Tag Archives: slavery

The unpalatable cause of poverty

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As arguments rage over cuts in Britain’s international aid budget, Liberal Democrats could help expose some of the mechanisms which create and sustain poverty.  On Tuesday December 1st, that brand household name Nestle is going the U.S. Supreme Court to argue that it should be allowed to use slavery to farm and ship raw cocoa from west Africa in order to make our chocolate.

Let me repeat that.  Nestle, whose profits last year were $15 billion, insists it has a right to make money from slavery.  In technical terms, it wants to be granted corporate legal immunity.

I first reported on this dreadful practice of child slavery on west African cocoa farms in 2000 for the BBC. The confectionary industry executives with their plush offices and multi-million pound executive bonuses rounded on me, with accusations that I was inventing and fabricating. I wasn’t. The BBC supported the story. I went back to the Ivory Coast, Mali and Ghana time and time again.

Despite promises from confectionary companies and the British government, the culture of slavery and poverty did not only continue, it got worse. A recent U.S. Dept of Labor report found more than two million children were now working on the west African cocoa farms from which Nestle gets its supplies. Many of the children are trafficked, held against their will with no schooling or health care. They are victims of long-standing arrangements between governments and corporations to retain cheap or free labour in favour of high profits.

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The teaching of colonial history

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I have been championing the teaching of black and colonial history in schools for as long as I can remember and was a member of the task force set up in 2012 under Baroness Meral Ece on Race Equality in Education and Employment. Through learning about the impact and legacy of colonialism, we can forge a modern British identity, bridge past divisions as well as better inform Britain’s dealings with the rest of the world.

I had previously held a benign view of the Commonwealth legacy.  Today Singapore students rank in the top 3 places on OECD’s PISA league tables for schools, while 16 and 18 year olds still subscribe to the Cambridge board examinations. It meant I could, when aged 18, move with ease to London to study law.

The legacy of empire is controversial but the spread and use of the English language as the lingua franca is undoubtedly a positive.  The introduction of maritime trade links, development of ports and rail infrastructure are other commendable outcomes. There is also a “Commonwealth advantage” where countries with similar legal systems, professional training and a common language are better able to trade with each other across continents.

On the flip side (as the Black Lives Matter movement has brought into sharp focus), the slave trade promoted across the Atlantic between the 16th and 19th centuries has led to entrenched racism and inequalities. Though other colonial powers were involved, the British had played a key role in transporting 12.5 million Africans to plantations in the Americas, with some 2 million dying en route.  When the slave trade finally ended, it was the slave owners who were compensated, not the victims and their families.

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What is in a name? 

Lib Dem run Watford Borough Council this week voted unanimously to pass a motion in favour of reviewing our town’s street names with links to slave and colonial history.

The Black Lives Matter Campaign and others have rightly highlighted the harm slavery, indentured labour and exploitation inflicted on individuals and whole societies during the cruel period of slavery – the legacy of which continues to this day.

It is important to remember that sickness and destitution were rife amongst slaves, there was a significant need for acclimatisation for immigrants to any slave colony, however, many slave owners failed to do this and as a result thousands of slaves died within weeks of arrival.

Others eventually succumbed to the poor working conditions on plantations and within other slave roles. Slaves were literally worked to death.

As part of the slave trade whole families were imported from Hindu, Muslim, African and European cultures, living together in barracks in often squalid conditions with minimal privacy.

Many slaves committed suicide, with trade unions and strikes made illegal by the governments of the West Indies.

Even indentured slaves had to seek permission to leave their plantations, corporal punishments were enforced for crimes including insulting the plantation owner.

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After the statues – what next ? A Liberal way forward

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I have been sharing my experiences as a black Briton with my white friends. It has shown me that we need to educate our country on our past. We must develop our history curriculum and widen the outlook of our galleries and museums.

While it took a century to move from landowners voting to universal suffrage, in our digital age, change should be much swifter. We are an evolutionary not a revolutionary country. The Colston statue incident has shown us how the failure of democratic action results in the use of force.

As Liberals and Democrats, we should be proud that our country is all colours and religions and of no faith at all. The question is, how do we explain to all Britons how we got here? As Gary Younge pointed out in The Guardian, America’s sins are on show as they happened within her borders. In Britain’s case they happened mainly abroad, however the template was made in Ireland. Colonial Ireland with its plantations and dehumanising of the native population was a model that we exported to America. Discrimination is a legacy of a Christian nation justifying inhumane treatment with the pseudo science of race classification.

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Observations of an expat: A sad, bad history

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Queen Elizabeth I was appalled when she was told that Sir John Hawkins had gone into the slaving business. The venture “was detestable and would call down the vengeance from heaven upon the undertakers,” she said.

Then Hawkins showed her the accounts. The Queen immediately invested in his next slaving voyage. That pretty much sums up the English attitude towards slavery. It was “detestable.” But they held their noses because the trade made shedloads of money.

Slavery helped finance Britain’s industrial revolution and stately homes as well as providing the economic foundation stone of colonial America.

The British did not invent slavery. Historians estimate that 30  percent of the Roman Empire were slaves.  The difference is that the African slave trade was based on racial superiority which subsequent generations are still trying to shed.

The Portuguese were the first in modern times to deal in the African flesh. But by the end of the mid-fifteenth their Spanish neighbours had replaced them.  King Charles V insured Spanish dominance by selling the rights to a monopoly – the asiento – to provide African slaves to Spanish colonies.

If anyone other than the asentista tried to sell slaves in a Spanish colony the captain and crew could be tried as pirates. This did not stop  Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake. The two men are better known for capturing Spanish treasure ships, circumnavigating the globe and saving England from the Spanish Armada. But they were also England’s first slave traders.

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Reminders of the unspeakable inhumanity of slavery



Bermuda (UK) image number 431 graphic depiction of how slaves were kept below decks

This is the eighth of my posts based on a recent tour of the eastern half of the USA. I visited a number of sites relevant to African American history. To mark Black History Month, I am relating some of the things I saw, in the order I saw them.

I visited two sites which reminded me of the unspeakable inhumanity of slavery.
The Charles H Wright Museum of African American history is superb. From the very origins of humanity from one common mother, revealed via mitochondrial DNA, “And still we rise” tells the story of African Americans in great detail with very attractive displays.

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The underground road to precious freedom for black slaves

This is the sixth of my posts based on a recent tour of the eastern half of the USA. I visited a number of sites relevant to African American history. To mark Black History Month, I am relating some of the things I saw, in the order I saw them.

I had low expectations for Detroit. You hear stories about bankruptcy and violence. In fact, I found Detroit to be a wonderful city. It is beautifully spaced out. Rather than having all its prominent buildings in the centre of the city, they are spread out across the urban area. The heritage of the wealth of the automative industry has bestowed some wonderful buildings to Detroit.

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A belter of a TV programme on the family history of Noel Clarke

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Back in August, I waxed lyrically about the history which is reflected regularly in the BBC programme “Who do you think you are?”. I feel compelled to return to the subject, given the sheer awesomeness of the last episode in the current run of this BBC series.

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Wanted: Your views on slavery

“Slavery?” I hear you cry. “In this day and age?”

Sadly, slavery is still very much with us. And it’s not a problem found only in far away countries. It’s happening right here, right now, in Britain.

The extent of the problem and proposed remedies were set out in the Report of the Modern Slavery Bill Evidence Review, chaired by Frank Field MP and published on 16th December 2013.

The government is now proposing new legislation to tackle the problem. As part of the process of preparing this legislation, a Joint Committee on the Draft Modern Slavery Bill has …

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Opinion: Teresa May’s Right Hand doesn’t know what her Hard Right hand is doing

teresamayThe leaks from the Home Office of Tory plans over immigration, rightly shot down as illegal by Nick , are the mark of a Tory Party abandoning moderate politics to placate its increasingly vocal right wing.

But the juxtaposition of Tory isolationist leanings with yesterday’s official announcement from the home secretary on modern slavery exposes the total lack of joined up thinking within the Tories on trafficking & immigration.

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