11 Jan

Do let’s teach the slave trade

Another movie, another pretext. The BAFTA nominated film about slavery, which I refuse to advertise here, has encouraged certain “activists” in the media to complain that the slave trade is not being taught in our state schools. Where have these activists been living? My impression is that little else in schools is taught except British involvement in the slave trade. Well, Mullen, you exaggerate: schools do also teach about Hitler, the evil that was Margaret Thatcher and they zealously perpetrate Blackadder fallacies about the First World War. But, yes, I am in favour of more teaching about slavery. I have been a qualified teacher since 1970 with a DES number to prove it, so perhaps I can help by providing some notes…

Britain was for centuries deeply complicit in slave trading. But we were the first nation to abolish it. Moreover, the campaign for abolition began in the 1770s and was conducted by English Christian gentlemen led by William Wilberforce. He declared: “God Almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” Slavery was abolished in British dominions in 1807.

The Royal Navy, which then controlled the world’s seas, established the West Africa Squadron in 1808 to patrol the African coast and between 1808 and 1860 they seized 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans who were imprisoned aboard. The Royal Navy declared that ships transporting slaves were the same as pirates. Action was also taken against African leaders who refused to agree to British treaties to outlaw the trade, for example against “the usurping King of Lagos”, deposed in 1851. Anti-slavery treaties were signed with over 50 African rulers. In the 1860s, David Livingstone’s reports of atrocities within the Muslim slave trade in Africa stirred up the interest of the British public. The Royal Navy throughout the 1870s tried to suppress “this abominable Eastern trade”, for instance at Zanzibar. In 1890 Britain handed control of the strategically important island of Heligoland in the North Sea to Germany in return for control of Zanzibar, in part to help enforce the ban on slave trading.

Before they were finally thrown out, Muslim rulers in Spain, Portugal and Sicily kept slaves and as late as the 19th century practised piracy and the enslavement of Christian captives. In Muslim territories, those who refused to convert to Islam and declare loyalty to the Ummah were enslaved under Islamic law. Slavery in Muslim countries continued well into the 20th century and sheiks from Qatar were attended by their slaves at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. As recently as the 1960s, 20% of the population of Saudi Arabia were held in slavery and Islamic authorities did not actually get round to making slavery a criminal offence until 2007  – exactly two hundred years after Wilberforce’s Bill.

Yes please, do let’s have more of this in our state schools. I have only one regret: that in his second great object – “the reformation of manners” – Wilberforce was singularly unsuccessful.