THE inscription on the bronze statue reads: “Erected by the citizens of Bristol and memorial to one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city.”
The 18-foot pedestal in Bristol, the United Kingdom’s eighth most populous city, is in honour of Edward Colston, born of the city and a member of parliament in the 18th century, and is just one part of the homage by the prosperous sea town: over a dozen streets and at least three schools are named after him.
He also has an annual day dedicated to him, in addition to giving his name to the sweetened Colston Bun.
Colston also served as a deputy governor of the Royal African Company, which held the monopoly in Britain on the slave trade, minting him the fortune that was ironically used for philanthropic purposes.
In this job he was a particularly nasty one—the British journalist Mike Gardner called him one of the “most evil men in English history”, with his company having moved up to 100,000 slaves from Africa to West Indies and the Americas.
Many other British streets pay homage to citizens who made their fortunes off the horror that was the slave trade. Some have negotiated some sort of peace with their past—Liverpool for example has an International Slavery Museum, even if many of its streets still bear the names of traders who made their wealth off the slave trade.
These sort of contradictions are a part of Britain’s struggle with its past. The Church of England was for example one of the justifiers of slavery, and benefited handsomely when the practice was abolished through the compensations that were given out—not to slaves but to slave-owners. The church apologised in 2006.
The campaign to abolish the horror trade is widely attributed to the work of leading abolitionists such as William Wilberforce, the statesman hero who for decades fought for legislation to end a trade which saw about 12.5 million slaves embarked on ships.
Even though controversy followed Wilberforce—records on Sierra Leone, which he with his group of social reformers set up as an ideal free and mixed race society—show that a retooled version of slavery, known as apprenticeship, still existed long after the passage of the anti-slave trade law in 1807—he has been given the benefit of the doubt on this, and remains revered in Britain.
But swept under the rug was the role of thousands more British slave-owners of the ilk of Colston, whose wealth of partly financed the initial rumblings of the Industrial Revolution that would mould the rich world.
Famous family names that link to luminaries such as George Orwell (real name Eric Blair) and David Cameron are part of the 46,000 slave-owners that were compensated for the loss of labour. Many British corporations can trace their money to either the reparation cash, or the benefits of the slave trade.
The full list is available in what are called the T71 files, which are records of the commission that compensated the slaveowners. Only most closely looked at in the last five years through the illuminative Legacies of British Slave-ownership project, their scale is again reminding Britons of a part of history they would rather not remember.
But reparations to the victims have been harder to come by, many who bear English surnames as a heritage to when their owners branded their names on their skin as a sign of ownership.
American slave merchants
This is because unlike the Americans who did their slavery on “home soil”, that of the British was carried out thousands of miles away, mainly in the Caribbean. As such it is much easier to relate slavery to Americans, and movies such as 12 Years A Slave, which gave actors with strong African heritages like Lupita Nyong’o their big break, have further burned American slave-trading practices into contemporary world memory.
Chastened Britons have instead preferred to highlight how they were the first to ban the trade, and continue to revel in the national pride it inspired when the 1833 act, which formally freed nearly a million African slaves, was passed.
They are also more agreeable when looking at how British culture now bestrides most of its former dominions, which are neatly gathered together in the organisation known as the Commonwealth. In its former African colonies, the British legal system holds sway, its education system is much sought after and the substance of most of its institutions have a strong British whiff about them.
True, the agency of Africans was key to the trade, and the Indian Ocean slave trade lasted much longer, and moved more slaves, but documentation for this has been harder to come by.
Also scarce have been reparations for the source markets that continue to struggle despite enriching many developed countries.
Bad day in Addis Ababa
This week, rich countries attending a key summit in Addis Ababa handily slapped down an earnest UN-backed push by African nations to clamp down on the tricks employed by their multinationals to avoid tax; billions of dollars that would help finance the next phase of the continent’s growth as it enters the post-Millennium Development Goals phase.
The cost of illicit money flows and tax evasion for Africa is estimated at up to $60 billion annually, but for the western world, retaining control of a key foreign policy tool was more strategic, and profitable.
If reparations will not be considered, why not then morally “launder” restituiton by putting a lid on practices like tax evasion by the multinationals, which deprive African governments of the money they so direly need to finance their own version of an industrial revolution?
Developed economies have looked to counter this through development aid, but few can argue against the fact that it only cements a culture of dependability, while pushing new markets for the same multinationals, many of which grew fat on the cheap labour provided by African slaves.
Lost in all the power play is that it is much easier, and sustainable in the long term, to allow African peoples what is rightfully theirs. We can then have another debate of how efficiently this money is used when it lands into continental coffers.