Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Slavery and modern testimonies 

Not apologies, not perhaps even celebration, but learning and dedication.

The bicentenary of the abolition of the Slave Trade has already provoked comments in one or two places. The questions of apology and celebration will not go away.

For me, this is a matter of learning what people did in the past faced with a horrendous situation and drawing strength to face parallel challenges now and in the future. If we fail to learn and draw strength we will need to apologise for our own evils.

Take one example – the central place of the Atlantic Slave System in transforming life in Europe. New products moved from being a luxury to being central to new ways of living. Coffee, tea and chocolate (themselves often slave-produced) are all bitter products and were literally sweetened into palatability by the new availability of cheap sugar from slave plantations.

The consumption of these products allowed for new public social arrangements, with the coffee houses in particular acting as a kind of Internet for the late 17th and the 18th centuries. These provided the structure on which experiments in free discussion and free commercial arrangements could take place. This ferment was not limited to the traditional elites – working people, nonconforming groups, entrepreneurs outside the merchantilist monopolies, all had their own corners of consumption and exchange. It was in this ferment of changes that Liberal ideas began to take hold. And this ferment was commercially underpinned by slave-produced global trade items facilitaing new social arrangements.

It was not just a few who benefited.

It is to the credit of those people that many living with the sweet benefits of those times at last became aware of the contradiction and moved to oppose the evil. But they benefited hugely for many many years.

Is there a parallel today? Well the INTERNET and the podcasts and the mobile phone systems that exite our political actions, to say nothing of the Playstations of our expectant offspring, need their equivalent of sugar – certain rare metals essential for electronic components. By far the largest source of the minerals for these is the eastern Congo. An example is Coltan. And the vicious fight over control of these mineral resources is the major factor wrecking that country.

Just to show this is not an exclusively ‘lefty agonising’ concern, take a look at this analysis in the Daily Telegraph.

One of Britain's closest allies in Africa is stoking the flames of anarchy in the Democratic Republic of Congo by arming brutal militias in return for gold and mineral wealth.
Uganda invaded its giant neighbour in 1998, helping to start Congo's civil war. This
has escalated to become the bloodiest conflict seen anywhere in the world since 1945. Some 3.9 million people have died, according to one survey, with most succumbing to war-induced starvation and disease.
Cursed by its mineral wealth, Congo has always been eyed by predatory foreign powers. The evidence suggests that Ugandan meddling is still costing lives inside its anarchic neighbour.

So – our modern INTERNET, our current IT-fueled economic system, our new ways of acting socially and politically, depend on crucial supplies provided by a system of human misery in a far off country. Are we prepared to accept the logic of this, and take action to correct it a great deal faster than our predecessors did in respect of the Slave System which underpinned the sweetness in their own lives and societies?

Quakers have the concept of a 'testimony' - which is not a form of words, or a creed, or a convenent rhetoric like an 'apology'. A testimony is a recognition of certain claims on an individual and a response to these claims through that individuals own actions and initiatives.
No apology for slavery perhaps, but a testimony to the reality of those times by a refusal to live with parallel evils today. What should we do as a living testimony to reject the slave heritage in our history?

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