For some reason I tune into Andrew Marr's Sunday current affairs round-up show on BBC1. I don't know how I managed to stick with it beyond Jack Straw's profound analysis of the Middle East ("Iran exists..."), but I'm pleased I did - and not only because Carole Vorderman's luscious, lengthy legs were on full display at the end. Andy M. interviews the wonderfully named (I just googled it, is how I know..) Dr John Tucker Mugabi Sentamu, the Archbishop of York. It's refreshing to see a public figure who is gentle, considered, fair and erudite in equal measure and, furthermore, able to quote Bob Marley for good measure. Those of you who regularly listen to the Bobcasts, will already be aware of my scepticism regarding the current clamour for an apology from Tony Blair on behalf of "Britain" (what, or whoever that is) for the abhorrence that was the slave trade. The Archbish. hit just about the right note in calling for an acknowledgement of the shameful aspects of the past that have helped shape both countries. Unusually, Sentamu also acknowledged the role played by Africans in rounding up and selling their fellow men and perhaps it was this frankness that stopped him sounding as shrill as some of those "So Sorry" t-shirt wearing apologists (if you see what I mean) can. I found myself agreeing with pretty much everything he said, at any rate.
As Marr and Dr. Sentamu agreed, although this is perhaps a fitting time to reflect on the terrible inhumanity from which our cosy little "global village" has grown, we are living with our own versions of slavery - the currently flourishing international sex-slave trade and the continued causal link between the indecent treatment of the young and the poor thousands of miles away from our own relative comforts and the contents of our well-stocked larders, should perhaps be the focus of our attention as we uneasily mark the anniversary of the better documented trade-in-our-fellow-humans crimes of a bygone era.
For some, rightly or wrongly, the wounds will never heal - as a young, female Reverend commented on the Heaven & Earth Show that followed. But I was reminded of the moving and surprisingly positive conclusion of Friday night's excellent Simon Schama presented Rough Crossings (based on his book of the same name, I believe). Schama, a sort of more down-to-earth, non-nerdy Bamber Gascoigne (you can imagine him chewing gum and liking Belle & Sebastian), hits a good balance between articulating both the forces and the personalities that shape history and I personally think he leaves his more conservative, and only real, rival in the televisual historian steeplechase, David Starkey, trailing several furlongs in his wake.
The programme charted the painful birth of Freetown, Sierra Leone, an ambitious and - at least in the context of the slave trade itself - idealistic attempt to establish a trading settlement for former slaves from the American colonies. But the project, already very much a white man's burdon exercise from the off, soon began to degenerate into the familiar colonial hierarchy - in short, white overseers getting pissed and eyeing the local ladies while the black folks did all the work. For all its faults, Schama concluded that the virtues of the community - racially mixed and democratic to the extent that it was the first place "anywhere in the world" where women voted for anything - provide an unlikely glimmer of hope that should be remembered as we seek to learn from the lessons of history.
What struck me personally when watching Schama's programme was how absolutely godawful and wretched the whole business of simply *travelling* the sorts of distances demanded by the slave trade routes at a time when even the more privileged travellers were likelier than not to be struck down by some hideous fever, tossed on the violent oceans on a hazardous journey that is - at the risk of sounding flippant - bloody uncomfortable to a tall, 21st century frame, cosseted, pampered and secure miles above the heaving waves. This factor, which although Schama didn't raise it personally can perhaps be attributed to his empathetic and humane approach to bringing the past to our screens, suggested to me that the imperatives behind the whole enterprise were powerful in the extreme rather than being solely the result of the actions of cruel, heartless and unenlightened men. What else but the desperate need for economic survival - money, basically - could drive people to endure any of those basic horrors, let alone the ensuing barbarity accorded to their fellow humans?
"It's only a machine that makes money", sang Bob Marley and those wise, sussed words are as appropriate to today's slave drivers as to any from the past. And this is where, to return to the apology business, there is, in my view, no sense whatever in a shameless enabler of the unfeeling, unfettered machine that is global capitalism like Tony Blair apologising for the machinations of that process two hundred years ago.
It's the slaves of today and tomorrow he should be apologising for and to.
L.U.V. on y'all,
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