Britain is right to celebrate the abolition of slavery, but must acknowledge excesses of empire

Roundup
tags: slavery, imperialism, britain



Alan Lester, Professor of Historical Geography, University of Sussex

Britain’s Anti-Slavery Day should remind us that – despite the country’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807 – the global trafficking and enslavement of people is still very much with us. When the country celebrated the bicentenary of its abolition of the slave trade in 2007 the government explicitly linked the celebration with reminders of the continuing problem of slavery and human trafficking. 

But for most people in Britain it was seen as an occasion to celebrate the fact that Britain – then the world’s most powerful country – had played the leading part in rendering slavery unacceptable across the world. The dominant narrative was that of a benevolent empire leading the globe in the establishment of humanitarian principles. And, while aspects of this narrative are true, 19th-century British policy also laid the foundations for the more troubling aspects of our modern humanitarian scene – an often patronising endeavour to meddle with the customs and belief of others, to make “them” more like “us”.

When you take a closer look, Britain’s humanitarianism was part of the very fabric of imperial expansion – and reflected all its ambivalence.

Britain’s anti-slavery campaigns enlisted activists who were encouraged to feel responsible for the plight of enslaved strangers in distant countries. These enslaved people were almost always depicted as helpless, passive and in need of help from more “advanced” Westerners.

These developments have been claimed by historians of both humanitarianism and human rights as a foundational moment – and yet this was far from a rights-based project and it was far from globally projected. The word “rights”, as in Tom Paine’s Rights of Man, in which individuals are entitled to rebel against governments which do not respect their natural rights, was anathema, both to British imperial officials and to most anti-slavery campaigners throughout this period. ...




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