Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Deputy Prime Minister backs our Sierra Leone campaign

TWO hundred years ago a piece of legislation entered the statute books that made slavery illegal. This historic, world-changing event came after a concerted campaign led by William Wilberforce, a former MP for Hull.

Many of those slaves who were subsequently freed were taken by the British to a small country on the west coast of Africa, Sierra Leone, where they started new lives as free men and women.

This year, the current MP for Hull, John Prescott, is leading celebrations of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade.

In a major interview, the Deputy Prime Minister spoke of his recent trip to the country, which included a visit to the village of Kent, and explained how this paper’s campaign can help transform the lives of children less fortunate than our own.

Readers of Kent on Sunday and www.kentnews.co.uk have donated a large amount of books and stationery, which will be taken to the village later this year. 

Asked why he decided to make the trip, the 68-year-old said: “First, my city Hull has been twinned with Sierra Leone for 30-odd years and that’s partly because William Wilberforce came from Hull. Sierra Leone was the bit of land that Britain bought for slaves to return to in Africa and therefore it has a special significance. That’s why they call the main town Freetown.

“Secondly, I wanted to go because it’s the 200th anniversary of that legislation and we ordered our navy to return any slaves they caught on these slave ships to Sierra Leone.”

Wilberforce began his long fight against slavery in 1787 after a meeting with the Prime Minister William Pitt at Pitt’s Holwood Estate, near Westerham. The pair talked under a tree that is now known as the Wilberforce Oak.

Mr Prescott last visited Sierra Leone in 2002. He said: “Then of course they were in the middle of that terrible war where they were hacking off the limbs of young people. Now it’s stable and they are grateful to Britain and the role we played in stopping that war and they are now trying to get on with their lives. In quite a few places they see the Union Jack and cheer.”

Accompanied by staff from the British High Commission, Mr Prescott travelled to the fishing village of Kent, which lies south of Freetown on the Western Peninsula, at the beginning of last week.

“One of the things I did was to go and see their schools. It really is a joy to see their youngsters – the conditions in which they live and the way they keep their uniforms so clean and how enthusiastic they are.”

The school in Kent is based in the old slave hall. Slaves were once kept in the building’s cellars, awaiting transportation to Europe and America.

“To see a facility where people were put onto slave ships and at the same time to see the school and the children seemed a very good opportunity,” said Mr Prescott, who learned about our campaign from MPs, High Commission officials and locals during his visit to Kent. “They told me about that. I say congratulations to your paper.”

The DPM spoke about other twinning schemes with Hastings and Waterloo in the UK, and namesakes in Sierra Leone, and said he wants to encourage more schemes.

We told Mr Prescott about the excellent response to our campaign from our readers.

“That’s fantastic. It is the books they want. The one thing you notice with all the children [is] they have to do it the old way; learning by rhyme and collective discussion.

“What they don’t have is books and that’s the most valuable thing you could send and it’s a good example. When our books are not being used or are old they have got every kind of value in Sierra Leone so I am delighted.”

He explained why it is important for the British to help Sierra Leone, a colony until independence in 1961.

“For richer countries to help poorer countries has a very important moral purpose and an awful lot of churches are actively involved in that. Of course, the African Commission we set up as a government has a specific aim to get all the children in Africa into primary school.

“Secondly, they are very proud in those countries that the first country to pass legislation was Britain to ban slavery and to use its Royal Navy to push that north Atlantic trade off the Atlantic. Therefore, Freetown particularly was an area where we hoped people could go back, return to Africa and rebuild their lives.

“Now, they still have that difference in poverty. If communities themselves, as well as what governments do, can reach across and help another community that’s very valuable. It’s rewarding for both communities to know there are people there to help and I would actively encourage that people in communities can do a little more for them at their own level.”

He added: “The people in Kent wanted me to pass on – because they did tell me about your active involvement – their many thanks.”

Does he think those living in Sierra Leone have anything in common with those here in the Garden of England?

“Well, I think the first and obvious trite reply is to say they are all humans but in different circumstances, but very, very happy in those circumstances, I might say. They’d like to see a lot of changes and they want their children to be educated. The things in common are the desire to live in better circumstances, to have strong family lives – which clearly you can see in Sierra Leone. And we all want to do best for children.”

We asked Mr Prescott which book he would choose to send to Sierra Leone. He said he has already presented one; Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings, about the history of the slave trade.

“It tells them their history. What they said to me was a lot of people who returned to Sierra Leone didn’t know which country they had come from. And therefore the whole history of slavery they are interested in knowing about. It’s been almost a shame amongst people. But the children sing a song there, that ‘not every white man was guilty, not every black man was innocent’. And I think they want to debate that, they want to discuss it, they want people to come back to the country. So there is a great desire to learn the whole picture of slavery.”

Prime Minister Tony Blair recently expressed his “deep sorrow” for Britain’s role in the slave trade. But he stopped short of issuing a full apology. Does Mr Prescott believe the UK should apologise?

“That’s interesting because I hear that debate going on and Tony made it clear how he deeply regrets and [feels] sorrow about all that but the minister for tourism in Ghana during a Unesco speech said ‘we don’t want apologies – we want actions to help us now. We’ve had them before’.

“The important thing is to do all we possibly can. At one level through the Africa Commission committing ourselves to get every one of the children in Africa to a primary school and at the same time for communities to do things.”

So it should be actions and not words then?

“Actions in that sense, yes, I think that’s probably one way to put that. To remember they are extremely grateful that Britain was the first country – and everywhere I went they made that on the commemoration – that we were the first country to say ‘this is illegal and we are going to send in our Royal Navy to stop it’.”

At the end of the interview, the DPM said to all the readers who have supported our campaign.

“Thanks for all you are doing for them.”

Link to Deputy Prime Minister backs our Sierra Leone campaign