Of Beatles, Brits, and the Slave Trade: History gets personal

If you are a history buff you may know that 2007 is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Britain. The British might have been big bad imperialists--okay, they were big, bad imperialists--but they had the decency to ban slavery before their American cousins gave it up. (In fact, it was not until 1833 that the ban on slavery took effect throughout the British Empire).

If you are a Beatles fan, and I mean a serious fan, you may know that the street name they made famous --Penny Lane--got its name from a wealthy eighteenth century Liverpool slave ship owner and ardent opponent of abolitionism: James Penny. (Liverpool ships transported half of the 3 million Africans carried across the Atlantic by British slavers.)

I am not for one moment suggesting that, in some weird way, the Beatles supported slavery. Indeed, I think it is safe to say all four of them were strongly opposed to racial discrimination of any kind and, through their music, did much to promote themes of equality and racial integration. What I am saying is that slavery was woven into the fabric of British life and, to this day, Britain reaps lingering benefits from past slavery. For example, it is my belief that the benefits of an affluent society that I enjoyed while growing up there came, in some part, from slavery.

When you look at England, a country much smaller than Greece or Romania, then look at the one fifth of the world's land surface that was called the British Empire, you have to wonder how they did that (I'm using England rather than Britain in this statement because the Scots and Welsh and Irish probably don't want to be included when it comes to the nastier aspects world domination carried out in their name).

You have to wonder where such a small country got the means to achieve that much power and influence. Okay, so Sir Francis Drake and his like made good money stealing treasure from the the Spanish conquistadors (who had stolen it from the people of Central and South America) but a big chunk of the wealth that funded the expansion of the empire was derived from the slave trade.

Which helps explain several things, including an entire web site devoted to marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. I encourage you to visit this site. It also explains the depth of sorrow expressed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York when they led a procession through London to mark the 200th anniversary of Britain's abolition of the slave trade. It may even explain why someone like me, born and raised in England but now living in America, feels drawn to issues of racial equality.

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