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Blair, the slave trade and apologies

27 March 2007

Anglican bishops have demanded that British Prime Minister Tony Blair apologise for the slave trade on the 200th anniversary of its abolition in Britain.

This has led to quite a lot of discussion in the blogosphere, with some pointing out some of the advantages of the slave trade, and others supporting the call for an apology.

In all this there is a trend that I find disturbing — the idea that we ought to engage in the relatively undemanding exercise of confessing other people’s sins, while avoiding repentance for our own.

People demand, sometimes quite vociferously, that people like Tony Blair should apologise for something that he is not responsible for and cannot be held responsible for, yet, as I noted in my other blog Notes from underground: Repentance, reconciliation and Adriaan Vlok, when someone like Adriaan Vlok apologises for something he is responsible for, people find it “deeply offensive”.

It seems to me that this shows an inversion of moral values. Tony Blair ought not to apologise for the slave trade, because there is no way he can be held responsible for it. But he can be held responsible for the bombing of Belgrade and Basra, and if he symbolically went and washed the feet of the widows and orphans of those cities, and the stumps of the maimed and the lame who were crippled by British bombs dropped at his orders, then he would be doing something far more significant. The demand that he should apologise for the slave trade is simply grotesque.

My wife (and children) are descendants of slaves. I haven’t yet discovered any slaves in my own ancestry, but for all I know there could have been, say under the Roman Empire. Should I therefore demand that the Italian government officially apologise?

On my wife’s side, we know not only who the slaves were, but who their owner was — one Pieter Hacker, of Cape Town. The earliest ancestor was Francina van de Kaap (van de Kaap indicates that she was probably a local, rather than an imported slave, and therefore less relevant to the slave trade). Her daughter Johanna was manumitted by Johan Breitschuh, who then married her. Presumably he paid Pieter Hacker a manumission fee. Should we now trace all the living descendants of Pieter Hacker, or of his heirs, and demand that they repay the manumission fee, with interest? After 200 years that could amount to quite a tidy sum. Of course the amount would have to be split among all the descendants of Francina, who are numerous.

Perhaps it would be better to hear the word of the Lord to Ezekiel:

The word of the Lord came to me again: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sins shall die (Ezekiel 18:1-4).

It is quite enough for Tony Blair to repent and apologise for his own sins, and that should take priority over the sins of his predecessors.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 30 March 2007 1:08 am

    ‘Course i forgot the link, didn’t I: Here it is

  2. 30 March 2007 5:11 am


    You talk about reparations, but I still think that asking Tony Blair to apologise for the slave trade is like asking Thabo Mbeki to apologise for apartheid.

  3. 18 December 2007 4:18 pm

    Any apology from Tony Blair would only be mildly symbolic– an act of present honoring, of recognition of the historic dishonor and mistreatment to a corporate people. To this degree, it is valuable and could bring some healing to people who still are affected– which no doubt are many. The apology does not really give the affected some judicial voice– nor does it pay for any losses incurred (this would be very difficult to quantify of course– and if the truth known, there is no amount of cash that could ever repay the dishonor to even one person). But, it would be an act of honoring a people.

  4. 7 May 2010 6:26 am

    After reading The Western Confucian: A Libertarian Misreads a Japanese Apology I’m thinking I may need to revise the opinions I expressed in this post.


  1. Global Voices Online » Blog Archive » Africa: Bloggers Split on Reparations and Apology for Slavery
  3. Human Rights and Christian faith « Khanya
  4. Reconciliation and forgiveness « Notes from underground

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