Word of the week

Word of the week: slavery

How do you explain to a child the concept of slavery? How do you explain that less than 200 years ago citizens in the UK and the USA were legally allowed to own other people, who were treated as property and not as citizens? The subject came up over the weekend, prompted partly by the story of Passover and partly by my own reaction on reading this “Long Read” piece in the Guardian. Titled “When will Britain face up to its crimes against humanity?” and written by Kris Manjapra it’s well worth some of your time. (Estimated reading time: 18 minutes according to Microsoft Edge, 27-34 minutes according to Firefox.)

It reveals that the money borrowed by the British government in the 1830s to compensate slave owners was only paid off in 2015. This means that I, and all of my friends and family who are also UK taxpayers, contributed to the costs of compensating people like David Cameron’s ancestors when they were no longer allowed to own slaves. The former slaves themselves received nothing. 180 years after the Slavery Abolition Act, money that I was paying in taxes was being used to pay off loans that compensated slave-owners in the 1830s. I find this shocking, but nowhere near as shocking as the fundamental concept of slavery.

Yesterday afternoon a friend and her 11-year-old son were visiting to celebrate my wife’s birthday. We discussed the previous evening’s Passover meal, and how it commemorated Moses leading the Israelites to freedom from the Egyptians. The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt but Moses led them across the Red Sea dry-shod, to freedom. In answer to questions from both 11-year-olds (my daughter and our friend’s son) I explained something of the more recent slave trade, about Africans being kidnapped and transported across the Atlantic, to the West Indies and America, and sold as slaves. Some of them didn’t make it that far and were thrown overboard if they got sick. Those who survived were made to work on plantations. Both children, understandably, found it hard to process this information. The idea of it is bad enough and I didn’t go into too much detail. I didn’t want them to have nightmares. I didn’t quote relevant passages from Manjapra’s article, such as “Britain could not have become the most powerful economic force on earth by the turn of the 19th century without commanding the largest slave plantation economies on earth, with more than 800,000 people enslaved”, or describing it as “one of the greatest experiments in human terror the world has ever known”.

My ancestors, as far back as you can trace them, are all Irish Catholic. I’m pretty sure that none of them was involved in the slave trade. It’s possible that I am descended from someone who, 1600 years ago, played a part in St Patrick’s capture and enslavement in Ireland, but there’s no way of knowing and it seems unlikely. Those bits of land that my forebears farmed were free of enforced labour. Similarly, my wife’s Jewish ancestors have no direct link to the horrors of slavery. Our combined ancestry was more likely to be oppressed than oppressors.

I spent much of Saturday watching “Gone with the wind” on TV, a film I had not seen in full since the 1980s. Visually it has endured remarkably well. It doesn’t look like it was made nearly 80 years ago. But with Kris Manjapra’s words fresh in my mind I wasn’t too bothered about Scarlett O’Hara’s plight. Her beloved home Tara was a plantation, no doubt worked by slaves right up to the outbreak of the Civil War.  Their stories, like those of millions of other, non-fictional, slaves were not told. Not much has changed. How do you explain that to an 11-year-old?



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