Remembering the Slave Trade and its Abolition – A personal reflection

August 23, 2023

by Celestine Greenwood

Today, 23rd August 2023, the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, we are exhorted to remember the victims and freedom fighters of the past so that we may be inspired to build just societies.

Today, Charles Gladstone and various members of his family, all descendants of Britain’s four-time Prime Minister and famous son of Liverpool, William Gladstone, will be in Guyana to make a formal apology for their ancestors’ ownership of Africans. William Gladstone’s father, John, was one of the largest slave owners in the ‘British West Indies’ and was richly compensated for the loss of his ‘property’ (human beings) when slavery in the British Empire was abolished in 1833.

Today, in my home city of Liverpool people will be conducting a Walk of Remembrance through the city.

Today I continue to learn about and reflect upon how, almost 200 years after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, my life is tied to our history of slavery and how the tropes and prejudices that fed the evil of slavery continue to disadvantage black and other minority ethnic people and exclude them from the opportunities and experiences that have so enriched my life.

Recently, I have been listening to The Guardian podcast ‘Cotton Capital’ in which research commissioned to expose the newspaper’s connections with slavery is described over six compelling episodes. Amongst other matters, this made me think about my Chambers in Liverpool and its name – Exchange. Formerly the Liverpool site of Chambers was at Exchange Flags. A quick internet search, or watching series one of David Olusoga’s BBC documentary series “A House Through Time”, reveals that the square we know as ‘Exchange Flags’ was given its name because in the 1800s traders in cotton imported from the U.S., amongst other commodities, would meet there to trade and ‘exchange their cards.’ Indeed, the city I call home, Liverpool, was literally built on the proceeds of slavery. By the mid-1700s Liverpool had usurped Bristol as ‘the Port of the Empire’ and was a key part of the trade triangle between Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas, and the UK, bringing enormous wealth to some in the city and elsewhere.

Everywhere I look there is some reminder of this history.

Another link to our history of slavery can be found in the most banal area, the payment of taxes. When the British government agreed to pay out £20 million pounds, equivalent to approximately £16 Billion today, in compensation to slave owners, three quarters of that sum had to be raised through loans. Remarkably, those loans were only finally repaid in 2015 meaning that tax monies I have paid have funded reparations for those who committed this most egregious of crimes.

No reparations have yet been made on our collective behalf by the British government to the descendants of those who managed with Herculean strength of character to survive the ordeal of the “Middle Passage” and the inhumanity of living in slavery. Perhaps it is time to right this wrong.

It is certainly well past time to deconstruct the institutions of our society that perpetuate the exclusion and marginalisation of certain peoples, including the descendants of slaves. We can start by taking action to ensure that youth from these communities are able to access good quality education, are able to access opportunities to pursue the role in society they choose, including the professions. We must ensure they have access to well-paid, decent work, to good quality affordable housing and to good quality healthcare.

We can acknowledge that the law, in its institutions, its substance and its processes, continues to exclude and mistreat black and other minority ethnic people. More than that, we can set about changing this. It is (well past) time to act.