Britain's deputy prime minister told a Baltimore audience yesterday that his country regretted its part in the African slave trade. He called on other nations to redouble efforts to combat modern forms of slavery.
Deputy Prime Minister John Leslie Prescott made his remarks at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, where a major exhibition about slavery in Maryland is on view.
"We recognize the active role Britain played in the slave trade," Prescott said, noting that millions of African slaves were forcibly transported to British colonies in North America and the Caribbean during the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. "Britain's rise to global pre-eminence was partly dependent on a system of colonial slave labor."
Prescott went on to quote 18th-century English leader William Pitt, who in 1792 called Britain's slave trade "the greatest stigma on our national character which ever yet existed."
The deputy prime minister's remarks came as Britain commemorates 200 years since Parliament abolished the slave trade. The government is marking the anniversary with a series of official events and education initiatives to raise awareness of slavery past and present.
Though Prescott's remarks stopped short of a formal apology, Lewis Museum director David Taft Terry applauded the British government's acknowledgment of slavery's injustice and said the museum was honored to host the event.
"What he said was very much in line with what his government is doing with the bicentennial committee [Prime Minister] Tony Blair set up," Terry said. "They are looking to use the bicentennial to re-examine their historical role in slavery and its legacy, as well as the modern-day forms it takes."
Prescott called on countries to unite in ending what he called the "unspeakable cruelties" of slavery in modern times, which he said includes the forced recruitment of child soldiers in many developing countries and the trafficking in women and children for prostitution.
He quoted a 1998 United Nations study that found that "slavery continues to be reported in a wide range of forms: traditional chattel slavery, bonded labor, serfdom, child labor, migrant labor, domestic labor, forced labor and slavery for ritual or religious purposes."
Prescott also pointed to an International Labour Organization estimate that at least 12.3 million people are enslaved today, and a UNICEF study that estimates 171 million children are forced to labor under hazardous conditions.
Prescott, known for his working-class roots and blunt speaking style, is a longtime Labor Party politician from Hull in the north of England who has held a series of important posts, including that of deputy prime minister, since 1997.
A former merchant seaman and trade union official who was first elected to Parliament in 1970, he announced this month that he would resign in June when Blair steps down.