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Scars of Slavery Still With Us

Monday 19th February 2007

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has said the scars of slavery are still with modern society and that Zanzibar's slave trade history is crucial to the understanding not just of the history of East Africa, but of humanity.

Dr Williams' comments came during a visit he made to the main island of Zanzibar together with Primates of the Anglican Communion, who are holding a meeting in nearby Dar Es Salaam.

Speaking yesterday [Sunday 18th February 2007] at a lunch attended by Zanzibar's President, His Excellenecy Amani Abeid Karumi, Dr Williams said that the scars of the slave trade could still be seen:

"So much of the history of this region is bound in with commerce, with civilization, the highs and the lows of what happened on this island. We have commemorated already the role - the tragic and sad role - of this island in the slave trade. The President has already told me of some of his own family's recollections of the last days of that trade and it's startling to think that even in living memory that that was still a reality in this part."

Earlier Dr Williams and the Primates had taken part in a service in Christ Church Cathedral; the Eucharist was led by Archbishop Donald Mtetemela, the Primate of Tanzania, and included a commemoration marking the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. In his sermon, Dr Williams told how, even after his conversion, it took some time for John Newton, the author of the hymn Amazing Grace, to realise the evil of slavery. This, he said, was proof that peoples' eyes needed to be opened.

" ... for hundreds and hundreds of years - in fact for thousands of years - people did not see the evil of slavery. Around them human beings were suffering in terrible ways and yet somehow people did not see, even Christians did not see. It is possible to look at another human being and yet not see what their real need is and what their real suffering is."

He challenged the congregation to look for other forms of blindness:

" ... what it is that we now are blind to; who is it now whose suffering we cannot see, cannot understand? In some societies it may be women or old people, it may be children. It may be minorities of one kind or another. It may be that in our wealthy countries - it is the case in our wealthy countries - that we do not see the reality of suffering and injustice in so much of the world. And we may not know for a long time just how many things we have not seen. But at least we can begin to pray 'Lord, open our eyes'."

Following the service, Dr Williams was shown the cathedral and grounds, built over the site of the old slave market, through which hundreds of thousands of slaves were brought following their capture, to be sold as labour.

Dr Williams paused for prayer at the spot at the high altar, which marked the exact position of the market's whipping post, and toured the holding area where an original set of slave pits has been preserved and maintained. The cramped underground cells, with barely enough light to see by, housed upwards of 120 captives prior to their sale and transportation. The conditions were intended to mimic those on board ship; many died in Zanzibar as a result of the conditions. Slaves who survived the experience of incarceration were deemed fit enough for the long sea voyages that awaited them.

The Primates visited a sculpture commemorating the suffering of the slaves; it featured some of the original chains and bindings used on the site when the market was operating.

Speaking afterwards, Dr Williams said that seeing the conditions in which the slaves were kept had come as a shock.

"Two impressions struck me very strongly; one was very simply the physical conditions in these little cells, it felt crowded with just four or five of us and to be told that there would 75 women and children in one of those is almost incredible, and that simple physical fact is dreadful enough, but it also occurred to me that of course a great many of them wouldn't have known what was happening, they wouldn't have known what to expect, children particularly; and I think not only about the terrible physical suffering but of the unimaginable trauma that people suffered; the terror and the anxiety."

The persistence of slavery said something about human nature, he added:

"The actual abolition of the slave trade, first of all in the British Empire and then more widely, the abolition of the institution of slavery, the final disappearance of public slavery at the turn of the last century; these are all huge advances; but the fact that it survived so long after official abolition tells us something in itself. It's as if slavery is a kind of compulsion for human societies - people go back again and again to treating others as objects, as possessions, and I don't think we can go back and say it's a thing of the past and no more. All those modern forms of slavery, economic slavery, debt slavery, the slavery of sex trafficking; these things are still with us."

He added that the visit would be very much in his mind on March 24th [2007] when he will be joined by the Archbishop of York in leading the Walk of Witness through parts of central London and culminating in a large-scale act of worship, to mark the Bicentenary of the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

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