17th June 2020
About fifty miles to the west of Accra in Ghana there is an ancient fort. It was staffed by a Spanish garrison and it was a god-forsaken outpost of civilisation. In the fort there was a holding dungeon where men, women and children were incarcerated prior to shipment to the Americas. The dungeon had a low ceiling and a chute down which the wretched captives were forced to slither before falling into the hold of the sailing vessel waiting below. The floor, when I visited this hell-hole, was hard and dark – the fossilised excrement of hundreds of terrified human beings.
The trafficked victims of this vile trade were the defeated losers in tribal wars, sold into slavery by victorious African Chieftains and transported to the plantations by English, Spanish and Portuguese `traders` who sold on the survivors of the grim crossings to settlers farming sugar, cotton and latterly tobacco. Many, of a variety of races, were complicit in this business and just before we rush to apportion blame we need, perhaps, to recall the history of man`s inhumanity to man. Enforced servitude goes back into the mists of time . Many of the world`s finest and most visited monuments were constructed on the end of a whiplash, starvation, deprivation and death and `civilisation`s` demand for diamonds, gold and other precious stones and metals has been satisfied on the back – literally – of slaves. Every life matters and we need to remember that in the context of recent events. While we may take some satisfaction at the enactment of Modern Slavery legislation the trafficking of humans, in the backs of stifling lorry containers and in cockleshell and unseaworthy boats crossing the English Channel, continues. The Morecombe Bay cockle pickers were effectively slaves and many illegal immigrants end their lives repaying, through enforced `employment` for zero wages or prostitution, the `debts` incurred as the price for their conveyance to a `better life`.
A black university professor much, much wiser than I said on television recently that ` You cannot influence the past but you can change the future`. That, I think, has to be the starting point for any rational and reasonable discussion about how we make progress.
Free speech and freedom of association are fundamental British rights but it is clear that some recent protests have been hijacked by extremists intent on violence. The attacks on the police and indiscriminate acts of vandalism that we have witnessed over the last fortnight are unacceptable in a free society. The tearing down and defacing of statues, may make a few people feel momentarily better but they are not going to get to the root of the problem. The former Soviet Union is littered with the toppled images of Joe Stalin and the fall of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Iraq was greeted with glee by the opponents of that oppressive regime but are the lives of the Russians and the Iraqis so very much better today than they were before the idols came tumbling down? As an aside, if we are to be pure and godly and not remotely hypocritical , are we going to demolish Thomas Guy`s hospital, deny Oxford students the Rhodes Scholarships that have funded so much Higher Education and ask the recipients of bursaries to pay back this indubitably ill-gotten money? Are thousands of young men and women of all races and worldwide going to be denied the opportunities of Scouting through the organisation founded by the man whose image at present sits staring across Poole Harbour towards Brownsea Island, Robert Baden-Powell?
It is only by example and by education that we shall change the world. We start from a much better place than, for instance, the United States. We may be a small island but over centuries we have attracted settlers from around the globe and we have become a melting pot for every race on earth. I have travelled quite widely and I have not seen, warts and all, another country that is as tolerant, as cosmopolitan and as accepting of all those arriving in goodwill as this United Kingdom. Of the fact that there are those on the hard right and on the hard left who seek to exploit the divides, material and racial, within our society for their own dark ends there can be no doubt. So we have to redouble our efforts to root out the last vestiges of inequality based upon `class` and colour and creed. And we have to ensure that the children and the grandchildren of Great Britain are taught and understand our history without trying to re-write it, to vow never to re-admit that which is bad and to be proud of that which is good.