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The Queen's Celebration: Slavery Without Regrets

Incident at Westminster Abbey

by MICHAEL DICKINSON

"You should be ashamed!"

Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, and Prime Minister Tony Blair, among a congregation of 2000 attending the memorial service at London’s historic Westminster Abbey earlier this week to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, quickly glanced at their programmes.

According to the official schedule, which included speeches and readings from the writings of abolitionist William Wilberforce delivered by a succession of dignitaries and church leaders, the next item was to be a recitation of the Absolution prayers, but suddenly there’s this shouting black guy in a colorful African tunic out of his seat and storming up the central aisle towards where the Queen sat with her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, along with senior members of the government and their wives. This was an unrehearsed event in the ceremony. It was real.

"This service is a disgrace!" shouted the shaven-headed man. "It is an insult to Africa."

Within almost 10 feet of them, and pointing, he ranted on: "You are the Queen and the Prime Minister–this is all wrong. You don’t have the decency, Mr Blair, to make an apology and the word sorry, and you, the Queen … "

Abbey ushers and security-men rushed forward to tackle him as he roared: "I’m a proud African. Men of God should be ashamed. We should not be here. This is a white man’s service–it is an insult to us. I want all the Christians who are Africans to walk out."

Uniformed police entered the church and lent their force to drag the angry black away as he shouted and pointed at the icy-faced Queen. Outside he was handcuffed and arrested under Section 5 of the Public Order Act.

Journalists briefly managed to learn a little about the protestor before he was whisked off by armed police.

His name: Toyin Agbetu. Age: 39. As a founder of the African-British human rights organisation, Ligali, which campaigns against racial discrimination and fights for black people’s rights, Agbetu had obtained a media pass to attend the ceremony, which he decried.

"It was an insult to us. This is just a memorial for William Wilberforce. There was no mention in there of African freedom fighters. What about my ancestors? Where were the Africans talking about how they feel?

"The three major institutions involved in slavery – the monarchy, the government and the church – are all inside there, patting each other on the back," he said. "No one has had the decency to say the word ‘Sorry’."

The Royal Family and Government have both refused to follow the example of the Church of England and apologise publicly for their roles in the slave trade.

Agbetu’s protest was aimed at forcing the Queen and the Prime Minister to pronounce an official apology for Britain’s central role in the trade that enslaved as many as 20 million Africans in the colonies’ cotton, tobacco and sugar plantations for over three centuries. Blair has expressed instead a "deep sorrow and regret" for the suffering caused. And royal aides insist that the Queen was acknowledging her family’s role and the wrongs of past generations by simply attending the service.

Toyin Agbetu, however, demands that the Queen officially apologize for the monarchy’s role in supporting the slave trade, an industry upon which much of the wealth of the UK was built on.

"She has to say sorry," he said. "Queen Elizabeth 1 commissioned John Hawkins, financed him, and funded him to go to my continent and enslave my people." (In 1564 she loaned Hawkins her armed 700-ton ship, Jesus of Lubeck, as a slave vessel, made money from the investment, and knighted him for his efforts.)

Nick Hazelwood, in his book The Queen’s Slave Trader: John Hawkyns, Elizabeth and Trafficking in Human Souls, writes: "In their simplest form the Hawkins voyages were exercises in turning a quick profit: for the Queen, for himself, and for the group of rich London merchants and royal courtiers who had invested in the expedition."

The Royal Family built much of its fortune on the slave trade. ‘The Royal African Company was a slaving company set up by the Stuart family and London merchants once the former retook the English throne in the English Restoration of 1660. It was led by James, Duke of York, Charles II’s brother.

Originally known as the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa, it was granted a monopoly over the English slave trade, by its charter issued in 1660. With the help of the army and navy it established trading posts on the West African coast, and it was responsible for seizing any rival English ships that were transporting slaves.

In the 1680s it was transporting about 5000 slaves per year. Many were branded with the letters ‘DY’ on the left buttock, after its chief, the Duke of York, who succeeded his brother on the throne in 1685, becoming James II. Other slaves were branded with the company’s initials, RAC, on their chests.

And both crown and parliament were involved in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, which granted Britain the exclusive right to sell African people into slavery in all of Spain’s American colonies. The ‘asiento’ was crucial because it broke the Spanish hold on the trade; England became, and remained, the world’s biggest slaver.

Queen Ann then awarded the right to the notorious South Sea Company, ‘forever’. Lord Harley, the Lord Chancellor was directly involved in the running of South Sea Company, as were several other members of government. The Company exported 75, 000 slaves from Africa between 1713 and 1739, shipping them thousands of miles via Liverpool and Bristol, tied like hogs, lying in their own excrement, then whipped and forced to work on plantations for generations, all for the benefit of the British economy.

The mortality rate of South Sea Company slave-ships was so high that in later years captains were allowed four slaves each, as an incentive to keep the their cargoes alive and healthy.

The Church of England also owned hundred of slaves, branded them like cattle on plantations in Barbados and, of course, made money off the evil. But the Church, unlike the Government and the Monarchy, has apologized and is studying what to do about reparations.

Fear that an official government statement of apology might fuel attempts to seek reparations from descendants of slaves seems to be the reason for Blair’s weak "regrets" rather than "apologies".

And in response to a letter from a group of Rastafarians from Jamaica seeking reparation a few years ago, Queen Elizabeth II skirted the issue this way:

"Under the statue of the International Civil Court, acts of enslavement committed today do constitute crimes against humanity. But the historic slave trade was not a crime against humanity or contrary to international law at the time when the U.K. government condoned it."

During the service, before the interruption, Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, spoke movingly.

"Slavery is not a regional problem in the human world; it is hideously persistent in our nations and cultures," he told the Queen and her guests.

"We are born into a world already scarred by the internationalizing and industrializing of slavery … and our human inheritance is shadowed by it. We who are heirs of the slave-owning and slave-trading nations of the past have to face the fact that our historic prosperity was built in large part on this atrocity; those who are heirs of the communities ravaged by the slave trade know very well that much of their present suffering and struggling is the result of centuries of abuse. Today it is for us to face our history; the Atlantic trade was our contribution to this universal sinfulness."

And he urged the congregation "to have the courage to face the legacies of slavery … (and) the courage to turn to each other and ask how, together, we are to make each other more free and more human."

That sounds like a very good idea. So where do we start?

A start would be ending, NOW and FOREVER the obscene exploitation that still goes on in Africa. We can do nothing to alleviate the suffering of those who are long dead. Their best memorial would be for us all to demand the end of the poverty-driven slavery of this century. To be successful we have to examine how we in the west relate to third world peoples, particularly, but not only in Africa, where the current western hegemony is maintained, among other things, by crippling loans, and ‘strings attached "aid’, ‘unfair trade’, and the still continuing ‘propping up’ of tyrants that serve the western interests. It is conditions like these that largely give rise to child labour and sex slaves. Debt has to be cancelled – no ifs or buts, no cavilling, no arguments. That would be one way of giving back a little of what we stole.

Let’s abolish the monarchy rather than asking the queen to apologize for slavery. The monarchy has been responsible for the robbing and exploiting its ‘subjects’ since its conception, and there is much that it could apologize for. Let the queen resign instead. If we are to ‘make each other more free and human’, how can there be a monarch?

And as for the corrupt lying government–that must go too, or change, and we must establish a proper social democracy, putting people first, with deep structural changes aimed at making a better society, hand in hand with proper reparation. Then could begin the process of transforming the country and the world away from operating on the principle of personal greed, to principles of decency, equality and human values. This world was made a common store for all to share. Are we not all, whatever our color or race, men and women and brothers and sisters?

MICHAEL DICKINSON lives in Istanbul . He can be contacted through his Saatchi Gallery