David, one could as easily argue that political and economic factors kept the West Africa Squadron from being a purely moral and altruistic action. Much of the West Africa Squadron's activity targeted the slave ships of other countries, to prevent the economic advantage of an uninterrupted labor supply to their colonies' sugar plantations, while English sugar plantations had to do without. Also, enforcement varied depending on whether a particular country had a militarily useful treaty of alliance with the British at the time.
Given the enormous financial and political power of British sugar barons, a series of political and financial compromises were necessary in order for the British government to abolish slavery. Compromises, by definition, introduce moral impurities, but not much happens without such tradeoffs. As Otto von Bismarck said (though I do not endorse many of his views): “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable—the art of the next best.”
I think we are in agreement that the mustering of the political will to outlaw slavery on British soil should be recognized and even celebrated. It might well have been otherwise. And I also salute the fact that the political will to enforce that law, by means of the West Africa Squadron, was eventually summoned. Without enforcement, the British government's outlawing of slavery would have been only a symbolic victory. And the high death rate (mainly due to disease) of the British servicemen who enforced it represents a significant sacrifice that should not be sneered at in any way.
Overall, these were strides in the right direction, despite some backward steps. Slow and imperfect progress is far better than none at all.
That said, it's not difficult for me to see why Martin Luther King, Jr., expressed (in his 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail") his loss of patience with incrementalism, and with being told he should be grateful for, and content with, slow and partial gains in the area of social justice, constrained by the limitations of what both Black and White moderate allies thought was politically viable in their own time, and with the fear of backlash always a realistic concern. Since the slowness of past progress was often used to justify these moderates' caution about demanding contemporary changes, I think it's fair to have a healthy impatience with the rate of progress, both past and present.
I don't say so with the objective of applying anachronistic standards to undercut or trivialize the hard-won achievements of past generations, for which Wilberforce and others worked so hard. But neither should we rest smugly on previous generations' achievements, or regard those through rose-colored glasses. They left a lot of work for others to do, including us today.
BTW, speaking of previous generations, my own family traditions say that at least one of my English ancestors made his fortune in the sugar trade. I haven't found independent confirmation of this, but it wouldn't surprise me a bit, since that's the side of my family with at least one violent convicted criminal in all but the last of the five most recent generations. I can easily imagine some of my family members doing very well in a slave-murdering industry like sugarcane production, in which functional consciences were surely a liability.
Unlike in the cotton and tobacco plantations in the United States, the sugar plantations in the West Indies did not tend to have breeding programs (a different set of atrocities) to assure a future labor supply. Instead, they tended to work people to death in the short term, and they didn't have time to wait for infants to grow up. They relied on a continuous influx of fresh captives from Africa who were already ready to be put to work.
Do I feel guilty that my family members committed atrocities--certainly recently, and possibly long ago, too? No. Should I? I don't think so. I share their DNA, but I had no knowledge or control over their actions. Did their sometimes-reprehensible actions benefit me personally? Yes, some of them must have, and I think I'm obliged to acknowledge that. If their crimes leveraged any advantages, however temporary, in nutrition, education, and social status for later generations of my family, those advantages positioned me for greater opportunity than otherwise, even though I grew up on food stamps due to the negative consequences of some of their more recent actions.
And nearly all White people in the U.S. have benefitted from systemic efforts to prevent racial and ethnic minorities from competing with them on a level playing field. Those privileges, for which I didn't ask, come with the responsibility to increase opportunity for those who did not enjoy similar benefits. (That's what the term "White privilege" means. It doesn't mean that all Whites have had it easy. It means that most non-Whites have had it much, much harder.)
Last edited by Julie Steiner; 03-15-2021 at 05:20 PM.