Detention centres, not rubber dinghies, are the modern-day slave ships
The horrors of Manston Airfield have more in common with the slave trade than the boats bringing people to Dover
‘View yon vessel, with sails expanded, ploughing the deep – Contemplate for a moment the scene which it exhibits – Within that receptacle of human misery, are contained hundreds of beings, possessing passions and feelings congenial to thine own’ – William Belsham, 1790
In May 1788, Sir William Dolben, one of two MPs for Oxford University, described conditions on board the British slave ships as they transported their captives from Africa to the Caribbean. The enslaved people, he said, were crammed into the holds of ships, with very little room to sleep, chained to each other and to the deck. They were given very little food or water, and they were left to “roll about in their own sickness”.
In our current political climate, invoking the horrors of the Middle Passage plays into political narratives of evil traffickers and perilous crossings. But it’s not the sea that links the slave trade to what’s happening now on the English Channel. Nor is it the people providing the boats. If there’s a parallel to be found, it’s that, in both instances, the British state has sanctioned the capture and abuse of people on the move.
If we consider the principles of humanity and justice, as the eighteenth-century abolitionists urge us to do, it becomes clear that slave-ship conditions are not replicated on the boats. They are found in the catastrophic overcrowding and inhumane conditions of the processing site in Manston. And they are the work of the British government.
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Setting the level of accepted suffering
When Dolben spoke in Parliament, he wasn’t aiming as high as the complete abolition of slavery. He was instead arguing for new regulations that would reduce the suffering the slaves endured. His bill proposed that captains should be restrained from taking on more slaves than their vessels could hold, that fresh air should be mandatory in the underdecks, and that captives should be given more space and wholesome food.
Merchants opposed the bill and denied their practices were cruel. In Parliamentary debate, Charles Fox expressed hope that the accusations were exaggerated, out of consideration for the slaves and the reputations of slave merchants, and William Pitt argued that no one should decline to support the bill if the odious conditions were proved. The bill passed.
We need to ask whether our operating model for welcoming refugees should bear any similarity to that of slave merchants.
In the processing site at Manston, David Neal, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, said he had been left “speechless” by the wretched conditions he saw there. Official figures are that about 3000 people were being held on a site designed for 1000, and with a maximum capacity of 1600. An outbreak of diphtheria was confirmed on 20 October, a highly contagious infection made worse by unhygienic conditions that can cause blisters and ulcers on the legs, feet and hands. There have also been cases of norovirus and scabies. People have been arriving in Dover with petrol and salt burns, suffering from exposure and exhaustion, only to be left to sleep on the floors of tents at Manston. The odious conditions have been proved.
The home secretary, Suella Braverman, seems to reject even the modest goals of the Dolben Act; a government source told LBC that Braverman prevented the use of alternative hotel accommodation to reduce overcrowding. Meanwhile, Robert Jenrick, a minister at the Home Office, did his best to limit the reputational damage. He said the number of detainees will be reduced and that Manston will be returned to a “sustainable operating model”.
The question, of course, is what that means. The stories coming out of Manston are a stark reminder of how the Home Office treats people coming to the UK to claim asylum. Their methods are improper, degrading, and troublingly close to how abolitionists described the transportation of slaves at the end of the eighteenth century. For a country that so readily claims the mantle of having abolished the slave trade, we need to ask whether our operating model for welcoming refugees should bear any similarity to that of slave merchants trying to rescue their reputations.
Being anti-slavery in the 21st century
In 1788, the movement for the abolition of the slave trade was gaining ground. But there were also those like Dolben, who sought remedies he thought were more attainable in the face of “evils of great magnitude and long establishment”, as Henry Beaufoy put it. The Dolben Act reduced overcrowding and gave the human cargo on board the slave ships some air to breathe. It alleviated some of the immediate suffering. But the slave trade continued for another 20 years.
In the debate on 2 June 1788, William Pitt argued that the continuance of the trade was contrary to every humane and Christian principle. He said that members of both Houses of Parliament should endeavour to extricate themselves from the guilt and remorse that “every man ought to feel for having so long permitted such cruelties to have been suffered by human beings”.
Whilst the abolition of borders may feel as visionary and impracticable as the abolition of the slave trade felt to some MPs in 1788, being on the side of anti-slavery means that Parliament now needs to extricate the British state from its current operating model for dealing with refugees. The debates of 1788 led to a temporary reform, but also turned the attention of the legislature and the public to the question of abolition and to the principles of humanity and justice. Let that happen again.
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