Going beyond 'sorry'
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's apology for his nation's wartime sex abuse in China, Korea and elsewhere will encourage those who are celebrating the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery by demanding a formal apology. The sentiment is understandable and reparation should be made, wherever possible. But the assumption that a simple 'sorry' absolves past injustice makes light of slavery and exploits history to distract attention from today's wrongs.
The slavery debate is organised around two opposing narratives. On one side, the apology lobby argues that the Atlantic slave trade between Africa, Britain and America was a uniquely and absolutely immoral process whereby whites deliberately dehumanised blacks. The traffic's enormous profits paid for Britain's industrial revolution, created western financial systems and endowed European cultural institutions. Contemporary Africa's plight and the condition of blacks in the west are blamed on slavery. Europeans should expiate their guilt, runs the demand.
A contrary interpretation is advanced by the vindicators, who argue that slavery occurred in a different moral universe, where all but a lucky few suffered harsh and cruel lives. Africans who sold fellow Africans were equally complicit. Britain seized the high ground with the 1807 Abolition Act, withdrawing from the trade in spite of self-interest and the mores of the time.
This lobby further claims that two centuries is far too long for blacks to maintain a state of victimhood that prevents pragmatic treatment of the real problems that afflict black communities in Africa and elsewhere. An apology is ridiculous, they say. As for reparations: how would they be paid, and to whom?
US President George W. Bush adopted the apologist position when his fulsome retrospective condemnation denounced slavery as 'one of the greatest crimes of history', and he paid tribute to the descendants of slaves. 'The very people traded into slavery helped to set America free,' he declared. His piety glossed over the facts that segregation officially continued until the 1960s, that racism is a clear factor in American life, and that statistics show that blacks are the most underprivileged social group.
With just a few words, Mr Bush silenced the American 'sorry' industry without achieving anything. His words had no impact on social ills that can only be corrected if the ruling elite faces up to uncomfortable truths about our layered and oppressive world - by drafting policy that benefits the poor and invests in society's exploited sections. But the presidential apology made excellent political capital. At the same time, it deflected attention from the real problems that the underclass in the American and African continents suffer today.
This is not to say that past wrongs should be shrugged off. Neither does it justify the vindicators, for the slave trade's dividend is daily manifest in western life. The processing and distribution of tobacco, sugar and cotton produced on plantations resulted in massive investments in European and American ports, quays, warehouses, factories and banks. Cities grew on the back of this trade. Europeans living in the centres of the slave trade - London and Amsterdam - salted away their profits in banks such as Lloyds, which financed slavery. They enjoy visiting the British Museum which started with a collection of 71,000 artefacts collected by Sir Hans Sloane with money made on his wife's Jamaican plantation. Britain's great liberal prime minister, William Gladstone, came from a family whose fortune was made from slavery.
So deeply is modern European life implicated in the trade that a simple 'sorry' sounds facetious.
Follow-up action to saying 'sorry' is hardly practical. It would demand an impossible balance sheet. How does one assess reparations for a company that began with the slave trade but is now a global corporation employing non-Europeans? For that matter, what about magnificent cultural institutions such as the British Museum? Should concert and theatre halls, literary trusts and publishing houses funded from slavery's profits all be abolished? Or should hypocrites take over so that an apology makes no difference to enjoying the fruits of inhumanity?
Slavery should be remembered for man's callousness to man. Using it as a political fig leaf to shroud present inequality compounds the wrong. What is required is not a 'sorry', but an effort to draw on historical memory to solemnly promise to end the multiplicity of exploitations that still exist.
The world wants constructive action, not token gestures.
Deep Kisor Datta-Ray is a London-based historian and commentator on Asian affairs