Backward Thinking
Abolition, then and now.


London – In anticipation of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, London Mayor Ken Livingstone has demanded that the British government apologize for its role in this international atrocity. He joins others who decry the use of “weasel words” in a “squalid” attempt to evade an apology, which “demeans our country” in the eyes of world opinion. Writing last week in the Guardian, he invites all Londoners to join him in “formally apologizing” for the city’s responsibility in perpetuating the slave trade.

Although the impulse to condemn the degradation of slavery is surely a good one, the moral vacuousness of this appeal blinds its advocates to the lessons of abolition — and the urgency to combat contemporary forms of slavery and other human rights abuses.

Politicized “apologies” may serve partisan purposes, but they make no moral sense. Each generation is responsible for its own transgressions; as the Scripture says, children are not liable for the sins of their fathers. Neither does contrition of this sort make any cultural sense. London is a thoroughly cosmopolitan city: People from all over the world reside here, many of whom have absolutely no historical connection to slavery.

Livingstone’s revisionism is equally risible. He denies that political leaders such as William Wilberforce — driven by their profound sense of Christian obligation — played a significant role in banishing slavery from the Commonwealth. As the mayor puts it: “It was black resistance and economic development that destroyed slavery.” It is certainly true that black campaigners such as Olaudah Equiano and many courageous slaves played a part. Wilberforce by no means acted alone. But we mustn’t deny that he used his position in Parliament to launch a sustained political campaign with great courage and, ultimately, to great effect.

The deepest problem with Livingstone’s appeal, though, is that it distracts us from the scandal of modern slavery. The sexual trafficking of women and young girls is an international epidemic. A multibillion-dollar industry, it degrades and forces into bondage millions of human beings — from Nepal to the Netherlands. It is estimated that two million people are trafficked each year and that, ironically, about 450,000 come from Africa.