Sunday, March 25, 2007

Slavery Days II

I can't find it in my heart to blame the BBC overmuch for their coverage of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. Given that the government and Church of England, rather than celebrating the fact that Britain was the first nation in history to make a serious (and successful) attempt at abolition, chose an orgy of breast-beating and apology, how could the BBC resist following suit ? It fits with the narrative they were taught in sociology, English and politics classes - how could they not go with the flow ?

Julian Worricker presented his Radio Five show today from Ghana, while actor Kwame Kwei-Armah (ne Ian Roberts in Hillingdon - like Muhammad Ali, he rejected his 'slave name') was in Liverpool.

I think it's fair to say that neither Worricker nor Kwei-Armah are immersed in the history.

When an interviewee asked why slave traders had gone to Africa rather than Russia for their slaves, Worricker was unable to reply that slave traders HAD gone there, that black and Russian slaves worked in Italy as far back as 1300, nor was he aware of probably the most famous Ukranian slave.

Worricker then passed control to Kwei-Armah in Liverpool, whose interview (41 minutes in) with the historian Anthony Beevor is a small classic, as Beevor resolutely failed to play to the script and insisted on pointing out that the British were only one of many slaving nations. Beevor mentioned the Arab slave trade, at which Kwei-Armah asked him why he was talking about Arab rather than Western slavery. Was he in denial ?

Kwei-Armah – "What forms of slavery took away their names ?"
Anthony Beevor – "Well in terms of the Arab slave trade they did worse than this. Recent research suggests that 90% of the males died from castration."
K-A - "I did not ask you that. I asked about the names."
AB – "Well yes. All slaves had their names taken away, back to Roman times."
K-A – "Oh."

(Thanks to Recovering Liberal)


Ross F said...

{ When an interviewee asked why slave traders had gone to Africa rather than Russia for their slaves }

That amused me as well, presumably he had failed to spot that the similarity between the word 'slave' and the word 'Slav' wasn't a coincidence.

dearieme said...

The European slave trade with Africa started with the Spanish and Portugese - it must surely be part of their Islamic inheritance?

Anonymous said...

It was Kwame Kwei-Armah weekend on the BBC. Apart from his appearance on Worricker, he was a Newsnight Review panellist on Friday and did Radio 4's Thought for the Day this morning. He's also got another programme about the slave trade on Radio 3 next Sunday.

Anonymous said...

I was involved in putting together an exhibition for a London museum (which I shan't identify here) in collaboration with researchers from the BBC. It quickly became clear that the exhibition was expected to follow the BBC script: e.g. we were invited to propose exhibits illustrating 'white hypocrisy' about the slave trade (one of the BBC researchers said hopefully that it would be great if we could find evidence of prominent abolitionists secretly involved in the trade). We were also told not to emphasise the brutality of slave-owners or slave-traders (on the grounds that this 'objectified' the slaves by treating them as passive victims) and encouraged instead to find examples of successful black resistance.

Of course the whole anniversary has been showered with public money: £20 million of Lottery money, £1 million from the Connecting Communities Plus scheme, and a government-funded commemorative magazine.

Anonymous said...

Denmark was actually the first European nation to ban the slave trade. Although, I'm not sure they even had one to ban, to be honest ...

alex zeka said...

Prof. Beevor was magnificent, a paragon of academical purity in a sea of politicised distortion, and looked it as well. Almost anyone watching that would have come away with the question of why the, erstwilly ethnic and looking an affirmative action hire to a caricature-like extent, interviewer seemed more concerned about what was done to slave names rather than genitals on their lips.

It's a shame Prof. Beevor wasn't given the chance to say this (as far as I know), but this line in genital mutilation might explain how the Arab world freed itself from ethnic/religious problems: the effective genocide (in terms of wiping out a genos) of their slave class. There are direct parallels between that and what the same Arabs are currently attempting in the Sudan, although the destroyers of Darfur obviously don't use anything as subtly as castration.

One other point which was not addressed: Euros bought African slaves, but other Africans sold them. Slavery in the sense of ownership of one man by another was endemic to Africa, where 90% of the population had to obey in all things the local strongman and his clique.

Finally, while the programs did, admirably, look at present isntances of the slave trade, they did so in a hopelessly lacklustre manner. Nike was fingered, but once again a product needs a byuer and a seller, and the sellers (the Asiatic despotisms of Thailand, Burma, China) just weren't looked at, beyond a few throw away lines about poverty. In particular, we heard nothing about the sex trade, or about Singapore's excellent track record of keeping its people safe from this through ultra-stringent lifestyle and sumptuary legislation.

All in all, I'd give it a C-. The directors did everything they could to focus all attention on one minor, and very shortlived by historical standards, corner of the slave trade (that of the British Empire). However, the scholars roped in were too good to just follow this script and gave some fine facts and insights about the practise across the world and throughout time. A boon for interested proles like me, but a bit of an own goal for the more pc parts of the Beeb.

Voyager said...

The Portuguese were better businessmen - after exporting 11 million Africans with 3.5 million to Brazil; they started breeding slaves in Brazil to reduce the losses on the carry trade.

I bet there is wailing and gnashing of teeth in Portugal.

The French abolished slavery in 1794 but Napoleon thoughtfully reintroduced it in 1802

Anonymous said...

The French abolished slavery in 1794 but Napoleon thoughtfully reintroduced it in 1802

The abolition came at the height of the reign of terror. It is therefore debateable whether they abolished it or merely extended it to all French citizens.

Jim Miller said...

For what it is worth, US President Thomas Jefferson signed a bill outlawing the slave trade on March 2, 1807. The US navy did a little to suppress the slave trade in the decades following that, often as a junior partner of the British navy.

And Denmark did have slaves in the Virgin islands when that nation abolished slavery, earlier than either the US or Britain. (The islands were sold to the US during WW I.)

But it is indisputable that the British did the most to suppress the slave trade, and for the best of reasons. It is something you should take great pride in -- even if the BBC doesn't.

bruce said...

What 'names'?

Even now in most parts of the world, people have names like 'westie', 'foreigner', 'number 2', 'blackie' etc. Even if they had proper names they never used or divulged them because of SUPERSTITION - the belief that a magician could get power over someone with their name! So it has always been till recent times in Europe, when such superstitions were debunked.