Dialogue on Slavery and Citizenship

Dialogue on Slavery and Citizenship


Richard Ennals


Aspects of our past are often too difficult for us to face in explicit form. Straightforward data are not available for conventional analysis. We need to find other approaches. The Council for Education in World Citizenship (CEWC) and John Wiley publishers are working together on the project “From Slavery to Citizenship” (Ennals 2007). This includes consideration of current manifestations of slavery, and exploration of underlying questions of control and participation.


The slave trade, including the Transatlantic Slave Trade, involved buying and selling human beings, in order to derive profit from their labour. This contradicts modern understandings of human rights. It was seen as justified at the time, in terms of property rights, where human beings were regarded as property. By talking about business, and market forces, it was possible to disguise what was being done to other human beings. Disguises slip over time, but we can identify consistent patterns of denial.


In the UK in the eighteenth century the appeal of easy profit was hard to resist. The South Sea Company attracted investment from the royal family, leading politicians, writers and society figures. The core business was provision of slaves to the Spanish Empire, under an exclusive licence. Few investors were well informed. The bubble burst. Today, some initiatives regarding the legacy of the Slave Trade are to be financed by funds generated from the National Lottery. Adam Smith, Enlightenment philosopher and exponent of the principles of capitalism, opposed both slavery and lotteries.


The Transatlantic Slave Trade involved many countries, including the UK, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Netherlands, Germany, USA, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Lithuania. For each today there is a distinctive silence.


There are many “silences” to be “broken”. It will not be a matter of simple “full disclosure”. Opening a process of dialogue can enable communication between the different communities in our current multicultural society. The impact of slavery can be detected at many levels of knowledge: explicitly, implicitly and tacitly. The dialogue is vital for our future citizenship.


Kingston University and CEWC are hosting a Cross-Community Network Group, committed to breaking the silences on slavery and citizenship. It is clear that the key is dialogue, rather than simple analysis of explicit data. It is a matter of process, which can acquire its own dynamic.


The Dialogue Seminar Method (Göranzon, Hammarén and Ennals 2005) offers a way forward. Participants reflect on chosen texts, or other impulses, then share their reflections, gaining access to individual and collective tacit knowledge by indirect means, and by recourse to analogical thinking. In most organisations the key asset is the knowledge of the members, and explicit codified knowledge represents merely the tip of the iceberg. The problems come from below the surface.


There is a complication. As Edward Said has noted (Said 1993), great works of European literature tend to have neglected consideration of contemporary slavery and the slave trade. Denial and silence are not new. Henrik Ibsen concentrated on exposing silence, but slavery and the slave trade escaped his explicit attention. Now it is clear that the slave trade had helped to finance the prosperity of the middle classes who enjoyed Ibsen, as well as fuelling the early Industrial Revolution in England (Williams 1944). Complacency disguised dark secrets (Thomas 1997). Not everything changes.


At the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology, the Dialogue Seminar Method is the basis of a doctoral course. In the next phase of teaching, where we address Ibsen’s theatre, following rules, and analogical thinking, “From Slavery to Citizenship” provides a potential focus for a new dialogue which crosses community boundaries, and takes a fresh look at both the past and the present.


It may come as no surprise that one of our first ports of call may be Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, and a visit to Prospero’s island, overseen by a lover of books, but dealing with fundamental issues of human nature.




Ennals R. From Slavery to Citizenship. John Wiley, Chichester 2007 (in preparation).


Göranzon B., Hammarén M. and Ennals R. (eds.). Dialogue, Skill and Tacit Knowledge. John Wiley, Chichester 2005.


Said E. Culture and Imperialism. Chatto and Windus, London 1993.


Thomas H. The Slave Trade. Simon and Schuster, New York 1997.


Williams E. Capitalism and Slavery. Andre Deutsch, London 1944.



Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

Leave a Reply