By Michael Coren
(March 27, 2007) – This week, we commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade by the British parliament. But rather than celebrate Britain’s courageous role in ending an abhorrent institution, Britons find themselves embroiled in tedious debates. The Church of England is seriously considering paying reparations for its role in the slave trade, and the city of Liverpool has formally apologized for slavery. Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has expressed regret for Britain’s role in the trade, is being pressured to up the ante and make a formal apology too.
Hardly a day goes by without another confused European or North American screaming contrition and indirectly blaming the churches and Western civilization for the use of African slaves between the late-16th and mid-19th centuries.
Problem is, calls for apologies, reparations and histrionic denunciations of Western civilization reveal an achingly flawed understanding of history and human nature.
It’s surely a self-evident truth in the opening years of the 21st century that slavery is an intolerable evil. Also self-evident is that earlier cultures did not share this opinion and that the most sophisticated of them, of all races and religions, thought it inevitable and even ethical that the powerful would enslave those whom they defeated and those who could not effectively resist capture. One culture and one religion, however, are distinguished for condemning and ending slavery when it was easier and far more lucrative not to have done so. The culture is Anglo-Saxon and the religion is Christianity.
Europeans certainly enslaved Africans, often buying them from local African warlords or simply transforming local customs into something far more repugnant and far more widespread. The same Europeans, of course, were themselves used as slaves when captured by the Ottoman Turks and would continue to be such victims until the 17th century.
But there is no doubt that the white use of black men, women and children as slaves was organized, brutal and grotesque. And enormously profitable. Which makes the grand opposition to it by the 1780s so profoundly impressive. To put it simply, there was a great deal to lose, nothing to gain and no need to change anything. The only dynamic behind a series of boycotts of slave-produced products, campaigns to expose the cruelty of slavery and, eventually, successful legislation to abolish the trade was that in Christian eyes it was wrong.
There were certainly Church figures who supported slavery, but people from all areas of life supported it. What is important is that the only opponents were monks, priests and Christian laity. Secular and non-Christian resistance was almost unheard of.
This was one of the reasons why Christian missionaries were so vehemently opposed by many African chieftains. The famous Dr. Livingstone spent much of his time in central Africa preaching against slavery, much to the chagrin of the local Arab slave dealers, and their indigenous partners, who made a fortune out of selling Africans to other parts of the continent and the Middle East. The Sultan of Zanzibar was forced to end slavery as late as 1873 when the British arrived. In an act that would today be called barbarically imperialistic, the British occupiers built an Anglican cathedral on the site of the destroyed slave market.
In 1843, the British took Karachi from its Muslim leaders and demanded that the slave trade be stopped immediately and the slave market be torn to the ground. They built in its place a huge fruit and vegetable market that operates even to this day.
It is beyond dispute that in the eyes of African and Arab leaders in the 19th century Christian expansion signified an end to slavery, which is one of the reasons why British ships so regularly battled Muslim pirates around north Africa and why Anglo- Saxon culture was seen as a liberating force by contemporary liberal movements.
The real slavery axis of evil connected Africa, south Asia and Arabia and lasted far longer than that in the white, Christian world. Indeed it still exists. According to anti-slavery groups, millions of enslaved servants and concubines still exist. In Sudan, Animist and Christian tribes are raided by Arab militias; the men are killed and the women and children taken as slaves. There are cane-workers in leg-shackles in southern Pakistan and hundreds of thousands of women and children are sold from Benin and Togo to wealthier African nations such as Nigeria and Gabon.
The criminals who operate these multinational enterprises are seldom reprimanded, and in the case of Sudan they are applauded by a government that is, in turn, supported by several leading Arab states. They must be laughing at the post- Christian Westerners beating their breasts and crying for forgiveness for something which their ancestors worked so hard to stop because their Christian faith and European enlightenment convinced them that it was wrong. Those dead white guys certainly knew a thing or two some of us seem to have forgotten today.
– Michael Coren is an author and broadcaster. www.michaelcoren.com. Reprinted with permission.
© National Post, Sept. 27, 2007