On 23 August we celebrate a vital moment in the abolition of the slave trade – so why has the day received no state support?
Toussaint L’Ouverture was one of the leaders of the rebellion that saw Haiti become the first black nation in the Caribbean. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Britain woke up on 23 August largely ignorant of the fact that it is a national day of remembrance. Four years ago the government declared it the day to remember those millions of African people who were captured, denigrated, enslaved, tortured and murdered, who rebelled and ultimately survived a period rightly seen as the most heinous crime of humankind against humankind in history. But when was the government going to tell us? And what is it contributing to the day?
It was 220 years ago on 23 August that Africans on the island that is now Haiti rose up against their captors and began a rebellion led first by Boukman Dutty and then by the strategist Toussaint L’Ouverture who defeated the best armies of the British, French and Spanish and in 1804 declared Haiti the first black nation in the Caribbean. Shockwaves ran through the slaving nations and set in motion the beginning of the end of the trade in African people worldwide.
On 23 August last year, communities minister Andrew Stunell – who holds as part of his responsibilities race equality and community cohesion – said: “Acceptance and understanding of our past is important in moving towards a future which is free of intolerance and racism.”
He rightly made the link between the world as it is today and past events – this is not about gazing into history as an academic exercise, it is an essential route to understanding how the inequality of African peoples has been embedded into societies worldwide and how it continues today. For instance, it could go a long way to inform us why Haiti is now described as the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.
The government promised workshops to “help black and minority ethnic-led organisations to access funding for educational and heritage events (including those on the remembrance of slavery and the slave trade)”. But these failed to take place. A year on, no African grassroots organisations have received funding for events this year.
When one such organisation applied on three occasions for lottery funding to organise events and activities, it was turned down on each occasion. And the Big Lottery Fund, with a £600m purse, has given zero to transatlantic slave trade applications this year or last.
By contrast, Holocaust Memorial Day remembers the Jewish and other genocides on 27 January and has received direct Department for Communities funding annually since 2001. This year, as last, it was awarded £750,000.
Is the government implying that one is more important than the other? Is the 400-year genocide, during which Britain became the leading slave-trading nation, no longer relevant? It appears that “acceptance and understanding of our past” is something the government is unwilling to practice itself.
This month a group of British charities have reported the government to the United Nations saying it is not doing enough for racial equality. They and the government are giving evidence in Geneva today. The UN will report back in September.
One way for the government to put some might behind the equality issue is to directly fund an education programme on the enslavement of African peoples. National community learning programmes would address the need to inform the public about this important historical event and its lasting legacy that has impacted so many nations for richer or poorer. And what better time to do it than in 2011, the UN’s International Year for People of African Descent.
See online: African slavery must not be forgotten