In 1999, Liverpool City Council formally apologised for the City’s participation in the slave trade. The seaport city, which served as Britain’s primary slave port during the 18th century, felt compelled to express its regret for the impact the Euro-American trade had on millions of people around the world. Some scoffed at the apology, claiming it was too little, too late.
In 2006, during a commemorative event for the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, Tony Blair expressed deep regret and sorrow for Britain’s participation in the transatlantic trade. He acknowledged the “unbearable suffering” it caused and called it a “profoundly shameful” chapter in British history.
In the same year, former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone apologised for London’s role in human enslavement. Speaking at London’s first annual Slavery Memorial Day ceremony, he choked up as he recounted the cruel abuses endured by slaves in Britain’s Caribbean colonies.
The Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in 2020 moved various British institutions, such as the Bank of England and the Church of England, to release statements acknowledging their past associations with the slave trade and pledging financial support to Black and minority ethnic communities.
All of the above are usually regarded as inadequate or dismissed as not going far enough. The year 2023 sees a resurgence of calls for the United Kingdom to apologise again for its role in the historical institution of slavery. There were demands for the British monarchy to apologise for their involvement in the Middle passages in the run-up to King Charles’ coronation at Westminster Abbey.
Some of the heirs of Britain’s wealthiest slave owners have urged the Government to both apologise and institute a programme of reparative justice. There are numerous arguments for and against reparations, with some claiming that Britain was built on slave labour and thus owes a debt not only to descendants of slaves but also to taxpayers whose money was used to compensate slave traders and owners. Others raise doubts regarding the feasibility of such a procedure, as well as its social and ethical implications.
There is a lot of nuance in this area, and whether or not one agrees, the arguments of concerned groups should be heard. However, when it comes to repeatedly calling for your nation to “say sorry” for its past sins, there has to come a time when we draw a line in the sand.
When Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy pressed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to make a formal apology for slavery, she claimed that previous leaders had “only ever expressed sorrow or deep regret.” It is puzzling that these don’t qualify as apologies, given that the main dictionary definition of “apology” is a regretful acknowledgment of an offence or an expression of regret – all of which have been done numerous times by various British institutions.
Nonetheless, what is the likelihood that a “formal apology” will be accepted if it is made in the exact manner that some demand? Will the admission of guilt lead to a new chapter and a collective sigh of relief from those on both sides of the debate, or will the apology itself continue to draw complaints and criticism? The latter happened in the Netherlands. In 2022, the Dutch State officially apologised for its role in colonisation and the trafficking of humans during the 17th and 18th centuries.
“Slavery must be acknowledged as a crime against humanity in the clearest terms,” according to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. But once more, this was deemed as once again insufficient and even described as having a “colonial feel” by many critics who argued that the relevant communities were not properly consulted prior to the announcement. Some interest groups reportedly expressed dissatisfaction with the apology’s timing, preferring that it was delivered on a date of their choosing.
The biggest barrier to the acceptance of apologies or their ability to serve as a means of restoration is the recipient’s fixation on establishing trivial criteria that would constitute an ideal apology or scrutinising the way the apology was delivered, rather than accepting its authenticity and the accompanying commitment to remedial action. In modern society, victimhood has acquired considerable social value, and the fight against racism and white supremacy has become an economically viable endeavour for many. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that those who vociferously demand apologies and reconciliation on behalf of affected groups are willing to indeed move on from these historical incidents.
And moving on does not, of course, imply forgetting or pretending that these atrocities never happened, but “for some groups, the historic experience of racism still haunts the present, and there is a reluctance to acknowledge that the UK has become open and fairer.” Staying in a single time period indefinitely is not a good idea, especially if it distorts our perception of the present, much like wearing a pair of glasses with a permanent tint. It prevents us from having a clear perspective and breeds a type of negativism that maintains that not much has changed and is likely to change in the future.
It is important to remember that the purpose of an apology is to promote healing, not to undo the past. If an apology is made but the pain persists, this does not imply that the apology was not sincere. The triangular trade era was truly horrific, and the memories of it continue to haunt many people and our country as a whole. It isn’t fair to ask people to simply move on and stop bringing up history; on the other hand, it is counterproductive to allow one’s past to consume them and prevent them from moving forward.
Despite the negative connotations the word “forgiveness” now carries, it is crucial if we are to move forward as a society and cooperate in good faith to find solutions to the many problems that continue to plague different sectors of the population.
Ada Akpala is the founder of Different Voice Initiative. It is a space for learning to help people navigate in this world of uncertainty and disorder.