Thank you for the article by Afua Hirsch (Britain was built on the backs of slaves, 23 October). I am 77. As a child in the 1940s, I was proud that vast areas of the world map were coloured pink, and amazed that the language that was spoken in many of them was named after the apparently little country that I lived in. In my teens (by which time most of the pink had gone) I worked as a cleaner in my local hospital as a holiday job, and brought a recently arrived Caribbean nurse home for a meal. I was embarrassed that, although my parents tried to be welcoming to her, they were unable to behave and speak to her in a natural manner.
In retrospect I recognised that they saw her as “other” before they saw her as a lonely young woman in a strange country.
It is depressing that 60 years later this attitude is still so common. Hirsch is right to bemoan the government’s failure to fund a memorial to the contribution made by people of black African origin to our society. Their slave labour under the “ownership” of British and other white people brought us products we took for granted, such as sugar, rum, bananas and cotton, long before they came to the UK to give us their labour willingly.
We owe them so much. Would a crowdfunding campaign wake the government up? It is essential that today’s white children are taught about those formerly pink areas on the map and the human cost they represented. As a counterbalance, black children should be proud of the contribution made by their ancestors to the society that we now live in together.
Emeritus professor of developmental anatomy, University of Oxford
• There was much in Afua Hirsch’s article that I did not agree with; not least the headline suggestion that “Britain was built on the backs of slaves”. That would come as a surprise to the descendants of the millions of working-class people who lived short, unhealthy lives of unremitting toil during the industrial revolution; or the descendants of the millions of Irish and Scots forced to flee their land by poverty and unjust structures of property ownership, mostly in the century after the abolition of the slave trade.
That is not to say that the circumstances are the same: there is something qualitatively more awful about slavery than “free” gross exploitation, but it does suggest that the arguments need to be nuanced, if they are not just going to attract toxic reactions.
Where I do agree is that black history needs to be mainstreamed and not just confined to one month a year. It would then allow the exploration of arguments around structural conditions, the relative contribution of slavery to Britain’s economy, and the full details of the anti-slavery movement – lasting over a century, from the first stirrings of conscience in the 1770s, to the conclusion of the Royal Navy’s anti-slaving patrols in the 1870s.
That is a very full story, one well worth studying, and one that would make a truly fitting memorial, if every British child knew it.
• Afua Hirsch is right to call for an appropriate memorial to Africans enslaved by Britain. There’s also a need for justice for the victims, which requires that we compensate their heirs. Germany has so far paid over $70bn in compensation to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust and their heirs, but there’s a shameful lack of any equivalent compensation paid to the heirs of the victims of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the Americas by the descendant governments of those who committed that despicable crime.
• I would fully support Afua Hirsch’s call for a slave memorial to be erected in the heart of London. A few years ago, teaching some WEA classes on the British empire, I asked every group to come up with three “positive” features about the British empire, and three “negative”. Every group put “ending the slave trade” in the positive column. Not one came up with Britain’s deep involvement with slavery as a negative.
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