Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Of apologists and apologies

A slave ship - today marks the 200th anniversary of the British abolition of the slave trade

The British intellectual James Boswell, (1740-1795) when remembered at all, is best known for being the biographer of Samuel Johnson, who was inventor of the Dictionary among other things. Indeed, Boswell's 1791 Life of Samuel Johnson is regarded by some as the best biography ever written. Less well known about - indeed there is currently no mention of it whatsoever on his Wikipedia entry (something that I may well get round to fixing at some point) is his defence of the barbaric Atlantic slave trade and slavery. Indeed, in 1791, the same year as his celebrated biography of Johnson came out, he wrote a poem entitled 'No abolition of slavery, or the universal empire of love'. Ostensibly a love poem, its first lines are:

Most pleasing of thy sex,
Born to delight and never vex;
Whose kindness gently can controul
My wayward turbulence of soul.

Yet what follows is really a rant at those abolitionists trying to end the barbarism of the slave trade, as the title suggested. Other passages note:

Let COURTENAY sneer, and gibe, and hack,
We know Ham's sons are always black;
On sceptick themes he wildly raves,
Yet Africk's sons were always slaves;


But should our Wrongheads have their will,
Should Parliament approve their bill,
Pernicious as th' effect would be,
T' abolish negro slavery,
Such partial freedom would be vain,
Since Love's strong empire must remain.

A poem that is ostensibly about the 'empire of love' turns out to be actually about a love of empire. It ends:

My charming friend! it is full time
To close this argument in rhime;
The rhapsody must now be ended,
My proposition I've defended;
For, Slavery there must ever be,
While we have Mistresses like thee!

It is not known whether the one for whom this 'love poem' was intended was impressed by such racist doggerel, but in any case in his Life of Johnson Boswell spelled out his argument in more depth:

'The wild and dangerous attempt which has for some time been persisted in order to obtain an act of our legislature, to abolish so very important and necessary branch of commercial interest, must have been crushed at once, had not the insignificance of the zealots who vainly took the lead in it, made the vast body of Planters, Merchants, and others, whose immense properties are involved in that trade, reasonably enough suppose that there could be no danger. The encouragement which the attempt has received excites my wonder and indignation; and though some men of superior abilities have supported it, whether from a love of temporary popularity, when prosperous; or a love of general mischief, when desperate, my opinion is unshaken. To abolish a status which in all ages GOD has sanctioned, and man has continued, would not only be robbery to an innumerable class of our fellow-subjects; but it would be extreme cruelty to the African Savages, a portion of whom it saves from massacre, or intolerable bondage in their own country, and introduces into a much happier state of life; especially now when their passage to the West Indies and their treatment there is humanely regulated. To abolish that trade would be to shut the gates of mercy on mankind.'

Today, such past apologetics for the slave trade and slavery are quietly hushed up - the complicity of the whole British ruling class in the affair - the worst crime in British history - is distinctly embarrassing. 'Stop apologising!' screams the Tory commentator Simon Jenkins, describing how he 'cheered when a descendent of the Bristol slaver, Pinney, refused to apologise for the deeds of his forefathers'. What conservatives of all stripes want us to do is forget the whole affair - they know above all that 'Great' Britain, or their green and pleasant land of England, might be tarnished or complicated by such unpleasant and brutal realities. Nationalism is an ideology which has to be constantly produced and reproduced to survive - it depends on myths, on the ideal of national unity - despite that fact that nations are always imagined communities designed to help our rulers shore up hierachical divisions of race, class and power.

Yet we have plenty of modern equivalents of Boswell today, opportunist intellectuals prepared to prostrate themselves before the rich and powerful, even if it means defending the indefensible in the process. In 2003, the Blairite warmonger Denis Macshane argued that 'It is time for the elected and community leaders of the British Muslims to make a choice – the British way, based on political dialogue and non-violent protests, or the way of the terrorists, against which the whole democratic world is uniting.'

The reason why we should remember the horrors of colonial slavery and the barbarism of the slave trade it seems to me - and the reason why the heads of states, and heads of institutions and corporations who profited hugely from the trade should be made to apologise - is precisely because without such collective memories the most pernicious and racist ideals of nationalism can take hold and spread, encouraged by New Labour scum like Macshane. 'The British way' as experienced by millions of Africans and people of African descent for generations was not one of 'dialogue', 'democracy' and 'non-violence' but one of suffering under regimes of state terror. The British Empire was one of the greatest instruments of tyranny and oppression ever - and it was an historic victory for democracy when it was finally brought down. Those who resisted this Empire were demonised as 'terrorists' - and I am sure had Macshane been around in 1819 to hear the son of a Jamaican slave, Robert Wedderburn defend the moral right of slaves to murder their masters to cheers from a British working class audience, he would have defended those who sent Wedderburn to jail for sedition in 1820. Had Macshane witnessed another Jamaican son of a slave, William Davidson, help organise the Cato Street Conspiracy to try to put Wedderburn's ideas into practice, he would have been to the fore in cheering him, along with the countless unknown other slaves who rebelled against slavery, to the gallows to be hung.

Davidson's speech in court was superb, and his words ring down the ages to us today with all their power:

'It is an ancient custom to resist tyranny... And our history goes on further to say, that when another of their Majesties the Kings of England tried to infringe upon those rights, the people armed, and told him that if he did not give them the privileges of Englishmen, they would compel him by the point of the sword... Would you not rather govern a country of spirited men, than cowards?'

It is not too difficult to imagine how today's Blairites might answer that one.

Some further reading on slave trade abolition

The revolt against slavery - an excellent Socialist Worker supplement featuring articles by Adam Hochschild, Charlie Kimber, Yuri Prasad and Marika Sherwood.
Slaves and Slavery 1807-2007 by Marika Sherwood.
CLR James and The Black Jacobins by David Renton
Why I am saying sorry for London's role by Ken Livingstone.
Man's unconquerable mind by Paul Foot
Anti Slavery International on the slave trade
A Free Man - Toussaint L'Ouverture by Laurent Dubois

My past posts on the topic

Who abolished the slave trade?
On remembering Toussaint L'Ouverture
Winston Churchill on the benefits of slavery
Blair and the anniversary of abolition
Eric Williams on Emancipation

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At 9:31 am, Anonymous tuxedo tails said...

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At 9:42 am, Anonymous Thomas Frandzen said...

Boswell's attitude towards slaves is an interesting subjects, and I don't think that present day scholars agree entirely on what his views really were and how his "No abolition of slavery" should be interpreted.

I am webmaster of the Boswellian ressource jamesboswell.info, and I am currently working on an article about just this subject. I may link to your post as well as an example of the on-going discussion on this.

Best wishes,


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