Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Monday, April 02, 2007

Against 'moral empire'

Priyamvada Gopal has an excellent article in today's Guardian on how we should be remembering the abolition of the slave trade. An extract:

This commemorative year is shaped by a contradiction: it emerges at a time when we are being enjoined to celebrate the legacies of the British empire and "British values". But recalling slavery renders this a somewhat fraught process. The solution is to separate slavery from empire, and to emphasise the ending of the slave trade rather than the continuation of exploitation by other means. Conveniently excised from this account is not only the fierce resistance put up by the enslaved and the colonised, but also the fact that 1807 did not mark the end either of slavery itself or of the exploitation of cheap labour.

Following formal emancipation in 1838 and appeals by owners, the sugar plantations of the Caribbean were productively worked by government-approved schemes of indentured labour - a form of debt bondage involving deception, pitiful wages, arduous and often fatal journeys, harsh working conditions, confinement, physical abuse and, in most cases, no promised return to the homeland. This is how millions of "coolies" - Indian and Chinese labourers - arrived in the Caribbean and parts of Africa. The history of slavery is inseparable from the history of empire: it is contradictory to celebrate the latter while claiming to condemn the former.

We know that government and politicians stop short of a full apology because they are aware of legal implications that would strengthen the case for reparations. Moreover, reparations themselves would force us to face up to the fact that the horrors of the past were not merely momentary lapses of moral judgment that can be redeemed through public enactments of remorse. They were systematic projects of national self-enrichment at the expense of other societies. A clear acknowledgement of this fact would deprive Britain of the cherished historical mantle of the "moral empire", the coloniser with a benevolent mission. Indeed, the argument that Britain would stamp out slavery was frequently invoked to make the moral case for colonising Africa.

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