The above image is of the famous painting, “The Slave Market” painted circa 1884 by the artist, Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904). It is of a young European woman from typically a small fishing village such as Mousehole in Cornwall who will have been kidnapped by Barbary Pirates and sold into (sex) slavery. The picture shows her stripped naked for potential bidders to inspect the merchandise before purchase. The young lady may in fact be biting the fellow’s finger!
When the word “slavery” is mentioned a picture will generally be conjured up of Africans being chained and forced into small sailing ships at the start of a long and cruel journey from Africa’s west coast to the Caribbean. At around this time there was another form of slavery being perpetrated. This was the “Barbary Pirates” in their “corsairs.” These were fast ships from the “Barbary Coast” – now Algeria. The Barbary Pirates were Arab Muslims and their prey were Europeans living in isolated coastal communities. These pirates would land as armed gangs and capture young women and some young men and return to whence they came. From there these kidnapped souls were sold into slavery. Fair skinned European women were highly valued and this barbarous trade – this is the origin of the word “barbarous” – was extraordinarily profitable. These women were sold to rich Ottoman officials as concubines for their harems.
Should therefore the British and Irish governments demand an apology from the Algerian government? No.
Sunday 25th March, 2007 marked 200 years – to the day – that a Parliamentary Bill was passed to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. That evening there was a church service at Roscoe Methodist Church on Francis Street, Leeds to commemorate this. Roscoe’s congregation comes almost exclusively from the Caribbean community in Leeds and the service was typically vibrant, joyful and extremely enthusiastic. The service was a commemoration by the Leeds District and as such many others from other churches in the Leeds circuit attended. Those hoping for a series of politically correct diatribes would have been disappointed. There was however the most curious spectacle of good people making an apology to others and those others accepting the said apology – all of which threatened to make a joyful occasion vacuous.
The regrettable fact is that human beings have at times behaved in the most abhorrent ways towards each other and for such apologies to be issued in fact detracts from the commemoration. For “sorry” to mean something and to be of value the person making the apology must be responsible for the act for which they are apologising and for them to mean it. Generally this would have to include humility and repentance. Where a genuine wrong has been committed this is a hard thing to do. To apologise for an act in which you have had no part and therefore can have no moral culpability for is an exercise in pontification.