Posted on August 12, 2019

Sadiq Khan Backs London Slavery Museum to Challenge Racism

Haroon Siddique, The Guardian, August 11, 2019

Sadiq Khan has endorsed proposals for a British slavery museum in London as a way of combating modern-day racism.

The idea has been put forward by the Fabian Society, which says it could help address discrimination against London’s black and minority ethnic population by challenging centuries-old tropes about racial inferiority.

Describing the idea as “welcome and timely”, London’s mayor said: “It’s right and fair that all Londoners see themselves and their history reflected in our city’s museums and cultural institutions.

“Learning more about the uncomfortable nature of our city and our nation’s role in the transatlantic slave trade can serve to deepen our understanding of the past and strengthen our commitment to fight racism and hatred in all its forms.”

The proposal, made in the Fabian Society’s capital gains report published on Monday, makes several recommendations for Khan’s second term as London mayor should he be re-elected next year.

In a chapter on race equality, Omar Khan, the director of the Runnymede Trust, wrote: “Until and unless Britain comes to terms with this history it will be impossible to understand much less eradicate the views that continue to justify racial inequalities today.

“It is unacceptable that the capital city of a nation that built a global empire and its wealth in large part as a result of its role in the slave trade has no significant museum or monument marking the role that London and Britain played in these historic atrocities.”

London was one of the three most important British ports in the slave trade, along with Bristol and Liverpool – home to the International Slavery Museum – which all became extreme wealthy as a result. At the same time the British economy was heavily dependent on Caribbean sugar, grown on slave plantations in its colonies.

Omar Khan said history dictated that the government and London’s financial sector had a “moral obligation” to help fund a museum.

Anti-racism activists have long complained the discourse around the British slave trade has been dominated by the nation’s role in its abolition, particularly that of William Wilberforce, rather than its role in atrocities spanning more than 200 years.

The Runnymede director wrote: “We gain greater moral reflection from considering the times in the past when we failed to live up to the values of humanity, freedom and democracy than we do when we portray ourselves as always being on the right side of history.”

The proposal comes at a time when racism is increasing, amid fears the polarised Brexit debate has legitimised abuse in some people’s eyes, and as social media provides a convenient platform for the dissemination of hate speech.

Boris Johnson has faced criticism for his past use of terms including “piccaninnies” to describe African people, a derogatory word which was often used to refer to the children of African slaves.

David Olusoga, historian and presenter of the BBC Two documentary, Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, endorsed the proposed museum. He said: “The impact of the slave trade and enslavement is already stamped onto the fabric of London, but in ways we have learnt not to notice.

“Britain played a central role in the Atlantic slave trade and the fortunes built on the back of slavery flowed back to Britain. A new museum, in the heart of the city, would help us to acknowledge a history that for the most part is hidden in plain sight.”

Toyin Agbetu, who disrupted the 2007 commemorations to mark the 200th anniversary of abolition in protest at the failure to apologise for slavery or commemorate resistance by the African people, also gave the idea his backing, providing it was done in the right way.

Agbetu, from the British-based African rights organisation Ligali, said: “Without recognising the pain and trauma that’s been done by slavery there’s this collective amnesia. I am definitely in favour of something like a museum but it has to be done in a way that is not simply reducing the entirety of African history to a story of victimhood.”

He also said a museum could help inform the debate about reparations in the UK.