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Another apology – after 444 years

LIFE CAN RESUME AGAIN. THE WORLD CUP IS OVER AND HOPEFULLY THE WEEKLY WORD MAILING HAS BEEN RESTORED TO NORMAL. But before I continue my musings on my ‘pilgrimage to Rome’, let me tell you about a dramatic apology by a young Briton for deeds committed by his Elizabethan ancestor – as reported by the British media, including the BBC, The Times and the Daily Mail.

Andrew Hawkins, 37, from Cornwall, direct descendent of a decorated sea captain, is travelling through western Africa with YWAMer David Pott. They are part of the Lifeline Expedition, an initiative Pott started to promote awareness of the inhumanity and injustice of the slave trade, and to ask forgiveness from the nations where slaves were captured.

Sir John Hawkins, cousin of Sir Francis Drake, was knighted for his part in defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588. But he was also the first Englishman to kidnap Africans to sell them into slavery. In 1562, he captured men and women from Sierra Leone and sold them to Spanish settlers in the Caribbean.

The BBC reported Andrew as saying that it had been a standing joke in the family that they had a pirate in the family. “When I was a child I was quite pleased to learn of this family link. In Plymouth John Hawkins is a bit of a local hero.” But his attitude changed in 2000 after learning from Pott that his forefather had been the first English slave trader.

“It was a bit of a shock and it really challenged me, particularly because Hawkins gave his ships names like Jesus of Lubeck and the Grace of God. That really offended me, particularly the latter name. God’s grace has nothing to do with being chained up in the hold of a ship, lying in your own excrement for several months. So often things are done in the name of God that are horrific for mankind. I think God would consider what Sir John Hawkins did to be an abomination. It’s quite shocking that he could think it was justifiable.” (See BBC)

This realization led to Andrew’s participation in the recent Lifeline Expedition, which has visited The Gambia, Senegal and Sierra Leone. Before a crowd of 25,000 Africans attending the International Roots Festival in The Gambia last month, Hawkins took part in a procession of whites chained together, kneeling to offer their apology in French, English and German.

“There was a long pause and we didn’t know what to expect,” The Times reported Hawkins as saying. “It was very nerve-wracking.” But then the country’s vice-president, Isatou Njie Saidy, stepped forward, accepted the apology and unlocked the chains. “That was entirely impromptu and very moving,” said Hawkins. (See The Times)

Saying sorry was a very small simple act, he acknowledged, but it was a handful of people who had started the slave trade and the ripples of their actions had caused evil throughout Africa. Hopefully a handful of people could now be the beginning of something good, he added.

Expedition leader David Pott believes there has been no really sincere apology from Europeans to Africa. Between 1450 and 1850 an estimated 12 million Africans were sold; at least four million died from the appalling conditions. Not enough is taught about the slave trade and its effect on Africa, he argues.

Next year, the bicentenary of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807, Pott and his colleagues plan to walk from London to Liverpool, Bristol and Plymouth, all major slaving ports. (See www.lifelineexpedition.co.uk). No doubt we’ll hear more then from the BBC, The Times and the Daily Mail.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

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