The Dictatorship of Remembrance

25 Jun 2007

Why the Westminster Bells Did Not Ring At Notre Dame

“The central tenant of the commemorations is focused around european actions, gradually resolving european inactions by european politicians.”
- Toyin Agbetu, “Jesus Says Sorry: The Anatomy of a Political Apology for Slavery” p.16 - The Ligali Organisation, February 2006

“As we understand it, Plato’s “reason” is the denial of spirit. Reason functions to control the more “base appetites” and “instincts.” The European view of the human being begins to take shape here. It is a view that was to grow more dominant through centuries of European development and that was to become more and more oppressive in contemporary Western European society, where there is no alternative view offered. For Plato, self-mastery, like justice in the State, is achieved when reason controls.”
- Marimba Ani, Yurugu: An African-Centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behavior, p. 32.

This year marks the 200th Anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. On March 25th 1807, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act received royal ascent (became law). It is conservatively estimated that between the fifteen and the nineteenth century, 12 million enslaved Africans we forcibly taken across the Atlantic ocean in slavers ships to toil in plantation fields in the Americas. Three million of those enslaved African perished during the course of the infamous Middle Passage.

Much of the bicentenary’s commemoration has been focused around the celebrated British abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759-1833). A parliamentarian hailing from a wealthy British merchant family from Kingston-upon-Hull, Wilberforce began meeting with a group of a dozen men in 1787 inside a London printing shop with the goal of ending slavery throughout the British Empire. But while Wilberforce eventually succeeded in getting the Slave Trade Act passed in the House of Commons in 1807, slavers ships kept marauding the Western coast of Africa for several years until the Emancipation Bill of 1833.

But even then, the shackles would not be loosened.

After being granted a compensation of £20 million in government bonds ($2.2 billion in today’s term) [source: Adam Hochschild (2005) Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves], the plantation owners were allowed to keep their enslaved Africans as “apprentices” forced to work for no wages for their masters for up to six years. Then, on August 1st, 1838, the estimated 800,000 African men, women and children across the Empire were officially freed.

Guess who’s coming to Mass

Fast forward to March 25th, 2007 at London’s Westminster Abbey, where William Wilberforce is buried. The scene is the official Bicentenary commemoration ceremony of the 1807 Slave Trade Act attended by the Queen of England, Prime Minister Tony Blair, Church of England officials, and hundreds of Britain’s high society.

As the audience was being led into prayer for the confession and absolution of their sins, Toyin Agbetu, 39, a reporter and a campaigner for Ligali, an African-British human rights organisation, rose up in protest. In front of a stunned audience, he began shouting: "This is an insult to us." Turning his attention to the Queen and Tony Blair, he demanded that Britain apologise for the shame and injustice that the British Transatlantic Slave Trade was. He also condemned the African Christians present for taking part in the ceremony and urged them to walk out.


Much has been written in the months since Mr Agbetu’s headlining protest. But much than a mere PR bombshell, Mr Agbetu’s outburst tore at the very fabric of what continues to be an essentially Eurocentric bicentenary commemoration year.

In a paper that Toyin Agbetu wrote over a year ago entitled “Jesus Says Sorry: The Anatomy of a Political Apology for Slavery” through his organization, Ligali, Agbetu declares:

“We will not support and will actively campaign against any commemorative events themed around the actions of a eurocentric abolitionist movement until:

• The British government and church make a formal apology for their leading role in the institutionalisation of the forced enslavement and commercial exploitation of African people.

• The British government and church recognises and sanctions local government support for a national African Remembrance day (currently marked in August) incorporating a national call for three minutes silence at 3pm.”

From Subject to Agent: The Power to Define Reality

As the quotes at the beginning of this article from Toyin Agbetu and author Marimba Ani delineate, the struggle facing those committed to the proper commemoration of the millions of enslaved Africans who suffered through the Transatlantic Slave Trade is clear. It is to ensure that African people are seen as agents, rather than subjects, in their own fight for freedom. As Afrocentric scholar Molefi Kete Asante points out:

“Afrocentricity liberates the African by establishing agency as the key concept for freedom. I am most free when I am most active on the basis of my own volition. Even if I am active and believe myself to be free under the will of another, I am not truly liberated. … Furthermore, the opening of the cultural discourse to the topic of African agency pushed through the conception of African people as subject rather than object in the European experience. For the non-African, the Afrocentric idea positions intellectual discourse in the African agency that is often denied by Eurocentric conceptualizations of our roles.”
- Molefi Kete Ansante, The Afrocentric Idea. pp.21-22

What Toyin Agbetu was basically protesting at Westminster Abbey was the complete lack of recognition of the essential role that African people have played in the struggle for their own liberation. The disproportionate focus of the bicentenary’s commemorations on the role of William Wilberforce completely negates and devalues, for instance, the pivotal influence of the Haitian revolution of 1791-1804 in bringing about the end of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

The problem with any historiography is that it is often told and written by the victor, or at least by those with the power to define the prevailing paradigm.

The enduring mythology of that fateful day in 1787, under an old tree near Croydon, England (as portrayed in the 2006 film Amazing Grace) when the young Prime Minister to be William Pitt convinces the evangelical Wilberforce to lead the anti-slavery movement – as being the defining moment in the eventual freedom of enslaved Africans is an entirely Eurocentric pillar.

Even John Ralston Saul, in his book Voltaire’s Bastards, clearly warns against the Western tendency to rationalize history through self-interested reason:

“It is a general weakness of men delivering ideas that they are able to convince themselves their words represent a break with the past and a new beginning. In the early stages of a revolution, history is at its most malleable. Disorder and optimism combine to wipe out those truths artificially manufactured by the preceding regime. At the same time, they usually wipe out the memory of any inconvenient real events.”
- John Ralston Saul, Voltaire’s Bastards (The Dictatorship of Reason in the West). p.38

What commentators often fail to point out is that William Wilberforce was a staunch evangelical conservative who was very aware, and protective, of his privileged rank in British society. He was “against increasing the tiny number of Britons with the right to vote … and dismayed by members of the lower classes or women who questioned their assigned places in the social order.” [Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains, p.124]. Thus, it is questionable that Wilberforce would have been particularly sympathetic to the kind of anti-clerical liberation of African people happening in Hispagnola (Haiti) at the time or as eager to fight for social justice for the newly freed Africans.

Where were the bells at Notre Dame de Paris in 2004?

In his written declaration cited earlier, Toyin Agbetu refers precisely to the need for the British government to recognize a national African Remembrance day in August. Not a single European nation heeded UNESCO’s call to recognise August 23rd as the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. The date of August 23rd commemorates the landmark 1791 Haitian revolt of enslaved Africans against the French slavers. As Agbetu reports, while the British government allotted tens of millions of pounds to mark Wilberfest, a mere sum of £5,000 was granted to an inter-ethnic community organization towards commemorative events between 23 and 29 August, 2004.

The Haitian Revolution lasted from August 23rd 1791 to January 1st 1804. The catalyst for the revolution was a particular Vodou ceremony in August 1791 performed at Bois Caïman by a charismatic spiritual figure known as Boukman. They slit the throat of a pig, drank its blood and swore death to all French colonials. After 13 years of bloody rebellion, on January 1st, 1804, the leader or the first Black republic in modern history, Jean-Jacque Dessalines, gathered the people around him at the city of Gonaïve’s Place D’Armes and declared that Haïtians were now a free people. The revolution in Haiti inspired many other enslaved Africans’ uprisings throughout the Spanish possessions, other Caribbean nations and in Louisiana. The Haitian Revolution can even be credited for the Louisiana Purchase in April of 1803 since the French, aware of their loosening grip on the Caribbean, saw less of an interest in struggling to keep Louisiana.

Every January 1st , while most people celebrate New Year’s Day, Haitians around the world traditionally enjoy and share amongst them a pumpkin soup called “soup joumou” in Kreyol. During the slavery days in Haiti, only the French colonists could enjoy this delicious soup. The enslaved Africans, for their part, had to make due with bread soup. So symbolically, on January 1st 1804, in the city of Gonaïves, Dessalines ensured that a huge supply of soup joumou was available for everyone present to enjoy. It was also a sign of unity.

The real significance and impact of the Haitian Revolution is that it was conceived, carried out, and assumed entirely by enslaved Africans. The European powers were not the catalysts nor the agents of change. As a result, the new nation has been isolated and the subject of scorn and prejudice by the world ever since.

In 1825, Haiti was even forced to pay reparations to France for the losses of its slaveholders to the tune of 90 million gold francs (a value of $21 billion USD today). For a hundred years, Haiti had to pay monetarily for its own independence.

It is therefore little wonder that, on the bicentenary of Haiti’s successful enslaved peoples’ revolt in 2004, the French government did not have a lavish ceremony in Notre Dame cathedral in Paris to commemorate. This freedom fight had not been waged on their own terms. Europe was not the agent of change.

As we observe the Bicentenary of the British Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, let us be mindful that Haitian Revolution marked the first time in that era when “whites saw a slave revolt so massive they could not suppress it, and for the first time blacks saw that it was possible to fight for their freedom and win.” (Hochschild, Bury the Chains).

In commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, The Canadian Association of Black Journalists presents: Toyin Agbetu, the political activist who shouted down the Queen and Prime Minister Tony Blair during Britain''s bicentenary service, in conversation with Toronto Star Columnist Royson James.

Thursday July 5th, 7pm
Oakham House - 55 Gould St.
Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
Admission: $15
FREE to CABJ members.

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