How African truths abolished British lies

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Toyin Agbetu famously protested against Tony Blair and the queen during the Westminster Abbey slavery commemoration. Here he writes about why he decided not just to sit back and watch.

On 27 March 2007 the three leading institutions of Britain gathered in Westminster Abbey to celebrate their role in what they describe as the abolition of the so called "slave trade". In an act of astonishing arrogance the British church, monarchy and government invited the descendants of both slavers and enslaved Africans to an orgy of hypocritical moral profligacy where they neglected to apologise, or reparate, for having led the crime for centuries before being forced by African freedom fighters to reform it.

Britain's involvement in Africans' enslavement did not cease after 1807. Instead the British introduced a new system of colonial oppression and exploitation which saw Africans remain physically enslaved for several decades, and African people on the continent deprived of their human rights and natural resources, in the name of a belligerent and brutish empire.

The Westminster Wilberfest celebration deliberately sought to make no mention of these and other injustices. The organisers of the jamboree saw no contradiction in ignoring the collective voice of the grassroots Pan African community in favour of entertaining a social, political and capitalist elite for whom the main focal point was the deification of independent Tory MP William Wilberforce.

Wilberforce was recruited into the Quaker anti-slavery movement by prime minister William Pitt. As the new public face for the anti-slavery movement Wilberforce was charged with a simple task. He was to transform the agenda of anti-slavery into one of anti-"slave trade" or at the very least a public campaign for the "gradual" abolition of slavery leading to colonial imperialism.

In 1807 he and the British government succeeded in their strategic objectives. Africans remained physically enslaved in British labour camps for another three decades, while the British public supported the "humanitarian" military campaign "justifying" attacks upon their foreign rivals for a supply of kidnapped Africans.

Previously, in 1799, Wilberforce had extended Pitt's Combination Act which prevented English workers from forming unions. Wilberforce suggested that those in poverty simply console themselves with the thought that life is "very short".

Following the passing of the "slave trade" act the anti-slavery movement began forcibly installing British visions of civilisation, Christianity and commerce alongside corruption, decadence and capitalism upon the continent of Africa. After 1807 the enslavement and forced transportation of captive Africans between Britain's colonies still continued until they were successfully challenged by the League of Nations in 1928. It was after this that Britain began its phased plans to guarantee neo-colonial control of African resources.

Some ask me, why attend the commemoration if I knew it would offend? To those people I explain that I have to remain optimistic as an anti-capitalist, Pan African, human rights activist. In all honesty I had no idea that the level of insults directed towards my ancestors would be so vociferous in its disrespect. In the run up to the service the church had chosen to make an apology of sorts for British slavery, despite not making reference to its own leading role. Naively I had hoped the representatives of the British government and monarchy would have the moral fortitude to follow the lead of the nation's moral flag bearer by making atonement for their sins. I was wrong.


Toyin is founder of the Ligali organisation, part of the Truth 2007 Coalition.