Remembering the Shame of the Slave Trade

Valerie Amos may be Britain's most powerful black woman, according to the U.K.'s top-selling black newspaper, New Nation, but she hasn't forgotten her roots. As the descendant of slaves, she feels a personal connection to this year's 200th anniversary of Britain's abolition of the shameful trade. Born in Guyana, in South America, she moved to the United Kingdom at age 9 and went on to have an outstanding political career: she's worked as a Labour Party researcher, on local political councils, as a consult to South Africa's post-apartheid government and as Prime Minister Tony Blair's minister to Africa. In 1993 she was named Secretary of State for International Trade and Development, becoming the first black woman to enter the British cabinet. Since 2003, she has been leader of the House of Lords. Two weeks ago, she visited Ghana to celebrate the 50th-anniversary of its independence and to commemorate the end of a trafficking in humans that still impacts the world today. She talked with NEWSWEEK's Esther Bintliff in her stately office at the House of Lords. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why does a vote to abolish the slave trade, made by British politicians 200 years ago, still matter today?
Valerie Amos:
Commemorating the anniversary matters for three reasons. In the context of Britain, it's really important that we acknowledge a very shameful part of our history. The second thing that matters is the legacy of slavery, which we see in the racism, the prejudice and the discrimination that still exist, not just in Britain but across the world. I visited Brazil last year, which was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery. It was legal there until 1888, and I would say the impact on modern-day Brazil is still being felt. In Guyana, where I'm from, the slave trade was followed by the indenture of laborers from India. Guyana now has a population that is predominantly Indo-Guyanese and African-Guyanese, and slavery's legacy is visible in the modern-day competition between those two communities. The third reason the anniversary matters is to remind us of the reality of modern-day slavery: in the trafficking of women and children, in bonded labor, in the worst forms of child labor, in forced domestic slavery.

What does the bicentenary of abolition mean for you personally?
I feel a very strong personal connection because I'm a descendant of slaves. Last week, in Ghana, I saw the places where slaves were kept before being shackled onto slave ships. Many were marched hundreds of miles across the African continent in chains. They'd arrive at the "slave castles" on the Ghanaian coast, where they were kept in filthy, disgusting, inhumane conditions. I was shown one cell where the excrement would have come up to between your ankle and your knee. They couldn't lie down. The slaves were kept there for up to three months, then chained on slave ships. If they died on the passage, they were simply thrown into the sea. We don't like to talk about these things. We're embarrassed. We don't like to admit that people could treat each other in such an inhuman way. Every time I visit those slave castles, I feel the weight of that history, and I'm not a fanciful person, but I do feel the weight of those millions of people, in a way, pressing in on me. I think a lot of people feel that. Even if you're not a descendant, you can't help but feel it when you're standing in those deep dark dungeons.

There are an estimated 27 million people enslaved worldwide, more than double the number at the height of the slave trade. Isn't rejoicing somewhat premature?
At least now we have something called crimes against humanity; we have United Nations resolutions which say we have a responsibility to protect people, that if citizens of one country are facing genocide then the global community has a responsibility to step in. Slavery was a legal trade. Let's not forget that.

Human trafficking and bonded labor are now illegal, but they still thrive. What, if anything, can we learn from the abolitionists?
The grass-roots movement against slavery was incredible—a lot of people focus on [abolitionist William] Wilberforce, but you also had ex-slaves, you had churches. Most amazingly, and I think most importantly, you had thousands of ordinary people who campaigned. Sugar was a product of slavery, so people boycotted sugar. They signed petitions. In the British Parliament's archives you can see those petitions, and they run into foot after foot after foot, reams of ordinary people's signatures. We sometimes forget there's a whole tradition of ordinary people campaigning and lobbying for change, and that should inspire us today.
The other thing is that modern media gives us a lot more access to information. Small localized campaigns can make a huge difference. I'm thinking of some of the campaigning that goes on in India with respect to the "Dalit" caste, the so-called "untouchables"; I'm thinking of women campaigning against forced labor. Yes, a lot of the slavery today is hidden; what we have to do is try and turn the stone over, make sure these injustices are brought out into the open.

But it has to be an international effort. It's certainly not something that any one country can do alone. I recognize the challenge is huge. But part of the reason I'm optimistic is because I think people won't stand for this. And I think the more people are sensitized, the more they will press the United Nations and other international organizations to act.

The abolition of the slave trade was achieved through the workings of the democratic system. But today few "ordinary people" have faith in democracy or in their governments' willingness to listen.
I don't think that's true. You only need to look at what happened with the "Make Poverty History" campaign, with the cancellation of third-world debt, or at what's happening with climate change. Look at the United States and the way people are mobilizing around Iraq. I believe people are politically engaged, just in a much more specific way than in the past. It's true there's a lack of faith in formal politics, and we need to do something about that, but it's not everywhere. When I go to the Caribbean or Ghana, where you have democracies that are younger, the attitudes are so different. Or in South Africa, where people had to really fight for the right to vote. These people are so glad that their society is more open, that they can be critical of government, that they can read opposing views in the papers. They talk about these issues, and not in the cynical way you find in the developed world.

I see in your office you have a picture of Lord Nelson, the British admiral who died at the battle of Trafalgar. Why?
Well there's a huge mural in the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords, showing the death of Nelson on his ship. We had an event in the gallery last year, and I stood in front of the mural and, of course, on Nelson's ship there would have been slaves. And I just stood there thinking, how would the slaves on British ships have felt if they'd known that a couple of hundred years later a black woman would be leader of the House of Lords in Britain. Another picture I have on the wall is [Queen] Elizabeth I. I like to have her there because she's a strong woman.