The sins of our fathers

In a guest post, Claire Leigh is prompted by an old British prison in Ghana to consider whether we should really have colonial guilt – and in doing this,  draws parallels between the past and present inequalities of the global economy.

Inequality and injustice today implicates us all, either through our action or inaction. But what if the injustice is 300 years old?

A recent trip to Ghana led me to Cape Coast, a UNESCO world heritage site and home to the infamous Cape Coast Castle. For centuries the Castle was used as prison and port for thousands of slaves captured from the surrounding region and shipped to the Americas. Hundreds of slaves were crammed into each cell for up to six weeks and left to wallow in their own faeces and misery. At the same time the Castle acted as the administrative headquarters for British colonial activity in the Gold Coast, as Ghana was then known. Regular civil servants worked there.

My tour of the Castle aroused lots of different emotions. But as the only British person in the tour group it also presented me with a dilemma. Everyone present was horrified, appalled, sad. But as a British person, should I feel guilty? It’s one thing to say ‘this is monstrous, inhuman’; another to say it and in the process acknowledge that it was one’s own countrymen who were the monsters, who lost their humanity.

Three reasons to feel guilty

It’s hard to make the case that the sins of our forefathers should somehow be inherited by Brits alive today. But there are at least three other reasons why guilt may still be justified when standing in a cell at Cape Coast.

Firstly, there’s the fact that those countries who were the worst perpetrators of the Slave Trade- the Netherlands, Britain, the US, France, Portugal- are still among the world’s richest and most influential economies. This is no coincidence. Getting lots of stuff for free that you can then sell at huge prices over the course of many centuries is a sure path to riches, and the countries that first industrialised and still hold disproportionate economic sway did so partly on the back of forced foreign labour. And it’s no coincidence either that these countries still host the world’s major financial centres. All those ships required an elaborate system of capital loans and insurance that launched many of our largest financial firms and banks. It’s possible that every one of us in Britain today is a little bit richer because of what happened at Cape Coast and places like it all along the West African shoreline.

Secondly, we would be guilty if we didn’t teach this to our children. And we don’t. The ignoble parts of British history are conveniently left out of the curriculum in favour of Elizabeth I, Nelson, the Second World War. But it’s impossible to understand any of these episodes in our history without understanding what Elizabeth I began when she patronised those early explorations of the New World, or what was at stake when Nelson defended our naval predominance, or what Hitler was trying to do in Eastern Europe (and which country he was emulating). Slavery is an invisible thread connecting most of the major episodes of our past.

We need to accept the uncomfortable parts of British history as an inseparable part of the whole. Cape Coast naval captains and civil administrators worked in the same building as the slavers. You can bet the smell from the cells did make its way up to the church and the Governor’s rooms. To treat the bad stuff as an aberration and the good stuff as the norm is to repeat the same hypocrisy with which the Governor presumably entered the chapel each Sunday.

Thirdly, we would be guilty if we didn’t recognise parallels between this past and persistent features of the modern global economy. We know that in absolute terms there are more slaves working today than ever before. And we know that terrible labour conditions and unfair remuneration 1000s of miles away are still the real price of the cheap imported goods we all buy.  The commodities might have changed, from sugar and tobacco to cheap clothes, engagement rings and chocolate. But the inequalities inherent in a globalised economy that still insists on borders for things like laws and labour, and the way that lengthy and obscure global supply chains enable us to dodge personal responsibility while benefitting personally from those inequalities, bear many resemblances to the system at work in those early days of globalisation. Gone is the blatant, shameless exploitation of free labour. Gone are the shackles and the whips. The system has become more sophisticated, and more difficult to understand, but the dynamics at work are the same.

My tour guide at Cape Coast Castle had the amazing grace to conclude his tour with the words ‘Let’s not apportion guilt. No one can change the past. But the present and the future are in our hands. We now all have the opportunity to walk the path of righteousness.’ Guilt in itself is not a very helpful emotion unless it inspires us to be better than we are, based on recognition that we have not been all that we can be.

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