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Time to confront our slave trade past

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: January 07, 2014

Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave. He has said a 'reflex' prevents British people addressing their historical role in the slave trade – especially in slaving ports like Bristol

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Leading commentators in Bristol have backed calls to confront the city's past and its historic links to the slave trade.

British-born Chiwetel Ejiofor is thought to be favourite to land the Oscar thanks to his role in the uncompromising and highly praised 12 Years A Slave.

The film, which takes an unflinching look at the brutal world of plantations in America in the 1840s, has been tipped to sweep the board at the Oscars after winning over critics and audiences in the US.

And Ejiofor, who plays the pivotal role in the film, believes that the whole issue of slavery needs to be addressed in the UK.

He claims that people in the UK have a "reflex fear" when it comes to slavery and are afraid of talking about the issue and the impact the trade had on the country.

He said: "There is this reflex fear that once you expose something, once you talk about it, you are really talking about your society.

"That is why we don't really investigate what Bristol or London or Bath would be without the slave trade.

"Because we really like those cities and the people who live there it is easier to close the door on it and let it go."

The 36-year-old London actor added: "I want the book that the film is based on to be taught in every school because it speaks to human respect.

"No one is ever too young to start understanding what that means or where prejudice has led the human race in our history. And could again, very easily."

He added: "People have a fear of questioning societies to which they owe their whole system of reality.

"Not just in the States, but wherever slavery was a prevalent part of the culture and wealth of the culture, and whatever countries still have benefits of that today."

The film's director Steve McQueen believes 12 Years A Slave should become standard reading in schools.

He said: "This subject should be on the national curriculum, its a no-brainer."

Between 1730 and 1745 Bristol was the world's leading slave port and the city's wealth is largely built on the trade.

An estimated 500,000 Africans were carried into slavery in ships which sailed from Bristol. The city's mayor George Ferguson believes the issue should be tackled. He said: "Bristol will always hang its head with shame over its history of slavery.

"Our answer must be to celebrate our diversity in the 21st Century, remain vigilant, abhor all discrimination and strive to become the most tolerant city in the UK."

Community leader Abdul Malik added: "The lessons that the events that took place on our soil 300 years ago and the years of struggle for rights that followed, are vital for our future generations, not only to highlight the events and reflect on them but to draw from the experiences of the past and build on them a better future.

"The slave trade and its history in Bristol, is a bitter truth of the past, but is also a unique opportunity for our city and its future, to provide a unique insight into the history and provide physical educational resources in sights and venues for a future in a city now known for its beacon status in equalities."

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  • glastonburyhl  |  January 08 2014, 1:13AM

    Excellent article. Only through confronting our past can we hope to move forward and to avoid history repeating itself. I'm ashamed that I had no idea until very recently of the involvement my own city had in the slave trade; it's fundamental that our children are taught about this in schools as sticking our heads in the sand and pretending it never happened will get us nowhere. History lessons should address both the good and the bad, even if it's difficult to admit the horrors our country has been responsible for.

  • emurfitt  |  January 07 2014, 4:09PM

    NOT facing up to this issue is like holocaust denial. The only way to move on is to face up to it, as it won't go away. However, it is not the only issue of its kind. Others include - 1. Women were chattels and repressed until the 1880s and are still blamed for being victims. 2. Child labour made the first (British) Industrial Revolution possible - they still suffer widespread abuse and suffer most from poverty. 3. The Celtic peoples in the British Isles were persecuted and slaughtered with a genocidal zeal for centuries following the Saxon invasion, and still suffer discrimination and hate from the English - the very existence of the ethnic Cornish is still denied. No doubt there are other examples. If we want to call ourselves civilized, we need to face up to these historic atrocities.