Why won’t we say sorry?

Next year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British Empire’s Atlantic slave trade. Slavery had been outlawed on the British mainland for hundreds of years, yet for some reason, it was found acceptable to kidnap huge numbers of healthy Africans, cram them into ships and transport them under appalling conditions to work on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. As many as 20% of the slaves did not even survive the voyage. Those who did were treated with inhuman cruelty in the pursuit of profit for the British Empire.

Five years ago, eleven of the then fifteen EU countries said that they were prepared to apologise for their part in the evil trade. The occasion was the World Conference Against Racism. Four countries refused to issue an apology, Britain, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands.

Now we hear that as we prepare for the bicentennial of the abolition, the British government is still not prepared to apologise. Prime Minister Blair has spoken of his ‘sorrow’, but stopped short of an apology. The only possible reason not to apologise is that it would mean we were admitting our culpability. But this was crime against humanity on a massive scale. Both the government and the monarchy of the day were complicit.

I say that the only honourable course is to offer the fullest, unreserved apology. It would be highly appropriate if our nation were to issue that apology prior to the 200 year commemorations.