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Last Updated: Sunday, 25 March 2007, 09:04 GMT 10:04 UK
Q&A: Your questions about the slave trade
David Lascelles answers your questions on the bicentenary of Britain's abolition of the slave trade.


Q: You say we are all cooperatively responsible for the slave trade. How can this be for people, like me, whose ancestors were either immigrants or working class people who benefited in no way from the slave trade, or the British Empire in general?
Edward, Barking, Essex

A: All of us are living in a country much of whose wealth is directly or indirectly derived from trade with what became the British Empire: sugar from the West Indies, cotton from India, opium from China and so on.

So I do think it is fair to say that we are all in some way or another affected by the fruits of the slave trade or from opium addiction, or whatever.

Responsibility is, however, a different thing. My personal opinion is that we are in the end only responsible for our own actions, but that we are totally responsible for them and that is what we should be judged on.

Q: Did economic factors contribute to the abolition of the slave trade, eg falling sugar prices?
Dean Franklin, Darlington, UK

A: It is easy, and in my view wrong, to see the campaign for abolition as simply a moral crusade.

Of course there were significant economic and political factors at work as well and it seems public opinion followed these, or at least gave the committed reformers more fertile ground to work on. An Historian such as James Walvin would be better placed to comment on this.

There's an interesting parallel with the huge changes in public opinion on conservation issues, global warming and so on. Up until even a few years ago the messengers of environmental disaster were seen as crazed voices in the wilderness.

Now there is awareness in businesses and governments about the economic impact of what we're doing to our environment, public opinion has moved in the same direction too.

Q: Since your ancestors profited from the human sale of my ancestors why should Africans not be granted some form of compensation from that profit, which you are still enjoying the benefits of?
Kaid Diriye, Winnipeg, Canada

A: The issue of reparations is a complex issue that has been debated by many people far better qualified than me - government leaders, human rights lawyers - without coming to any definitive conclusions.

Harewood House has been run as an educational charitable trust for the public benefit for the last 20 years.

Under its charitable constitution, the Lascelles family cannot benefit from its activities.

Q: Do you think that black people in the UK today are still affected by the legacy of slavery? Are we best trying to forget about what happened and moving on?
Salem, London

A: I think it is very important that we are informed about and acknowledge the facts of the slave trade and how wide reaching its legacy is.

I welcome its inclusion in the National Curriculum. However, many of the black people I have had discussions with are angry at how crudely their history has been represented in the past: first savages in Africa, then slaves in the Caribbean, now descendants of slaves in the UK.

The Diasporian Stories Research Group in Leeds, headed by Dr Carl Hylton, is attempting to re-visit this history. Their aim is "to research and develop resources related to the history, presence, influence and international connections of people of African and South Asian descent in Leeds and locally".

Acknowledging the past, working positively in the present, trying to affect the future must be the way forward for us all.

Q: Your family have obviously profited a great deal from the human tragedy that was the slave trade. Do you feel that you have a personal debt to pay and if so, what have you done to give back to those affected by the slave trade?
Sabrina Price, Leytonstone

A: I think we can both acknowledge and acquire knowledge about the past, and that is very important. But we can only have an effect on the present, individually or together.

There is nothing any of us can do about a period of history that - however appalling - can never, ever be changed.

That said, it was important that Harewood should build on its outreach and education programmes (the house and grounds have been run as an educational charity for the past 20 years) and do something significant for 2007.

Q: Should we really be marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade? Would it not be better to mark the day that the last African slave in the Empire was freed?
Sumir Panji, India

A: You are right of course. There were still slaves on plantations in the West Indies for nearly 30 years after 1807.

I'm not a historian so I don't know when the last slave was freed in the Empire - much later than that I suspect.

And there are, of course, still slaves all over the world today. Roger Plant is far better placed to talk about that than me.

Anniversary celebrations can be double-edged: good for bringing issues to people's attention, but with the potential for being a substitute for real action. They should be a beginning, not an end.

Q: Were there any good things that came from slavery?
Maya Kirton, Germany

A: From slavery - unequivocally no! But one of the legacies it has left us with in Britain is the possibility of a genuinely multi-cultural society. That's not a matter of debate any more, it's a fact.

What we do with that possibility is up to each of us, within our own capacities and capabilities.

Q: What is the Harewood Trust doing to mark the bicentenary?
Marcus Sayer, London

A: We are making the Lascelles family's original papers from the West Indies - only recently discovered - available free on the web through the Borthwick Institute in York University.

We have invited Chapeltown Community Church to conduct their Sunday service at Harewood Church this Sunday, Abolition Day. Admission to the house and grounds will be free for everybody on that day.

We have published a free leaflet explaining what the particular significance of 1807 is in Harewood's history.

Our contemporary art programme features imaginative response to the slave trade and its legacy from artists like Nigerian sculptor Sokari Douglas Camp and Barbadian film maker Sonia Boyce.

I am working with Trinidadian director Dr Geraldine Connor to produce "Carnival Messiah" at Harewood in the autumn. The show - Handel's Messiah done Caribbean Carnival style - is an exuberant and inclusive stage production with a multi-ethnic cast from the UK and the Caribbean and a chorus drawn from the local community. And Carnival grows out of slavery and resistance to it.




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