to me, is to seek to do the right things according to our contemporary views of what is just and equitable:  reducing extremes of inequality both globally and nationally, protecting the vulnerable (also both globally and nationally), deterring and punishing injustice and oppression, minimising violence and promoting peaceful remedies for conflict, and so on — in other words, a policy of universal motherhood.  That's a sufficiently weighty and complex agenda without making it even more complicated by injecting additional factors such as the desire to compensate descendants of past victims for what we now regard as wrongs done to them, or to exact compensation from the descendants of those who we believe may have wronged our forefathers.