Magna Carta: A Slave Trading Brand?

Earlier this summer (29 July) the University of Kent’s Centre for the Political Economies of International Commerce (PEIC) co-hosted an event with the Runnymede Trust  – Britain’s leading independent race equality think tank – titled ‘Equal Rights for All: Magna Carta and the first Race Relations Act’. The event brought lawyers (Honourable Mr Justice Rabinder Singh and Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC), policy makers (Runnymede Director, Dr Omar Khan and Baroness Ushar Prashar), civil servants (Callton Young OBE), and academics (Professor Colm O’Cinneide, Professor Malcolm Chase, and Dr Will Pettigrew) together to reflect on the relationships between the liberal civil rights traditions so often branded by the timeless catch-all ‘Magna Carta’ and the debates and actions relating to the campaigns for racial equality. Will Pettigrew, PEIC Director, offered a paper about the uses the Magna Carta tradition was put to in the seventeenth century to justify the development and escalation of England’s (later Britain’s) transatlantic slave trade – a movement that did much to underpin the development of racial thinking. This paper ‘A Charter to Escalate the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved Africans?’ suggested that the long history of civil rights in England – as so-often manipulated into the Whig history of national, liberal progress – confirms that the first Race Relations Act of 1965 was the real watershed moment of liberal race equality achievement because Magna Carta had been so strongly implicated in the development of racial prejudice. The event proved to be a powerful celebration of how different constituencies – academic, judicial, policy, and governmental, could focus on a single theme in ways that illuminated every perspective.

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