Toyin Agbetu calls for the halt of the charade orchestrated by the British ruling elites to purportedly commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos.
March 28, 2007
LONDON–-Steps from the Queen, spitting distance from Prime Minister Tony Blair, and with his voice ricocheting off the hundreds of statues and monuments in one of Christendom's most famous edifices, a lone protester yesterday halted Britain's national service marking 200 years since the end of the slave trade.
As the commemorative service entered its most solemn portion in Westminster Abbey – coronation court to monarchs and burial ground to 3,300 of Britain's finest citizens – the protester struck, bringing the event to a halt.
Security and church officials hesitated, afraid to escalate a public relations disaster.
Which white man wanted to be photographed hauling a black man out of church in handcuffs on the day the nation came to seek forgiveness for a practice the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, had just called "this atrocity" and "universal sinfulness"?
So, Toyin Agbetu had a royal audience – and he gave them a piece of his mind.
"This is a disgrace to our ancestors," he shouted, jabbing his finger at the Queen, sitting beside Prince Philip. "Millions of our ancestors are in the Atlantic," he said, a reference to the massive losses at sea aboard slave ships.
"`Sorry' is so hard for you, sir," he screamed at Blair.
Everyone present knew Blair had refused to pronounce an official apology for Britain's central role in the trade that enslaved as many as 20 million Africans in the colonies' cotton, tobacco and sugar plantations.
"This is an insult. We should not be here. All you Christians who are Africans should walk out of here," the man said before being eased out beneath the soaring 31-metre-high arches.
He was greeted outside the abbey by a small group of protesters, chanting: "1807 to 2007, nothing's changed." Then he was arrested.
Some 2,000 eminent Londoners – royals, diplomats, politicians, church leaders, and descendants of African slaves and British slavers – had poured into Westminster Abbey yesterday, seeking forgiveness and healing from the horrors of the slave trade.
Most passed through the Great West Door, where statues of 10 great world figures, Martin Luther King Jr., among them, look down on visitors to this, the Queen's church.
Along the north and south aisles, through the choir section, Poets' Corner, tombs of monarchs, memorials, effigies, plaques and monuments, the invited guests paraded past the pride of Britain – the martyrs and saints and knighted lot bearing silent witness. At almost every step, feet trudged on the graves of countrymen – William Wilberforce, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, George Frederick Handel, Laurence Olivier. Over there is the tomb of Sir Isaac Newton, over here the likenesses of past prime ministers. Not to mention the kings and queens and courtiers buried in shrines and tombs long looted for their treasures.
Near noon, with the organ that the incomparable Henry Purcell once played (it's been repaired) soaring above the congregational hymn "Praise My Soul the King of Heaven," the procession took the archbishop, leading clergy of other denominations and the Queen up the south aisle, right past a row of journalists – past a descendant of Wilberforce, the great abolitionist; another reporter; and finally, a "reporter" wearing a traditional African print shirt.
Queen Elizabeth, to the right of Prince Philip, walked within inches of this man on her way to the Sacrarium, the rostrum where her gold and burgundy chair rested.
The music was heavenly.
Relatives of Wilberforce carried in a copy of the Act of Parliament of 1807 that ended the slave trade, directly behind three escorts bearing the first edition of Olaudah Equiano's book, Interesting Narrative of a Slave, which brought the first-hand account of slavery's horrors to Britain in the 1700s.
Poignant and moving, the moment was captured by the Adventist Vocal Ensemble singing the traditional negro spiritual, "There is a Balm in Gilead," with such pathos and drama that the massive structure seemed to heave and exhale as the harmonies settled on the words "sin-sick soul."
Wilberforce's parliamentary speech from 1789, a spiritual, scripture and orchestral pronouncement took the archbishop to the pulpit for his sermon.
The national commemorative service was to be the high point of events marking the bicentenary. It also underscored the conundrum the event created for the Church of England, the monarchy and Britain.
Of all the European countries that benefited from the slave trade, Britain is doing the most to face up to its past. Some £30 million are being spent on the bicentenary – in displays and museum exhibits, dramatic shows, commemorations and development of a school curriculum.
But Blair, fearing any statement of apology might fuel attempts to seek reparations, has skated around the issue, angering some.
The Church of England owned hundred of slaves, branded them like cattle on plantations in Barbados and, of course, made money off the evil. The church has apologized and is studying what to do about reparations.
The Queen, meanwhile, has been mum on the subject. The monarchy, too, was deeply involved in the early slave trade. Queen Elizabeth I invested in the early voyages of John Hawkins, loaned him her armed 700-ton ship, Jesus of Lubeck, as a slave vessel, made money from the investment, and knighted Hawkins for his efforts.
Other royals followed suit.
A few years ago, Rastafarians from Jamaica wrote Queen Elizabeth II seeking reparations. Her response, lawyerly, skirted the issue this way:
"Under the statue of the International Civil Court, acts of enslavement committed today do constitute crimes against humanity. But the historic slave trade was not a crime against humanity or contrary to international law at the time when the U.K. government condoned it."
Nick Hazelwood, in his book The Queen's Slave Trader: John Hawkyns, Elizabeth and Trafficking in Human Souls, writes: "In their simplest form the Hawkins voyages were exercises in turning a quick profit: for the Queen, for himself, and for the group of rich London merchants and royal courtiers who had invested in the expedition."
If all that weighed on Archbishop Rowan Williams, he did not shrink.
"We are born into a world already scarred by the internationalizing and industrializing of slavery ... and our human inheritance is shadowed by it," he told the Queen and her guests.
"We who are heirs of the slave-owning and slave-trading nations of the past have to face the fact that our historic prosperity was built in large part on this atrocity; those who are heirs of the communities ravaged by the slave trade know very well that much of their present suffering and struggling is the result of centuries of abuse."
It is true that other European countries, as well as Arab and Asian nations, share the stain of slavery, today and in the past, he said. "But today it is for us to face our history; the Atlantic trade was our contribution to this universal sinfulness.
"Slavery is not a regional problem in the human world; it is hideously persistent in our nations and cultures."
With that said, the service moved to the most solemn portion, Confession and Absolution.
As the Dean of Westminster led the audience in prayer, starting with "Let us therefore confess our sins in penitence ..." the "reporter" in the African print shirt stood up and walked to the bottom of the steps, below the Queen.
For a moment it seemed part of the program.
Stunned security and church officials hesitated, then grabbed him, and he stumbled to the ground, shouting, staccato: "Let. Go. Of. Me." Several black guests moved in to calm the protester.
Johnny Hogg, a descendant of Wilberforce, was one seat over when the protester rose.
"This is a public relations disaster on a day like today," Hogg said afterwards. "Four white people wrestling a black guy to the ground is not what you want (in news clips and pictures)."
Toyin Agbetu, 39, it turns out, is a writer and founder of a non-profit organization and website called Ligali, which challenges negative stereotypes of people of African descent in the media. He had obtained a media pass to be present in the abbey.
Hogg and descendants of Thomas Clarkson, the other white abolitionist who supplied Wilberforce with much of his ammunition, say Agbetu injected a dose of raw reality into a dignified, carefully scripted service.
"These things run very deep," said Saphie Clarkson.
"He's got a point," said Caroline Roots, a Clarkson descendant. "When I saw him, I thought, `Blimey, how did that happen?' He snuck under the wire."
"If nothing else, it makes us realize this is still such a big issue that still makes people angry today," Hogg said.
Outside the abbey, the Queen later laid a wreath at the Innocent Victims Memorial in honour of all those who suffered and still suffer from slavery.
Leo Muhammad of the Nation of Islam wasn't impressed.
"Crocodile tears," he said. "The Queen is complicit; the monarchy is complicit. All this you see around here was built on slavery."
Penitence notwithstanding, this is a historic hurt that courses deep in the psyche, 200 years later.