Friday, April 11, 2014
Author: 

Ken Noble is company secretary of Initiatives of Change in the UK. He was brought up in Manchester and gained a BSc in physics at Imperial College, London. Ken has worked with IofC in several countries and has served as editor of various IofC publications in London including 16 years as an editor of For a Change magazine. He and his wife Maggie recently attended the US IofC national gathering in Airlie, Virginia.

As an English person visiting the United States for the first time in 25 years, I am conscious that there is a lot of history between our two nations – some good and some not so good.

A sense of history is important. It defines to a large extent who we are today. When we forget our place in history, we can easily be unreal about ourselves.

I am not a historian – but I do take an interest in history. We have a lot of good history programmes on TV in the UK. Although, it has to be said, our media and many of our writers sometimes wear rose-tinted spectacles when viewing our past. You often find out a lot more about our achievements than about the places where we did wrong.

When William Hague, our Foreign Secretary, condemned Vladimir Putin for the annexation of Crimea, I couldn’t help reflecting that there were considerable parts of the world where Hague’s words must have sounded hollow. Not that I feel that the Russian action was right.

During what the British call the Indian Mutiny, for example, troops loyal to Britain killed thousands of Indians in their own country for having the effrontery to resist British power. The immediate cause of their unhappiness was that Indian soldiers were ordered to bite off the paper cartridges for their rifles which were greased with animal fat, namely beef and pork. This was against the religious beliefs of Hindus and Muslims, respectively.

Similarly, in China when the Chinese authorities resisted British merchants importing opium, the British used overwhelming force to remove the restrictions.

We rightly celebrate the fact that William Wilberforce and others successfully passed legislation to end the trans-Atlantic slave-trade in the British Parliament. Yet we too often neglect to feel shame that our forebears grew rich on the trade for the preceding three or four centuries.

There are, undoubtedly, causes for pride. It seems noteworthy to me that a case brought by five elderly Kenyans, who claimed that they had suffered torture under British colonial rule during the Mau Mau uprising, was allowed to be heard in the British courts. More than that, they won their case and over 5,000 Kenyan victims of torture and abuse were awarded compensation.

I read on 10 March in The Times of London that a coalition of the Heads of State of 14 Caribbean countries is considering bringing legal action against the UK and other European Governments asking for reparation for the slave-trade.

Their 10-point action plan seeks a formal apology, repatriation of any descendants of slaves to Africa for those who wish it, a land development programme, and funding for health and education to eradicate illiteracy. The plan has been drawn up by Martyn Day, a British lawyer, with Sir Hilary Beckles, a Barbadian academic and historian.

Their report says: 'Over 10 million Africans were stolen from their homes and forcefully transported to the Caribbean as the enslaved chattels and property of Europeans. The trans-Atlantic slave trade is the largest forced migration in human history and has no parallel in terms of man’s inhumanity to man.

'This trade in enchained bodies was a highly successful commercial business for the nations of Europe. The lives of millions of men, women and children were destroyed in the search for profit. Over 10 million Africans were imported in the Caribbean during the 400 years of slavery. At the end of the 19th century less than two million remained.'

Day and Beckles attribute chronic ill-health and illiteracy among the African descended population in the Caribbean to the 'diet, physical and emotional brutality and overall stress associated with slavery, genocide and apartheid.'

One cannot read The Times article and look at our history without acknowledging that we British have imposed terrible suffering on other peoples. Voices of greed and materialism have too often over-ridden more humane voices. We must find ways of ending the 'unfinished business' of history. We need to try and persuade our European governments to put justice ahead of self-interest and the temptation to deny our mixed record.

It may not be the way to a wealthier future. But I believe that if we in Britain build our nation on the right values, we could be a greater positive force for good in the world. If that is true for our small nation, how much more true is it for the United States!

Admitting our past wrongs and doing what we can to put them right will be seen by many as a sign of weakness. Governments want to negotiate from a position of strength. Yet, when we choose to do the right thing, a new element comes into play. Many years ago, as a student, I made a decision to try and live my life by absolute moral standards – honesty, purity, love and unselfishness. I had to put certain relationships right – not least with my father. Difficult as some of those steps were, it was a very liberating experience. And I believe that it freed me to find my life’s calling. Could this also be true for countries? That as we face up to our past misdeeds, we will be freed to play a humbler but more constructive role in the world.

Christians will be familiar with the words that St Paul believed came from God: 'My grace is all you need, power comes to its full strength in weakness.' We may need to be honest and humble enough to allow a greater power to work through us.

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.