Sorry it took so long

Observations on anti-slavery

Prime Minister Tony Blair's public apology for Britain's involvement in the African slave trade is only part of our public commemoration of the bicentenary of its abolition. Exhibitions, books, television programmes and meetings are focusing on that event in March 1807 when parliament brought an end to the horrors of the forcible transatlantic passage of millions of black men, women and children from Africa to a life of servitude, mainly on the sugar plantations of the West Indies.

But the trade's abolition did not lead at once to slave emancipation. It took a further 26 years before parliament passed legislation to bring that about, and it was not until 1838 that the negroes of the West Indies were freed. Most white abolitionists displayed little interest in what would happen to these people once they were no longer slaves. Thomas Clarkson, an abolitionist leader, said he wished "to civilise them, to Christianise them, make them better servants to their masters and to make them more useful members of the community".

Slave owners were well compensated for the loss of their slaves. The 1833 act gave them £20m from the state, equivalent to 40 per cent of the national budget. To soften the blow further, emancipation was phased in over eight years. The slaves were deemed to be "apprentices" for a transition period during which they were expected to go on working without pay. Sir Thomas Buxton, an abolitionist MP, said he hoped the slaves would, "by every motive of duty, gratitude and self-interest, do their part towards the peaceful termination of their own bondage".

Those who were freed received nothing at all in assistance. "Most of Britain's slaves left bondage just as their ancestors had entered it, with little but the clothes on their backs," wrote Adam Hochschild in Bury the Chains. They continued to cut sugar cane in conditions little better than slavery.

The white male abolitionists in Britain, mainly Quakers and Evangelicals, are remembered today for their role in ending slavery, but we should also honour the active participation of many of the black slaves themselves. Their many revolts and acts of defiance hastened their emancipation. Inspiration spread across the British West Indies from Toussaint 'Ouverture, who led the greatest uprising of slaves in history on French St Dominigue, now Haiti.

None the less, the success of the white abolitionists was remarkable because they challenged powerful vested interests. It should also be remembered that they enjoyed popular support in Britain.

In 1787 nearly a fifth of Manchester's citizens signed a petition to parliament demanding negro emancipation. They were helped by a crucial legal verdict, made in 1772 by Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, who declared slavery contrary to common law and "odious". His judgment incensed slave owners in the American colonies who feared it would lead inevitably to the emancipation of their own slaves by the British government. As a result, they took up arms against imperial rule to win their "freedom" to own slaves.

The United States was the creation of slave power. Perhaps an apology is overdue from liberty-loving President George W Bush.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: Time to break free?