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Reform Magazine | February 21, 2017

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Editorial: In the bookshop

steve_tomkinsYou’re in a Victorian bookshop (or if you’re not, just pretend you are). While browsing for something to read on your next stagecoach journey, you come across The Duty and Obligation of the Christian Minister by the Revd Frederick de Veil Williams. It sounds a little on the massively dull side.

What else have we got to choose from? Hamel the Obeah Man, a novel with a title like a bad anagram, by Cynric R Williams, who has the same problem. There’s an autobiography by Roundell Palmer, 1st Earl of Selborne. Never heard of him.

There’s a book of verse by the Australian poet Fidelia Hill. Of course, you’ve already read it. There’s a History of Civilization by Gilbert Farquhar Mathison MP. A bit hefty.

The Religious, Benevolent and Charitable Institutions Founded by the British in Calcutta by Charles Lushington. It doesn’t quite hit the spot, does it? The White Rat, a book of short stories by Mary Anne Broome. It turns out to be for children.

A travel book by Gilbert Farquhar Mathison, called Narrative of a Visit to Brazil, Chile, Peru and the Sandwich Islands. Mmm, sandwich. You leave without buying anything and pop into the chop house across the street.

What do all these books have in common, apart from the fact that you just failed to buy any of them? The answer is that they were all written by slave owners who claimed compensation when slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833. Their names all feature in Legacies of British Slave-ownership – a database published online by University College London.

Owning slaves is such an obvious and intolerable evil in Britain today that it seems alien and impossible. How could a country build its economy on the ownership of kidnapped people? And the individuals who owned slaves – how could they?

And yet, this browse round the bookshop suggests that the people involved were not monsters or even unusually bad people. They were poets and travellers, novelists and clergy, children’s writers and charity workers.

Slavery was tolerated by people who had the chance to reject it, because it was normal. It was part of ordinary life. It was woven into the fabric. It was just the way things were. It makes me wonder what people looking at us a century or two from now will say, pointing at us in incomprehension. What is it that will make them wonder: how could they?

I also wonder whether I will be, from that perspective, one of the abolitionists who fought against that evil. Or will I be one of the mass of everyday villains who just accepted the way things were? If so, how could I?

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This article was published in the September 2016 edition of  Reform.

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