Blair expresses ‘deep sorrow’ over slavery

Tony Blair has today expressed his “deep sorrow” about the slave trade and said it was one of the most “inhuman enterprises in history”.

The prime minister said he believed next year’s 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Britain should be a chance to say how “profoundly shameful” it was.

His comments, made in an article in the New Nation newspaper, stop short of an apology but go further than the government was prepared to go five years ago.

At the world conference again racism in South Africa in 2001, 11 European Union countries said they would be prepared to apologise for the trade, but the UK and three others said they would only express regret.

But today Mr Blair wrote: “The transatlantic slave trade stands as one of the most inhuman enterprises in history. At a time when the capitals of Europe and America championed the Enlightenment of man, their merchants were enslaving a continent.”

He said that as the government plans commemorations for the bicentenary on March 25th next year, “it is only right we also recognise the active role Britain played until then in the slave trade”.

“Britain’s rise to global pre-eminence was partially dependent on a system of colonial slave labour and, as we recall its abolition, we should also recall our place in its practice,” the prime minister wrote.

“It is hard to believe that what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at the time.

“Personally I believe the bicentenary offers us a chance not just to say how profoundly shameful the slave trade was – how we condemn its existence utterly and praise those who fought for its abolition – but also to express our deep sorrow that it ever happened, that it ever could have happened and to rejoice at the different and better times we live in today.”

His comments are expected to be welcomed by many, however, the Rendezvous of Victory group, which works to combat slavery’s enduring mark on society, claimed the government had “missed the point”.

“They do not understand contemporary enslavement. There is nothing in this statement about the enduring legacy of slavery in terms of racism and global injustice,” founder Kofi Mawuli Klu told the Observer.

In 1997, Mr Blair expressed regret for Britain’s poor response to the Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century.