The Camberwell Society

Society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell

Penelope Crabb is innocent

Shekhar Das, one of the judges for the Mary Boast Prize, gives his dissenting opinion about "A History of Enslavement"

Historians are meant to shine a torch into the past. The writer of this essay instead raises the dust so we cannot see. She does so by using the word enslaved for slave and enslaver for slave-owner. The confusion is deliberate.

We need to clear the air. To enslave is to make a person a slave. It is almost always an act of violence. Most of the slaves in America and the West Indies were never enslaved. They were born into slavery.

From the baptismal register of our parish church between 1794 and 1806, the writer has identified five people in Camberwell who were black. And she has identified 34 families of Camberwell who received compensation for the loss of their slaves in West Indian estates. She calls them enslavers. The connection between the first group and the second is not obvious, but I think it is implied that people of the second kind enslaved people of the first.

This is history distorted for a cause. To understand why the charge of enslavement against the 34 families is baseless we need to see it in the context of Africa. In his history of slavery in that continent, Paul Lovejoy estimates that between the seventh and the nineteenth century, 11.7 million slaves were exported from Africa across the Atlantic, mostly men; and ‘as many more’ to the Islamic countries to the north and east, mostly women and children. Thus, about 30 million were exported. This number is but a small part of the total number of slaves. Most of the slaves remained in Africa.

Almost all these people were enslaved in Africa by Africans. This does not mean that Africans enslaved their own. They enslaved their enemies, as the Greek enslaved the barbarian. The slaves were used as labour in plantations, in salt mines, in gold mines, as household servants; they were used as soldiers and porters; as sacrificial victims; for sex.

Slavery is wicked. It is also multi-facetted and its facets are not equally wicked. To place Penelope Crabb, a widow of Camberwell who owned a share in an estate in Jamaica, in the same circle of hell as the soldier on the banks of the Niger, who sold his captive girl to a merchant destined for the slave market in Fez, and his captive boy to the merchant destined for the slave factory in the Gambia, is an error.

Moreover, the nature of a crime does not depend on whether it is committed by a European, an African or an Arab. The British must not hog all the guilt for all aspects of slavery – the transportation of slaves over long distances, the trade, the profits, the separation of mother and child, the sexual violence – but share it with their African and Arab counterparts.

But there is one facet of slavery in which the British did much worse than the others: the integration of slaves when freed into the society of their owners. After Emancipation, Britain had an obligation to absorb her freed slaves into British society. They were like children she had adopted, and as every mother knows, her first duty is to make them feel as if they are her own. But the men who ruled Britain saw them through the lenses of race. They told them they were African, not British. And when they came to Britain four generations later, they were spurned.

There is another aspect in the history of African slavery about which the historians labouring to unearth its legacy are silent: Britain’s role in the ending of slavery in Africa. After the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, the British navy patrolled the coast of Africa to stop others from importing slaves. Although it rescued thousands and liberated them in the British colony of Sierra Leone, the blockade was ineffective. And after slave exports from West Africa finally ceased, indigenous slavery continued to swell. Slaves comprised more than half the population in many of the territories Britain took over in West Africa. It took decades to abolish slavery, but abolish it, she did.

This bit of history is especially important for us in Camberwell as most of our immigrants are from Africa, not the West Indies. To inflict on them the history of the other just because they are black is worse than carelessness.

In the shadow of this vast history, the campaign by historians that has so shaken our universities, museums and palaces, of which this prize-winning essay is a part, seems to me insular, self-obsessed and quixotic.

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The Camberwell Society was formed in 1970 and is the recognised amenity society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell.

The Society’s objectives, as defined by our constitution, are: to stimulate public interest in Camberwell, to promote high standards of planning and architecture in Camberwell, and to secure the preservation, protection, development and improvement of features of historic or public interest in Camberwell.

We are a charity and raise money for local charities. In the past we have raised money for Southside Rehabilitation Association, St Giles Trust, Cambridge House, the CamberwellCommunity Choir, the HollingtonYouth Centre and the Camberwell Arts Festival