Saturday, 17 March 2007

Abolition: Update I

Brent Council’s Black & Asian Staff Forum organised a very well-attended talk programme on March 14 2007 at Brent Town Hall on the theme: ‘Turning Negatives Into Positives’. Kwaku was invited to speak on the topic of Abolition. Starting from the first visit to the coast of west Africa by Europeans in the 1470s, he touched on many of the points covered in the Handy Events Summary found below in this blog. Although one must accept that there can be no excuse for the heinous crime of slavery, in line with the theme of the programme, to round off his talk, Kwaku asked the audience to quickly jot down issues they found positive or negative from the slavery to abolition narrative. The feedback is itemised below.

One person noted that more should have been said about the African freedom fighters, such as Sam Sharpe. Each area within the so-called ‘New World’ has its share of freedom fighters, from Nana (Nanny) the Maroon in Jamaica, Kofi in Guyana, Bussa in Barbados, etc. Also, some people asked about books and other resources to improve their knowledge on the subject.

First of all, the libraries provide a useful and free resource, as does the internet, though the latter requires caution to be exercised. A few websites are highlighted in the ‘Was William Willberforce REALLY An Anti-abolition Pioneer?’ blog below. For those that are interested, the book I gave out, it is entitled ‘Made In Britain: inspirational role models from British Black and Minority Ethnic communities’ (Steve D’Souza & Patrick Clarke) (Pearson £9.99).

A new book coming out this month, which I’ll be buying at because it is being offered at half price is ‘The Oxford Companion To Black British History’ (David Dabydeen & Cecily Jones) (Oxford University Press £30). There is the perennial tome ‘Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain: Black People in Britain Since 1504’ (Peter Fryer) (PlutoPress !8.99). The following self-descript titles may be of interest: The Trader, the Owner, the Slave: Parallel Lives in the Age of Slavery by James Walvin; The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman (Born 1789 - Buried 2002) by Rachel Holmes; The Great Abolition Sham: The True Story of the End of the British Slave Trade by Michael Jordan; The Unfree French: Life Under the Occupation by Richard Vinen; Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005 by J.M. Coetzee; Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism by Christopher Leslie Brown; Abolition!: The Struggle to Abolish Slavery in the British Empire by Richard Reddie; Black Ivory: Slavery in the British Empire by James Walvin; The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings (Penguin Classics) by Olaudah Equiano; A Short History of Slavery by James Walvin; and Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery by Adam Hochschild.

Finally, Ms Serwah was invited on March 16 2007 to give two separate talks on the Abolition to journalism students at City University. Though their questions showed an interest in the subject, the revelation at the start of each talk that these students were generally unaware of the commemoration of the abolition of the slave trade, the African freedom fighters, or even William Wilberforce or the currently promoted film ‘Amazing Grace’, has led Kwaku and Ms Serwah to think about producing a short film, which shows the Abolition narrative in an engaging manner – to be kept informed on programmes of this project, you can join our mailing list be emailing (subject line: please add me to your mailing list).

Another form of exploitation began after slavery was abolished, which was colonisation
Black race/people undervalued
Dehumanisation of the African
Destroyed families and cultures
Enforced labour
Forced removal from homeland
Had the abolitionists made a case that the Africans had been kidnapped, perhaps millions would have been saved/freed sooner
Lack of self-worth
Loss of lives
Loss of self confidence
Lost relatives
Mental slavery still persists
No belonging
No home
No land
No money/payment
No reparations
Post 1807 abolition of slave trade - people were killed/thrown overboard to avoid fines from the illegal trade in slave trafficking
Post 1807 abolition of slave trade – slavery still continued
That there was no law against slavery, but there was a law against kidnapping, and the Africans were kidnapped
The trade has stopped, but it is still an issue within our lives
Undermined the black race

Africa has a vast and rich history - slavery was an odious crime against humanity – however Africa’s history is much wider than just slavery
Culture/diversity brought to different countries outside of Africa
Determination to make the most of the freedom acquired
In the long run, the trade and slavery were abolished
Increased cultural awareness
Movement of our people – a widened African diaspora
Resilience: ‘(Something Inside) So Strong’
Shared history
Slavery to be remembered, but strength taken from it for us to move on
To be proud of being black
We need to familiarise ourselves and educate ourselves about history, and take control of our lives


Correcting History: Too Much Music And Dance Dilutes Black History Month

Opinion piece by Kwaku published by New Nation Nov. 13 2006 p.8

Having just celebrated another Black History Month (BHM), and with next year being the 20th anniversary of BHM in Britain and the 200th anniversary of the Slave Trade Act, which abolished the British slave trade, I feel moved to turn the focus towards how we can be empowered by these landmark events.

My local newspapers, and other publications, have described BHM as a celebration of black culture, black history and culture, or black and Asian, and sometimes ethnic minority, cultures. I contend that they are wrong. Why?

Let’s go to the genesis of BHM. Dr Carter G Woodson started it in 1926 as Negro History Week, because he found very little black representation within American history books. BHM was launched in Britain in 1987 by the now defunct Greater London Council’s London Strategic Policy Committee (LSPC).

The reasons October was chosen include the fact that it is the month that generally marks the end of harvest across west Africa, and is a period of reconciliation and reflection. BHM was launched within the context of the African Jubilee Year, which covered August 1987 to July 1988.

The Jubilee was also launched by the LSCP, with a pro-Africanist declaration, which included anti-apartheid, anti-racist commitments, and focus on promoting positive images and understanding of Africans and people of African descent.

This background puts my stance into context. Most BHM programmes are overwhelmingly represented as a cultural event, in short, a time for singing, dancing, and drumming. I am not against these activities – after all, I’m the founder of the Black Music Congress (BMC). I love music and performance, and I believe culture forms an important part of history.

However, my beef is that the import of BHM has been diluted. The end result of many of these cultural events are devoid of a historical context, and only re-affirm the stereotype that black people are good at singing, drumming and dancing. What do we take with us after attending such events? Great entertainment, but very little focus on history, to challenge and inspire minds.

It’s relatively “easy” to pull crowds with cultural events - a celebrity here, a singer there, and people flock in to be entertained. So I salute those that persevere with history-based events, which generally don’t draw huge audiences.

Why? Is it because we don’t like to be mentally stimulated, or don’t like history? That said, Robin Walker’s ‘When We Ruled’ book launch and question and answer session on African history at Harlesden Library was ram-packed.

BMC and BTWSC organised the Brent Black Music History Discussion in Brent and The N-Word & Insidious Racism Debate in Harrow. These talks programmes had good attendances, without celebrities to promote them. October should be the month when British society see black people with fresh eyes and respect, because of the role they have played, and continue to play, not just in the arts and sports, but other fields of endeavour, such as finance and the sciences.

BHM has a practical function, which benefits both black and non-black people. I find many BHM events regaling about great achievements, such as the pyramids in northern Africa, or the great kings and queens that have come out of Africa. This is all well and good, but it can sometimes be tokenistic. The driving reason of such commemorations should be aimed at educating the whole community. But more specifically, to instil some self-worth, confidence and aspiration within the black community, particularly the youth.

Look at the educational indices. Africans and African-Caribbeans usually figure around the bottom. Look at prisons - we are over-represented. Whilst the reasons are multi-faceted, the lack of self-worth and positive imagery, have been shown to be contributory factors. It is for this reason that I believe BHM should be focused on history, specifically African or African-Caribbean. Not only because the Jubilee declaration, within which BHM was launched here, was African-centred, but also because the positivity instilled can only enrich the whole community – less ASBOs and prison sentences, more reason for staying in school or pursing one’s true potential.

This year, the Harrow BHM Forum funded BHM events that were history-focused, and also highlighted black scientists and inventors. During the ‘N-Word & Insidious Racism Debate’, we awarded the BTWSC Black S/Heroes Award 2006 to Ghanaian mathematician and physicist Professor Francis KA Allottey. We also launched the Prof. Allotey Science Prize, which will go to a Harrow secondary school student of African descent.

Here is an example of how we can use BHM to empower us – we learn about a giant in the sciences – the Allotey Formalism method of determining matter in space is named after the Ghanaian scientist, and we use the Prize to encourage science take up among our youths, who at school are routinely directed into the arts and sport, whether or not they’re best suited to these fields. That in itself is a form of insidious racism.

I think the 200th anniversary of the British abolition of the slave trade, should not be a time for mindless celebration, but rather, serious reflection. One of the issues I wish we’d ponder upon is how we identify ourselves.

Those slaves were Africans. Isn’t it funny how some of their descendants, whether born in the Caribbean, Britain or the Americas, are happy to call themselves by the N-word, but find it offensive to be referred to as Africans?

I know the New Nation has made an effort by referring to black people as African Caribbean. It’s a start, but I say, let the significance of the 200th anniversary be the time that black people of African descent describe themselves simply as Africans, or similarly to the Americans, as African-British. Remember Peter Tosh’s words: “No matter where you come from, as long as you’re a black man, you’re an African.”

Finally, arts minister David Lammy, who’s overseeing the nation’s 2007 commemoration plans, recently hinted that the teaching of slavery could become part of the school curriculum. What I’d add is that there’s a form of slavery which no curriculum or BHM event will change, if we do not have self-worth, and grounding in who we are as individuals and a people. To quote another Wailer, Bob Marley: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.”

The Role Of Africans Overlooked In Anti-slavery Campaign

Opinion piece by Ms Serwah published in The Voice Mar. 12-18 2007, p.11 & 14

As Britain reflects on the abolition of the slave trade, the Africans who spearheaded the end of the Maafa (Kiswahili term that describes the African holocaust), and the slave revolts, particularly those led by Toussaint Louverture in Haiti and Sam Sharp in Jamaica, are largely overlooked. The planned Abolition Of Slave Trade Act celebrations/commemorations are overwhelmingly focused on William Wilberforce. Why is the spotlight not on the likes of Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano, who campaigned against the maafa, or even the Quakers or Thomas Clarkson?

There appears to be confusion between The Slave Trade Act passed in 1807, and the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act, particularly as some ill-informed sections of the media compound the situation by referring to the commemorations as the “abolition of slavery”. The ‘Amazing Grace’ movie seems to add to the confusion by portraying William Wilberforce as an anti-slavery pioneer, when in fact he was against the immediate abolition of slavery.

According to historical accounts, the Society of Friends (Quakers), began the British campaign to end the slave trade, and presented the first anti-slavery petition to parliament on 17 June 1783. In 1787 the Quakers helped form the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The twelve founding members included nine Quakers, and Anglicans Granville Sharp, and Thomas Clarkson, who was known as the architect of the campaign and founding father of the anti-slavery movement in Britain.
In 1787, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, a freed African slave living in England published ‘Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Commerce of the Human Species’, which stirred public opinion against the slave trade.

At the time, only members of the Church of England (Anglicans) could take up seats in the British parliament. Some accounts credit Sir Charles and his wife Lady Middleton with persuading Wilberforce (originally an Anglican) to lead the parliamentary campaign. Other accounts credit Thomas Clarkson. What is not in issue is that William Wilberforce was persuaded to join the campaign, and he made his first parliamentary speech against the slave trade in 1789.

Whilst the likes of Thomas Fowell Buxton argued that the only way to end the suffering of slaves was to abolish slavery, Wilberforce disagreed. He pointed out in a pamphlet he wrote in 1807 that: "It would be wrong to emancipate (the slaves). To grant freedom to them immediately would be to insure not only their masters' ruin, but their own. They must (first) be trained and educated for freedom…” . How would we react today to the argument that to immediately free women who have been trafficked for prostitution purposes would ruin those who trafficked them?

In 1824, Wilberforce opposed Elizabeth Heyrick, a key figure in the formation of women’s Anti-Slavery Societies, who published ‘Immediate not Gradual Abolition’ in which she argued for the immediate emancipation of slaves.
With the passing of The Slave Trade Act in 1807, British captains risked a fine of £100 for every slave found on board their ships. When they were in danger of being caught by the British navy, captains often ordered the slaves to be thrown overboard. This situation would have been avoided, if slavery and the slave trade were abolished at the same time.

Should we elevate those whose arguments against the immediate abolition of slavery contributed to thousands of Africans being thrown overboard between 1807, when the Slave Trade Act made trafficking of slaves illegal and 1833 when slavery was abolished?

Thankfully, Wilberforce was eventually persuaded to join the anti-slavery campaign, but as he retired from Parliament in 1825, he did not play a pivotal role in the passing of the Abolition of Slavery Act. It seems a betrayal to Africans to dismiss their contribution, and highlight William Wilberforce as an anti-slavery pioneer.

Conservative estimates put the number of Africans who died as a result of the slave trade at 20 million, more than three times the number of Jews who died through the holocaust. As we reflect on 200 years since the abolition of the slave trade, let us ensure that the truth, no matter how uncomfortable, is told. We should also reflect on why it took the British public so long to express outrage about the dehumanisation, kidnapping, and inhuman enslavement of Africans.

Ms Serwah
Spreading The Gospel Of Self-empowerment

Opinion piece by Kwaku published in The Voice, Feb. 26-Mar. 4 2007, p.11

As the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Abolition Of The Slave Trade Act approaches, two issues particularly exercise my mind.

Please allow me to dip into the Wailers’ songbook to make my points. Peter Tosh sang: “No matter where you come from, as long as you’re a black man, you’re an African.” Bob Marley urged us to “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery,” as “none but ourselves can free our minds.”

After the noise regarding coins, postage stamps, conferences, concerts, seminars and other abolition ceremonies has subsided, it is worth reminding ourselves that those we mourn were Africans. Hence, let the significance of the bicentennial anniversary be that black people of African descent reclaim their identity by describing themselves simply as Africans, or as African-British. People of Asian descent born in Britain, or who came from east Africa, call themselves Asians, even though they may never have visited the Indian sub-continent.

In addition, the term black, has become almost meaningless. It was a construct for political expediency and funding reasons, particularly in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But now, one can almost fit any non-Caucasian under the term black!

As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that the said commemoration is not about the abolition of slavery, but rather, the British slave trade. Also, let’s not forget the fact that Africans were at the forefront of the abolition campaign. Men such as Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano examplify self-empowerment, which can inspire us today.

We seem to live in a world where we’ve forgotten about empowering ourselves, and think it’s all up to ‘them’. Nevertheless, I am encouraged to spread the gospel of not waiting for ‘them’ to do it, but rather what can ‘I’ or ‘we’ do for self.

Recently, I led a Heritage Lottery funded video project for pan-London voluntary organisation BTWSC, which develops potential and promotes social inclusion. Some of the encouraging points from the Brent Black Music History Project (BBMHP) was that although life was harder in the ‘60s and ‘70s, people like Sonny Roberts, founder of the first black owned studio and label, Planetone, and the Palmer brothers, who set up Pama Records (forerunner of Jet Star), built their businesses without any hand outs or infrastructural support.

Perhaps we could empower ourselves by looking at role models who achieved in a much more hostile environment. This year, Pama/Jet Star will celebrate forty years in the music industry.

Forty years ago, it was even more difficult for people of African descent to access finance. Instead of throwing their arms in the air, and saying ‘they’ will not give us finance, our parents and grandparents were resourceful and used the ‘partner’ system to provide finance, which was by us for us. There was no time for victim mentality. They started up businesses and bought houses, albeit often in the poorer neighbourhoods.

I also looked at how the Ruff Cutt band came by their name. Although they did not have the expertise, they pulled together to successfully sound-proof their rehearsal space, so they could practice without disturbing the complaining neighbours. In those days, it seems to me that it was do it yourself or lose the opportunity.

Today, we are to some extent, like elephants in a circus that are unaware of their potential, and think the string round their neck controls them. We need to free our minds and realise that in a sense, ‘they’ control us in as much as we allow them to.

Yes, the educational system and society in general, encourages the erroneous belief that people of African origin have not achieved anything, and encourages anti-intellectualism in our young people. What is the way forward? What should parents do? Merely moaning is insufficient. As we move to have the curriculum reflect the truth, we should teach our children, find books for them to read in order to expand their horizons and self-belief.

In an interview with rising British R&B singer-songwriter Nate James for my website, he was emphatic about some of the reasons for his success. “I don’t wait around for people,” asserted Nate. “I like to make things happen myself! If you rely on others, there’s more chance of being let down. It’s surprising what you can achieve when you put your mind to something!”

As founder of the Black Music Congress, I chaired a debate in January entitled ‘To What Extent Does Music Influence Behaviour?’ A resolution calling for action by taking personal responsibility and campaigning for respectful, responsible radio was passed. I look forward to receiving feedback regarding some of the personal and collective actions taken by participants at our next debate in June.

I will leave you with the AIM mantra offered by Jet Star’s head of business affairs Hugh Francis at the BBMHP DVD launch, which should help empower us all: if you have Ambition, Imagination and Motivation, you should have success.


Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Abolition: Handy Events Summary

Facts on some important events prior to the passing of British Abolition of Slave Trade Act in 1807 and the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833

Euro-centric accounts often ignore the role of African freedom fighters in the struggle to end the trafficking of Africans, and enslavement. One of the first documented African revolts was in 1526 in San Miguel de Gualdape (a Spanish colony possibly in present day South Carolina)), but this accounts starts with 1720. The list of events is not exhaustive, and others are welcome to improve on it.

1720-1739 Nanny of the Maroons leads revolts in Jamaica.
1763 Kofi (Cuffy) leads a revolt in Berbice (former Dutch Caribbean colony), present day Guyana.
1768 Court discharges Jonathan Strong an enslaved African brought to London by his ‘master’.
1769 Abolitionist Granville Sharp publishes a pamphlet entitled “A representation of the injustice and dangerous tendency of tolerating slavery in England”.
1771 Granville Sharp applies for habeas corpus regarding Somersett, an enslaved African brought to Britain by his ‘master’. Somersett run away, was captured and imprisoned on a ship bound for Jamaica.
1772 Lord Mansfield rules that that slavery is “so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law.” In the absence of a positive law, Somersett is freed.
1783 The Society of Friends (Quakers) sponsor an anti-slavery petition in Parliament.
1787 Ottobah Cugoano, a former enslaved African, publishes ‘Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Commerce of the Human Species’, which stirs public opinion in England. He demands the abolition of the slave trade and the freeing of the enslaved.
1787 Quakers help form the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Founding members include Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson described as the architect of the campaign and founding father of the anti-slavery movement in Britain.
1787 British Parliamentarian William Wilberforce is persuaded to join the campaign for the abolition of the ‘slave trade.’
1789 Wilberforce makes his first Parliamentary speech against the ‘slave trade’.
1789 Abolitionist Olaudah Equiano publishes ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’, which provides a first hand account of the horrors of enslavement and vital information to the anti-slavery movement’.
1791 Toussaint Louverture’s Haiti revolt shocks Britain which had wanted to seize Haiti. (Haiti was under French rule).
1792 Abolition bill passed by House of Commons but rejected in House of Lords.
1792 Denmark passes a law abolishing the slave trade.
1794 French National Convention abolishes slavery in all its territories (law repealed by Napoleon in 1802).
1804 Dessalines declares Haiti a free republic.
1807 Wilberforce writes in pamphlet which states that: "It would be wrong to emancipate (the slaves). To grant freedom to them immediately would be to insure not only their masters' ruin, but their own. They must (first) be trained and educated for freedom…”
1824 Robert Wedderburn, a lifelong campaigner against enslavement, whose mother was an enslaved African, publishes a book entitled ‘The Horrors of Slavery’.
1824 Elizabeth Heyrick, a key figure in the women’s Anti-Slavery Societies, publishes a pamphlet entitled ‘Immediate not Gradual Abolition’. Wilberforce opposes her.
1825 Wilberforce retires from Parliament.
1831 Sam Sharpe leads the greatest Jamaican revolt against enslavement.
1831 ‘The History of Mary Prince’ an account of the life of former enslaved African Mary Prince is published in Britain. It galvanises the anti-slavery movement.
1833 The revolts of enslaved Africans were costing the British government heavily, and this coupled with the growing industrial revolution, made enslavement less profitable. The Abolition of Slavery Act is passed in March 1833 and ‘slave owners’ are given twenty millions pounds compensation.

Compiled by Ms Serwah,