Tuesday 10 November 2020

We Are All Guilty (or not)

 A harrowing night's television last night, with My Family, The Holocaust and Me with Robert Rinder on BBC1, swiftly followed by Berlin 1945 on BBC4. Both programmes, unsurprisingly, got me thinking about questions of historical guilt... 
  At present the area of historical guilt that is being most vigorously agitated is slavery – by which is meant the relatively short-lived triangular trade that was suppressed a couple of centuries ago. It seems to me that whenever historical guilt for slavery is discussed, a small troop of elephants is milling about in the room. Chief among them – because it is the one form of slavery that we might conceivably be able to do something about – is present-day slavery in all its forms. This, it seems, may be safely ignored in favour of the perceived sins of the British and Americans of several centuries ago. Another large elephant is the long (and continuing) history of slavery in the Islamic world. And then there is Belgium, whose turn-of-the-(20th)-century wealth was built on slave labour in the Congo. And, in the 20th century, slave labour in Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union. Slave labour in Japan during World War II is perhaps a special case, as it was enslavement of prisoners of war (in total defiance of the Geneva conventions, etc.). The German use of slave labour in that war was another matter, involving the enslavement of its own (ex-)citizens, and it permeated the German economy to a quite extraordinary extent: there is barely a German brand you can name that doesn't have a history of using slave labour – from ThyssenKrupp right down to Dr Oetker. As for the Soviet Union, its economy was dependent on slave labour in the gulag system for decades – and that had nothing to do with the war. 
  Of course you could argue, quite reasonably, that present-day Belgians, Germans, Japanese, Russians etc. cannot be held accountable for what happened in the past, in different times and different circumstances and under different regimes. And yet this forgive-and-forget attitude does not, it seems, extend to the much more historically distant triangular trade. Present-day British and Americans, uniquely, must be held accountable for the sins of their great great great great great etc. grandfathers, in very different times and circumstances and under very different regimes. Maybe I'm missing something here, but this doesn't seem to me to make much sense (except perhaps as another episode in the long slow suicide of the West)...


  1. I'm not sure if you are familiar with the Alexander Hamilton craze, but it seems he's not going to be quite as popular as he used to be.


    Even more interesting considering many people insist he is of mixed race.

  2. Thanks for that, Ron – as Alanis Morisette would say, Isn't it ironic? And of course if Hamilton were of mixed race (which he wasn't) that would by no means debar him from slave ownership.

  3. I don't think you're missing anything! It all seems to be about some idea that whites are all unconsciously 'white supremacists' (apparently including those who are married to non-whites, have mixed-race children etc) who nearly all live in luxury due to the material wealth amassed by slavery (which is historically completely inaccurate in the British case) while blacks remain immiserated. We must therefore 'educate ourselves' and repent of our ancestors' cruelties, primarily, of course, by indoctrinating our population with a politically convenient but inaccurate version of history and the destruction of what is deemed unacceptable in our own material heritage. I have a friend in the civil service - as part of the job they now have to take classes on 'black history', knowledge of which apparently will have significant impact on the operation of HMRC, of all things.

    To strengthen your points even further, one might point out that at the height of the slave trade in Britain the vast majority of the population had no say in government, and by the time slavery was abolished in the Empire in the 1830s the Great Reform Act had just increased the number of those eligible to vote to about one in five males. What's more, the wealth amassed by a few due to slavery hardly 'trickled down' to the poor in Britain and Ireland, with a significant percentage of the population of the time living in abject, unimaginable poverty - conditions little better and often as bad as those in which slaves lived. The ancestors of most of the current white British population were agricultural labourers or farmers at the time of the slave trade, and in most cases their descendents' material quality of life only significantly increased a great many decades after the abolition of slavery. How could any of those people be said to have benefited from, let alone have had a say in, the Atlantic slave trade? So unless you are descended from aristocrats or merchants who made money from the slave trade, even assuming one is responsible for one's own ancestors' behaviour which is highly dubious in itself, what possible responsibility could you have for these peoples' behaviour? Even most of the crews of the slavers were press-ganged.

    Meanwhile, Mauritania passed a law allowing the prosecution of slaveowners in... drum roll ... 2007. And many of the people I know personally agitating (or pontificating, at least) about historical slavery smoke cannabis and/or want greater liberalisation of drug laws - despite the fact that the most prevalent form of child trafficking in the UK is the abduction of Vietnamese children for slave labour on cannabis farms - allegedly, the police already turn a blind eye to this.

    Sorry for such a long comment - but clearly, something must've gone wrong when I 'educated myself'!

    1. All excellent points Hector – though I believe Mauritania's recent bit of enlightened legislation has had little or no effect on the prevalence of chattel slavery there. Surprise.

    2. But didn't you hear? According to the Mauritanian government these slanderous claims of continuing widespread slavery have been put about by Islamophobes and International Jewry. Those dastardly Jews yet again!

      On a much lighter note, have you ever come across this? It might go some way to explain our current pickle:


    3. Ho ho. And what a fine summing-up of History that is...

  4. I thought you might like to see a herd of small elephants:

  5. I would remark that in the United States the legacy of that slavery is quite visible. There is a large group of persons descended from the slaves who to this day have considerably less wealth per capita than most of their fellow citizens. They tend to live in the poorer and more dangerous ends of town, etc. Could that be why it is more on one's mind than what happened on the other side of the Atlantic?

  6. Perhaps it's because there is a hierarchy of victimhood. If you consider one set of underdogs more pathetic and pitiable than others you feel you gain more brownie points in championing *their* cause. Africans were considered more pitiable than enslaved Europeans. What is behind all of this, of course,is racism in those championing the cause against, er, the racists. The Africans are a better convenient stepping stone to virtue.

  7. Yes, it all boils down to the Marxist binary world view – Victim or Oppressor, you can't be both. As Lenin pithily put it, 'Who? Whom?'