The National Archive has withdrawn a series of displays at its headquarters after accusations it distorted history.
But the story allows us to mention an auspicious period in British history.
Historian Tony Adler had said the UK government official archive was ’empire bashing’.
The archive, based in Kew in west London, at first rejected the complaint. Later, it backed down and withdrew its entire display, entitled ‘Empire and Colonialism’.
National Archive lacked ‘due impartiality’
The National Archive admitted it was presenting a view of Britain’s colonial history without ‘due impartiality’ in its exhibition at its Keeper’s Gallery visitor centre.
Central to the accusation was an accompanying early photograph captioned ‘East African slaves taken aboard HMS Daphne from a dhow 1 November 1868.’ A subtext implied they were victims of cruel British imperialists. The exhibition claimed that British rule over its colonies was ‘profoundly oppressive’.
However, journalist Robert Hardman said the exhibition curators made a serious mistake. The poor souls on HMS Daphne were not victims of oppressive British slave-trading. On the contrary, the Royal Navy had just rescued them from an Arab slave ship.
HMS Daphne incurred traders’ wrath
Captain George Sullivan kept a record. This confirms he was a small but committed part of an aggressive program to eradicate the slave trade in the Indian Ocean. The campaign freed thousands of enslaved East Africans. Moreover, a number of British sailors lost their lives.
Admiral Ballard spoke of HMS Daphne seventy years later, in July 1938: ‘Each of her commissions lasted four years, and her ever recurring appearance at so many successive slave running seasons earned a tradition of wrath at the mention of her name among the merchants in that line of business’.
Following feeding, washing and attendance by the ship’s doctor, the former slaves shown in this early photograph were put ashore in the Seychelles to begin a new life of liberty. But the reality did not suit the anti-British narrative of the National Archives.
Christians abolished slavery
Above all, the National Archive failed to mention the prolonged and ultimately successful anti- slavery campaign by William Wilberforce. Firstly, the MP abolished the slave trade. The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act became law on 25th March 1807.
On his death-bed Wilberforce heard that slavery itself would be abolished in Britain and its colonies. Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. As a result, thirty years later, HMS Daphne, launched in 1866, was rescuing slaves from Arabs in the Indian Ocean.
Furthermore, we do not hesitate to mention the religious context. It was his Evangelical Christian faith which drove Wilberforce to see all men as equal.
His friends in the ‘Clapham Sect’ were equally passionate to build the Kingdom of Jesus Christ on earth. They will have been well aware of this scripture condemning the slave trade:
Exodus 21:16 And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.
Islam is a religion of oppression
In contrast, Islam, the religion of the Arab slave traders, was happy with slavery from its inception and still is today. Muhammad himself was a slave owner and trader. Muslims were the prime slave-traders along the East African coast. The Royal Navy should be proud of confronting them. The truth is, it was the Christian heritage of this United Kingdom which animated such a robust response to Muslim wickedness.
Our history as a trading nation has not always been that good, and our trade policy far less than fair. Nevertheless, HMS Daphne’s story is heartening, and the National Archive and British people as a whole should give God the glory for it.
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