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Richard Gott

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  1. In March, the British state will rightly celebrate the bicentenary of the end of Britain's part in the slave trade. Yet ordinary citizens, as well as schoolteachers and makers of television programmes who may find themselves caught up in the prolonged bout of self-congratulation imposed by government fiat (with the help of £16m from the Heritage Lottery Fund), will do well to reflect on aspects of this anniversary that are not so praiseworthy. In the first place, when remembering the parliamentary vote in 1807, we should also recall that the slave trade was, for more than two centuries, the central feature of Britain's foreign commerce - endorsed, supported and profitably enjoyed by the royal family, and by the families of sundry courtiers, financiers, landowners and merchants. The personal and public wealth of Britain created by slave labour was a crucial element in the accumulation of capital that made the industrial revolution possible, and the surviving profits have remained a solid element within specific families and within British society generally, cascading down from generation to generation, in John Major's felicitous phrase. In this context, the demand for reparations is a serious proposition, similar to the claim put forward by the families of Holocaust survivors for the return of property stolen by the Nazis. Black people whose forebears were slaves, victims of that other Holocaust, are simply asking for the stolen fruits of their ancestors' labour power to be given back to their rightful heirs. Second, we should remember that the end to the trade came not simply from the useful agitation of Quakers, other Christian dissidents and parliamentary radicals, but also from the work of slaves who engaged in the propaganda of the deed, people who today would be described as "terrorists". Driving the anti-slave trade agitation was the ever accelerating rate of slave rebellion experienced in the Americas and the Caribbean in the late 18th century, reaching a peak in the years of the French revolution. It is customary to pay homage to the slave revolutionaries in Saint-Domingue, today's Haiti, who rebelled in August 1791. They seized power, abolished slavery, and established the first black republic in the Americas. Yet other islands also saw serious uprisings by slaves and Maroons, who - at the time of the French-British wars - seized control with French help of large parts of Dominica, Guadeloupe, Grenada, St Vincent, Jamaica, St Lucia and Trinidad. Even where their actions were not eventually successful, the rebellions defeated two British armadas sent to destroy them, killing thousands of seamen and soldiers (with assistance from the French and from the twin weapon of malaria and yellow fever). They also deprived the British of income from their sugar plantations for years. Since those in the forefront of these rebellions were slaves recently arrived from Africa, the stark danger of the continuing slave trade to British commercial interests could not have been more graphically revealed. Third, in considering the British achievement of 1807, we should remember that other countries got there first. Again, it is customary to record the decision of the French convention to abolish slavery itself, on February 4 1794. Yet in the US, in spite of the wording of the constitution adopted in 1787 that endorsed the slave trade (at least for the subsequent 20 years), several states abandoned slavery. While the southern states grew rich on slave labour for another 70 years (until 1863), slavery was abolished in the 1780s in New Jersey and Delaware, and the trade was outlawed in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island. The Danes were also among the first in the field, decreeing an end to the trade to their Caribbean colonies in March 1792 (though it continued until 1803). The British voted much the same way as the Danes at the end of a Commons debate a month later, declaring that "the slave trade ought to be gradually abolished". The weasel word "gradually" was introduced by an influential imperial politician from Scotland, Henry Dundas, who thereby postponed the trade's end for 15 years. This long postponement is a further reason for this year's anniversary to be celebrated in a minor key, for the continuing trade allowed the evil practices of the Atlantic passage to continue, as well as permitting the British to purchase black people in the slave market to serve in their imperial wars. Black people were imported from the slave market in Goa and from Mozambique to fight a war of conquest in Ceylon, while 13,000 slaves were bought in the Caribbean to help in the suppression of slave rebellions. Black battalions were formed in several islands after 1795, and the soldiers were promised freedom when hostilities ended. Since the promise was often forgotten, the rebellions on one side were followed by mutinies on the other, both leading to a horrendous litany of floggings and executions. A fourth aspect of the slave trade ban should not be forgotten: the vote of 1807 was not always respected. The British in Asia continued to take advantage of the continuing trade. The governor in Mauritius, conquered in 1810 from the French, sought to befriend the existing French settlers by allowing them to continue importing slaves, some 30,000 between 1811 and 1821. The vote did not put an end to the international trade by other nations, nor did it terminate slavery. Several countries continued the trade, with half a million slaves arriving in the Americas in the 1820s, more than 60,000 a year. About 3,000 slaves were still being landed annually in Brazil in the 1850s. Slavery itself was not abolished in the British empire until 1838, in the French empire in 1848, and in the US in 1863. Spanish Cuba continued with slavery until 1886, and Brazil until 1888. One lasting and dubious legacy of 1807 has been the sanctimonious interventionism that has survived in Britain for two centuries, and still motivates contemporary governments. The British navy was given the task of patrolling the Atlantic, to police the continuing international trade from Africa to Brazil, Cuba, and the US. The West Africa Squadron began surveying the coast of Africa, and securing the naval bases that would make easier the task of imperial expansion later in the century, when east Africa was brought into the frame. Parliamentary radicals, however, were always opposed to the policy, arguing cogently in the 1840s that "our unavailing attempts to suppress the traffic worsened the lot of the slaves by making the misery of the Middle Passage worse than ever". Yet their opposition was ineffective. The naval squadron was not phased out until the 1870s, but by then Britain's taste for empire had become well established. The navy's activities gave the British a taste for international action that has survived long into the post-colonial era. Tony Blair's speech in Plymouth last week, on Britain as a "war-fighting" nation whose frontiers reach out to Indonesia, last included in the empire between 1811 and 1816, was emblematic of the new enthusiasm for imperial revival, echoed by Gordon Brown's repeated remarks that the empire gives us nothing to apologise for. The final tragic aspect of the decision to end the slave trade was its arousal of the false expectation among slaves that their servitude might soon be abolished. It was to be more than 30 years after 1807 before the British finally abandoned slavery in their empire, years that saw major slave rebellions in Jamaica, Dominica, Barbados, Honduras and Guyana. All were savagely repressed. Some participants claimed that the trumpeted news of an end to the trade had led them to believe that slavery itself was over, a mistake that some people still make today.
  2. Castro, in his 80th year, is the same age as the Queen of England. He has been Cuba's ruler for almost as long and is still apparently as active as ever. Last November, he spoke for five hours at the university and then talked to the students until dawn. Yet he doesn't look well. People close to him report that he sometimes finds it difficult to sustain an argument. His intelligent but sometimes rambling speeches tend to get well edited before they appear in print. While I used to think he could go on for another decade, I now suspect he may not last much beyond the celebrations of the revolution's half century in 2009. Castro may well be of the same opinion. Speaking to the university students, he addressed the problem of what might happen after his death, and asked a series of rhetorical questions: "When the veterans start disappearing, to make room for new generations of leaders, what will be done? Can the revolutionary process be made irreversible?" He gave warning that although it was difficult to imagine the revolution being overthrown from outside, it would be possible for the country to self-destruct. He argued that it would be up to the new generation to see that this did not happen, admitting that his own rule had hardly been perfect. "After all, we witnessed many mistakes that we simply did not notice at the time." One such mistake was the failure to notice that sugar production had become dramatically uneconomic. "The country had many economists and it is not my intention to criticise them, but I would like to ask why we hadn't discovered earlier that maintaining our levels of sugar production would be impossible. The Soviet Union had collapsed, oil was costing $40 a barrel, sugar prices were at basement levels, so why did we not rationalise the industry" - instead of continuing to sow thousands of hectares a year. "None of our economists seemed to have noticed any of this, and we practically had to order them to stop the procedure." In practice, many economists knew exactly what was going on. All they lacked was a free press in which to argue about their findings. Although private discussion is often well-informed and sometimes explosive, public debate about economic strategies is almost entirely absent. Cuba, which once produced 8m tons of sugar a year, has now all but left the sugar business, dispensing with 300 years of its history. Barely 1m tons are now produced, enough for home consumption. Today's income is derived from tourists, the sale of nickel and the export of doctors and sports instructors to Venezuela. This latest project, coupled with the local production of 50% of its own oil needs, has put oxygen into the economy for the first time since the Soviet collapse 15 years ago. Although the cities remain in a sad state of repair, plenty of food finds its way (at a price) into the private markets. People complain less than they did a couple of years ago, although poor transport remains amajor difficulty. The girls at the pumps are part of a project designed to tackle youth alienation. Now Castro is trying to tackle the growing inequality of incomes that has been a feature of the past decade. He has criticised the "new rich" who, securing dollars from relatives in Miami or from work in the tourist industry, can earn 20 to 30 times more than a doctor or teacher. He is not moving towards a market economy but to a society that is made more aware of the value of what it consumes. While health and education will remain free, subsidies on electricity and housing will be lowered, and food rationing will eventually be phased out. These are substantial changes, though wages and pensions have been increased to soften the blow. They form part of Castro's desire to safeguard his revolutionary legacy. "Are revolutions doomed to fail?" he asked the students last year. "Can society prevent them from collapsing?" No one knows the final answer, although Castro's personal place in history looks assured. Europeans sometimes seem to feel that Castro is well past his sell-by date, a dinosaur from the long-gone Communist era. Yet with the current leftist mood in Latin America, Cuba has become re-attached to the mainland, enjoying diplomatic and trade links unimaginable in the past half century. Castro himself is regarded by Latin Americans as one of their most popular and respected figureheads, recognised by new generations as one of the great figures of the 20th century. http://www.guardian.co.uk/cuba/story/0,,1755627,00.html
  3. Hugo Chávez, the president of Venezuela, is a genial fellow with a good sense of humour and a steely political purpose. As a former military officer, he is accustomed to the language of battle and he thrives under attack. He will laugh off this week's suggestion by Pat Robertson, the US televangelist, that he should be assassinated, but he will also seize on it to ratchet up the verbal conflict with the United States that has lasted throughout his presidency. Chávez, now 51, is the same age as Tony Blair, and after nearly seven years as president he has been in power for almost as long. But there the similarities end. Chávez is a man of the left and, like most Latin Americans with a sense of history, he is distrustful of the United States. Free elections in Latin America have often thrown up radical governments that Washington would like to see overthrown, and the Chávez government is no exception to this rule. Chávez is a genuinely revolutionary figure, one of those larger-than-life characters who surface regularly in the history of Latin America - and achieve power perhaps twice in a hundred years. He wants to change the history of the continent. His close friend and role model is Fidel Castro, Cuba's long-serving leader. The two men meet regularly, talk constantly on the telephone, and have formed a close political and military alliance. Venezuela has deployed more than 20,000 Cuban doctors in its shanty-towns, and Cuba is the grateful recipient of cheap Venezuelan oil, replacing the subsidised oil it once used to receive from the Soviet Union. This, in the eyes of the US government, would itself be a heinous crime that would put Chávez at the top of its list for removal. The US has been at war with Cuba for nearly half a century, mostly conducted by economic means, and it only abandoned plans for Castro's direct overthrow after subscribing to a tacit agreement not to do so with the Soviet Union after the missile crisis of 1962. The Americans would have dealt with Chávez long ago had they not been faced by two crucial obstacles. First, they have been notably preoccupied in recent years in other parts of the world, and have hardly had the time, the personnel, or the attention span to deal with the charismatic colonel. Second, Venezuela is one of the principal suppliers of oil to the US market (literally so in that 13,000 US petrol stations are owned by Citgo, an extension of Venezuela's state oil company). Any hasty attempt to overthrow the Venezuelan government would undoubtedly threaten this oil lifeline, and Chávez himself has long warned that his assassination would close down the pumps. With his popularity topping 70% in the polls, he would be a difficult figure to dislodge. Chávez comes from the provinces of Venezuela, from the vast southern cattle lands of the Llanos that stretch down to the Apure and Orinoco river system. Of black and Indian ancestry, his parents were local schoolteachers, and he has inherited their didactic skills. His talents first came to the fore when he joined the army and became a popular lecturer at the war college in Caracas. He is a brilliant communicator, speaking for hours on television in a folksy manner that captivates his admirers and irritates his opponents. He never stops talking and he never stops working. He has time for everyone and never forgets a face. For several years he travelled incessantly around the country, to keep an eye on what was going on. This was not mere electioneering, for he would talk for hours to those who had hardly a vote among them. He exhausts his cadres, his secretaries and his ministers. I have travelled with him and them into the deepest corners of the country, and then, after a 16-hour day, he would call the grey-faced cabinet together for an impromptu meeting to analyse what they had discovered and what measures they should take. There was always a touch of the 19th century about this frenetic activity, as though the president were still on horseback, and Castro is known to have warned Chávez not to absorb himself unduly in the minutiae of administration. "You are the president of Venezuela," he is reported to have said, "not the mayor of Caracas." Chávez has taken the advice to heart, and has become less the populist folk hero and more the impressive statesman. Concern about possible assassination has long predated Robertson's outburst, and for the past two years Chávez has cut down his travels inside the country and been accompanied everywhere by fearsome-looking guards. Abroad, however, he is a frequent visitor to the capitals of Latin America, and he is widely perceived as the leader of the group of left-leaning presidents recently elected in Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, as well as the inspiration of the radicalised indigenous movements now clamouring at the gates of power in Bolivia and Ecuador. There is another touch of the 19th century here, for Chávez is a follower and promoter of the ideas and career of Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan leader who brought the philosophy of the European Enlightenment and the French Revolution to Latin America, and liberated much of the continent from Spanish rule. Chávez has labelled his movement the "Bolivarian Revolution", and he hopes that his political ideas will spread throughout the continent. This in itself would be alarming enough to the United States, had it the time to pay proper attention. Equally worrying for the Americans is the time Chávez has devoted to the Middle East, successfully courting the governments that belong to Opec, the oil producers' organisation, some of whom have been labelled by the Americans as "the axis of evil". Today's high oil price has much to do with increased demand from China and India, and from the Iraq war, but the spadework that has given Opec fresh credibility was put in by Chávez. Soon he will be helping to show the new Iranian president, using the Venezuelan example, how to increase the revenues of a state-owned oil company and channel them into programmes to help the poor. Chávez is widely popular today, but for much of his presidency he has been a contested, even a hated figure, arousing widespread discontent within Venezuela's traditional white elite. Yet although his rhetoric is revolutionary, his reforms have been moderate and social democratic. He criticises the policies of "savage neo-liberalism" that have done so much harm to the poorer peoples of Venezuela and Latin America in the past 20 years, yet the private sector is still alive and well. His land reform is aimed chiefly at unproductive land and provides for compensation. His most obvious achievement, which should not have been controversial, has been to channel increased oil revenues into a fresh range of social projects that bring health and education into neglected shanty-towns. The hatred that he arouses in the old opposition parties, which have seen their membership and influence dwindle, lies more in ideology and racial antipathy than in material loss. Some opponents dislike his friendship with Castro, his verbal hostility to the United States, and his criticisms of the Catholic church, and some people still have a residual hostility to the fact that he staged an unsuccessful military coup in 1992 when a young colonel in the parachute regiment. Many Latin Americans still find it difficult to come to terms with the idea of a progressive military man. But mostly they are alarmed by the way in which he has enfranchised the country's vast underclass, interrupting the cosy, US-influenced lifestyle of the white middle class with visions of a frightening world that lives beyond their apartheid-gated communities. Over the past few years this anxious opposition has made several attempts to get rid of Chávez, with the tacit encouragement of Washington. They organised a coup in April 2002 that rebounded against them two days later when the kidnapped Chávez was returned to power by an alliance of the army and the people. They tried an economic coup by closing down the oil refineries, and this too was a failure. Last year's recall-referendum, designed to lead to a defeat for Chávez, was an overwhelming victory for him. The local opposition, and by extension the United States, have shot their final bolt. There is nothing left in the locker, except of course assassination. The fingers of mad preachers are usually far from the button, but the untimely words of Pat Robertson, easily discounted in Washington and airily dismissed by the state department as "inappropriate", might yet wake an echo among zealots in Venezuela. A similar call was made last year by a former Venezuelan president. Assassinations may be easy to plan, and not difficult to accomplish. But their legacy is incalculable. The radical leader of neighbouring Colombia, Jorge Gaitán, was assassinated more than 50 years ago, in 1948. In terms of civil war and violence, the Colombians have been paying the price ever since. No one would wish that fate on Venezuela. http://www.guardian.co.uk/venezuela/story/...1555809,00.html
  4. From his lofty vantage point at Harvard, Niall Ferguson should know as well as anyone that the British empire (like the American) was built on genocide and slavery. No amount of his counterfactual history can obliterate the obvious reality that the peace and prosperity provided to white settlers and their native allies weighed little in the balance sheet of the slaves and indigenous peoples. Not a year went by in colonial history, as itemised in my forthcoming book, Our Empire Story, that was not marked by resistance. The crushing of rebellion was achieved largely through terror, with Indians being blown from guns and Africans in Rhodesia, the forbears of Robert Mugabe, being herded into caves and blown up with dynamite. Some prosperity, some peace.
  5. Richard Gott is a former Latin America correspondent and Features Editor for The Guardian. A specialist in Latin American affairs, he worked in the 1960s at the University of Chile, where he wrote 'Guerrilla Movements in Latin America', the definitive study of the revolutionary groups that arose in the years after the Cuban revolution. He is also the author of 'The Appeasers' (with Martin Gilbert), and 'Land Without Evil'.
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