Fight slavery in all its forms

Eddie Ford on the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery in Britain - and the distorted pictures painted of William Wilberforce

Just in case you have somehow failed to get the message, here it is yet again - William Wilberforce was the great white saviour from above who freed the slaves. And without him, and people like him - such as his former slave trader-turned-abolitionist minister comrade-in-arms, John Newton - slavery would not have been abolished for god knows how many more decades. Thanks heavens for Saint Willy.

To further continue the official sanctification of Wilberforce, we are now treated to the semi-hagiographical film, Amazing grace - a gushing bio-epic praising the life of the good man himself, together with Newton, who penned the words to the famous song, 'Amazing grace'. Unsurprisingly, this film has been heavily touted and endorsed by all manner of evangelical christian groups - amongst others. Indeed, on its February 18 release date in the USA, more than 2,500 churches throughout the country simultaneously sang 'Amazing grace' in order to bestow blessing upon the film - no doubt hoping it might further contribute to the ongoing christian revivalism sweeping that benighted country.

So in Amazing grace we witness how in 1780 the initially semi-agnostic Wilberforce entered the House of Commons with his good friend and future prime minister, the handsome William Pitt. But during 1784-85 Wilberforce - equally as handsome as Pitt, naturally - converted to evangelical christianity and hence nearly left formal political life altogether.

However, as the film details, many close to Wilberforce (including Pitt and Newton, of course) managed to convince Wilberforce to stay in politics and, as the music swells, so does our heart - we see the noble Wilberforce become the leading parliamentary spokesman for abolitionism, and we tearfully share in his triumph when in 1807 the British parliament finally abandoned its formal dealings in the transatlantic slave trade. Or, as the Christian Today website puts it, "Wilberforce, Newton and a group of loyal friends effectively navigated the world of 18th century politics to abolish the slave trade throughout the British empire" (www.christiantoday.com/article/amazing.grace.celebrated.in.us/9597.htm).

Similarly, the Florida Baptist Witnesses rapturously tell us that "the film is also a moving testimony to the difference that can be made by one man fully committed to the mission god has given him" - even if they do have a little grumble about the slightly "disappointing" fact that Wilberforce's "conversion to christianity was only fleetingly addressed in the movie in light of its extraordinarily pivotal role in his decision to lead the abolition movement" (www.floridabaptistwitness.com/6987.article).

Well, not to put too fine a point on it, communists say "¦ what a load of ignorant, patronising, reactionary crap. Rather than exacting moral rectitude by suitably enlightened - and eminently respectable - great men being the cause of the 1807 ban, it was in fact the product of an organised mass political campaign by the working class, acting as an universal class. Furthermore, contrary to some of the pious-sounding twaddle being perpetuated by the mass media, the act 'abolishing' slavery was in fact a limited concession which had to wrested out of the hands of an overwhelmingly hostile capitalist class.

But, of course, akin in so many ways to Holocaust Memorial Day, the 200th anniversary bash to celebrate the supposed end of slavery is played out as part of an ideological exercise to effectively write out the role of mass resistance from below and thus rewrite history in order to make it more accommodating - or convenient - to the narrow self-interests and values of the bourgeoisie. In which case, who could be a better person for the job than the saintly William Wilberforce?

In fact, he was so saintly that he formed the Society for the Suppression of Vice (SSV). This enlightened body had its origins in George III's 1787 royal proclamation, 'For the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for the Preventing and Punishing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality' - and it almost goes without saying that this title, or formulation, was suggested by Wilberforce himself. After George's edict, Wilberforce set up the Proclamation Society, which became the SSV in 1802. Obviously, the main concern of the SSV was to push for a tougher application of the law against radicals and free-thinkers - especially the dreaded atheists.

And one of the most prominent victims of the SSV, and Wilberforce, was the great republican, secularist, atheist, materialist and free-speech campaigner, Richard Carlile from Ashburton, South Devon - who published, amongst many things, Tom Paine's Common sense, The rights of man and the Age of reason, and for his troubles was guilty of "blasphemy" and "seditious libel" and sentenced to three years in Dorchester gaol and a fine of £1,500. Funnily enough, this incident, or the SSV, did not get a mention in Amazing grace. Oh well, perhaps in the sequel.

Nor have the film-makers, or media, been in any sort of a rush to remind us that in his 1807 pamphlet, A letter on the abolition of the slave trade, Wilberforce wrote the following: "It would be wrong to emancipate [the enslaved Africans - EF]. To grant freedom to them immediately would be to insure not only their masters' ruin, but their own. They must first be trained and educated for freedom" (www.africanholocaust.net). Nor have we watched too many engrossing TV 'docu-dramas' about how in 1824 the abolitionist movement was gripped by crisis when an alternative grassroots abolitionist movement led by Elisabeth Heyrick publicly challenged Wilberforce's existing campaign by calling for the "immediate emancipation" of the African people.

Of course, Wilberforce's fearful attitude was a general reflection of the 'official' anti-slavery campaign's political outlook as a whole - just like the slavers they opposed, they wanted to use christianity to instigate and maintain control of the enslaved African people. For instance, the image featured on the seal of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery, designed by Josiah Wedgwood, depicts an African man on his knees, hands raised and begging for his liberty. A similar image accompanies the well-known 1850 Richard Barrett poem, 'The negro woman's appeal to her white sisters'. This work depicts an African woman begging on her knees, proclaiming, "This book tell man not to be cruel. Oh! that massa would read this book" (ibid).

In other words, pro-establishment anti-slavery campaigners like Wilberforce were motivated far less by the desire to liberate the oppressed black masses than by the belief, and fear, that if the anti-slavery movement was led by dangerous radicals - in the Americas and, just as importantly, at home - then the likely result would be the violent and revolutionary overthrow of the ruling class. Or, to use the words of a British parliamentary committee on African enslavement, "If the British government didn't bring an end to slavery in the colonies peaceably, then those [Caribbean] islands would soon be drenched in blood, the slaves would in the end emancipate themselves." How right they were.

To further compound the utter nonsense we have been recently subjected to, slavery, of course, continued for decades after the 1807 'ban'. In reality, it took until July 31 1838 before the slaves were 'legally', or formally, freed - and during that time some one million were still regarded by the British government as legal property and forcibly held captive. Thus while the shipping of slaves for trade was illegal, their ongoing enslavement and exploitation was not. By the time of eventual abolition in 1838, sickeningly, £20 million had been paid in compensation to the British slavers in the Caribbean in order to reimburse them for any loss of earnings. But even this was not enough to satisfy many slave-owners, who bitterly complained that this sum was far below 'market value'.

Inevitably, there were slave revolts between 1807 and 1838 - just as there had been before. Most dramatic of all was the Great Jamaican Slave Revolt of 1831-32, a 10-day rebellion that mobilised as many as 60,000 slaves. Led by 'native' baptist preacher Samuel Sharpe, it was waged largely, though not entirely, by his baptist followers amongst the slaves. Though Sharpe's original intention was for the rebellion to take the form of a peaceful general strike, it rapidly became violent and was eventually crushed by militia forces under the command of the Jamaican slavocracy. During the uprising, some 12 whites were killed, but hundreds of rebel slaves died - the overwhelming majority of them executed by military tribunals long after the rebellion was over, many for quite minor offences (like the theft of a pig or cow).

Given the sheer horror of slavery, and the amnesiac hypocrisy that has surrounded the entire anniversary, one can feel nothing but sympathy for the 39-year-old Toyin Agbetu - who disrupted the solemn bicentennial commemoration in Westminster Abbey on March 28 by abruptly running to the front of the altar shouting, "You should be ashamed" and "This is an insult to us". Afterwards, Agbetu - a supporter of the black grassroots organisation, Ligali (www.ligali.org) - outlined his fundamental objections to the Westminster commemoration: it was "just a memorial for William Wilberforce" and there had been "no mention of the African freedom-fighters".

For Agbetu, on the other hand, it was imperative that the queen "has to say sorry" for the British empire's involvement in the slave trade. Agbetu was arrested and we were reassured that at no point had the queen been in danger - who, following the Westminster ceremony, serenely laid flowers on the costly memorial to Wilberforce and also the Innocent Victims' Memorial, in "honour" of all those affected by slavery.

Demonstrating the mealy-mouthed hypocrisy of the Church of England, Dr John Sentamu - the Archbishop of York and Britain's first ever black archbishop - announced that he was "glad" that Agbetu had been "allowed to speak" (and arrested too?) but condescendingly added the hope that his "depth of anger" would be "matched by that he should have towards those African chiefs who grew fat through the capture and sale of their kith and kin for trinkets".

What a staggering comment. The christian church from its very beginnings legitimised slavery, providing the theological justification by the barrel-load and generally preached quiet acceptance of your lot - if god intended you to be a slave, then so be it, amen. Yes, of course, forms of slavery were practised by many other civilisations - such as the Greek, Arab, etc. And, yes too, certain elites in black kingdoms in west Africa did very nicely, thank you, from the slave trade.

But when the age-old business of slave trading was added to capitalism - and the brutal process of primitive capital accumulation - then the entire thing underwent a qualitative development and became murderous on an almost unimaginable scale. Who can doubt that the British capitalists were the moving spirit behind the gruesome but extremely profitable trade? And the established church was only too glad to take a cut for itself. Hence, to give just one example, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, which owned the Codrington plantation in Barbados, had the word 'Society' branded on the chests of their slaves with a red-hot iron - and if you swallowed the christian propaganda of the time, you would have happily believed that Jesus of Galilee would have approved of such monstrous practices. Render unto Caesar ...

Perhaps encouragingly for Agbetu, and for people who think like him, there has been quite a lot of 'apologetic' talk over recent years. The archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has described slavery as "the greatest cause of grief to god's spirit", lamenting that "those who are the heirs of the communities ravaged by the slave trade know very well that much of their present suffering and struggling is the result of centuries of abuse". And, in this vein, an amendment "recognising the damage done" to those enslaved was backed overwhelmingly by the general synod in February 2006.

As for not-so-Red Ken, he has issued an apology on "behalf" of all Londoners - while earlier this month, Tony Blair got in on the act, expressing "deep sorrow" for the slave trade and regally declaring: "We are sorry."

Yet this is not enough for some. Sentamu, for one, has called on Britain to make a "formal apology" for the slave trade and thus help to "put the record straight". Additionally, there are also calls for reparations - a campaign which has been going on for many decades in the United States, with particular focus on a disputed post-civil war promise that every freed slave would receive "40 acres and a mule". Pro-reparations activists say this "promise" was unfulfilled and it is now time for society to "make amends".

Some in the UK also favour reparations, like Lee Jasper - the very well remunerated senior policy adviser (equalities and policing) to Livingstone. Quite correctly, of course, Jasper points out that the European nations "benefited from slavery" and the City of London's "wealth came from the trade" - in which case, he goes on to argue, "seeking reparations for the debt that now exists in Africa is valid" and would "offer a credible response to the problems created by European powers". Similar sentiments have been expressed by the Society of Black Lawyers.

According to Esther Stanford, a senior member of the reparations campaign, it was high time for the government to do something to redress the balance: "The government's had 10 years to come to terms with the issue. When we talk about reparations, people think that it's about money. But it's about making repairs, be they economic or social, to Africa and for African descendents in Europe. We may have seen the end of the transatlantic slave trade many years ago, but Africa remains totally dependent on the former colonial powers. It still does not have self-determination."

Of course, communists perfectly understand why calls for "formal apologies", compensation, reparations, etc, are made. A great injustice, a crime against humanity, was committed, and there has never been any real redress - which always rankles, and so it should.

But there are two main reasons why we do not make such calls ourselves. Firstly, there is the straightforward practical objection with regards to reparations - exactly who pays what to whom, and how? Secondly, and far more importantly, the entire capitalist system was built on slavery - initially the absolute super-exploitation of the slaves, and now the relentless exploitation of wage-slaves, of you and me.

We do not want paltry 'compensation' or a partial, and temporary, amelioration of our slavery - rather, we want to reappropriate the world's wealth in order to emancipate humanity once and for all.