Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Time Flies: the generations since slavery

This photo is one of many showing four generations of the Royal Family taken at the beginning of the twentieth Century. Queen Victoria was born in 1819 and the little boy at her side became Edward VIII and lived until 1972. 150 years in four generations. My own grandmother has six great-grand children of her own and their cumulative life span will doubtless be even greater.

On Sunday William Wilberforce’s great-great-great granddaughter (six generations), now in her 60s gave an interview on Songs of Praise talking about her ancestor’s work in abolishing the UK slave trade two hundred years ago. Andrew Hawkins, a descendent (fifteen or sixteen generations?) of the ‘pioneering’ slave trader from the sixteenth century Sir John Hawkins also appeared on the programme.

When we argue over whether we should apologise for the UK’s role in the slave trade two hundred years plus can seem like an eternity ago and an apology anathema. Place four generations of people in the same photo and two hundred years passes in the flash of a camera bulb. We all know what an impact our early years have on our development and attitudes in later life. Our grandparents are often important influences and figures in our lives and they are passing down lessons and teachings that they absorbed as children themselves.

Widen the picture to society in general – the institutions, the attitudes, the vested interests and the power structures and it becomes far clearer that we live daily in worlds shaped by the actions of our ancestors, both good and ill. Walk around Bristol, Glasgow and Liverpool and the grand merchant housing and buildings staring out into the Atlantic give a poignant reminder about the foundations of our wealth; the bricks and mortar symbol of intangible injustice.

Maybe we don’t need to apologise for the UK’s role in the slave trade – at least not at first. We need to understand our own history and more importantly acknowledge that we, as individuals cannot separate ourselves from it. The Israelites of the Old Testament understood this. The biblical book of Exodus says that “I the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments”. Sins and injustices perpetrated by others affect us down the generations unless we choose to break out from them.

The Greek word ‘repent’ in the Bible doesn’t just mean ‘apologise’ – it means turn around and start walking the other way. Maybe the reason we as a nation struggle to acknowledge our history is that by facing up to it we would be called to act today – to break down and speak out against unjust economic, social and political power structures where we see them, knowing that we might discover that down the generations we have benefited from those same structures more than we would like to think.