Yoked Marchers Mark Abolitionist Anniversary Today marks the 200th anniversary of the passing of the Slave Trade Abolition Act in the British Parliament. A group activists marched to London from the birthplace of abolitionist William Wilberforce in the North of England. On Saturday, they held a rally, attended by the archbishops of Canterbury and York.
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Yoked Marchers Mark Abolitionist Anniversary

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Yoked Marchers Mark Abolitionist Anniversary

Yoked Marchers Mark Abolitionist Anniversary

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And now we pause to mark another important anniversary in the history of Europe. Two hundred years ago today, the British House of Commons passed the Slave Trade Abolition Act of 1807, which prohibited the trading of Africans into slavery in the Caribbean. It took Britain another 26 years to end the slave trade completely throughout its existing colonies. But 1807 was a watershed in ending the transatlantic trade.

To commemorate the anniversary, a group of activists marched from the home of one abolitionist hero in the north of England to London. Yesterday, they joined thousands of others in a rally to mark the event.

NPR's Rob Gifford has this report.

(Soundbite of rally)

Unidentified Group of Lifeline Expedition Members: We walk this day as loyal yokefellows...

ROB GIFFORD: A group of people, young and old, gather to pray in a small church just north of London earlier this week before beginning the final stages of a 250-mile march from the northern city of Hull. Hull was the home of William Wilberforce, one of the leaders of the abolition movement.

A small band of marchers calling themselves the Lifeline Expedition have each day put on the yokes and chains formerly worn by slaves and set off along the streets of England towards the capital.

Mr. JOHNNY POSCHE(ph) (Resident, England): My name is Johnny Posche. I'm from the highlands of Scotland. We're wearing a yoke, which was - the more fitter of the slaves were put into to restrict their movements and so on. It's a pretty nasty contraption to say the least. It hurts the back of your neck, when you're at the back here, so it hurts the back of your neck. And if you're at the front, it hurts your windpipe.

GIFFORD: When they arrived in London yesterday, the marchers joined a group of several thousand people beside the Houses of Parliament to listen to a choir singing "Amazing Grace," a hymn written by a former slave trader turned preacher called John Newton.

(Soundbite of "Amazing Grace")

Unidentified Group #1: (Singing) ...I have already come...

GIFFORD: The crowd then marched to a slightly more African beat towards Kennington Park, site of anti-slavery rallies more than 200 years ago. They were addressed by the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, on a freezing, blustery English day.

Archbishop JOHN SENTAMU (Archbishop of York, Church of England): Are you feeling cold?

Unidentified Group#2: Yeah.

Archbishop SENTAMU: Can you just do a little bit of exercise? Come on, jump up a bit. Come on.

GIFFORD: Born in Uganda, Sentamu is the first black bishop in the Church of England. He's been credited with adding a little African flair to the venerable but creaking old church, many of whose leaders had in the past condoned the slave trade.

Archbishop SENTAMU: We belong to one family, the human race. Members of our family were captured, shackled by large chains, sold to slave traders, shipped away, sold again and again and again. We're saying sorry, not out of fear, but out of love of our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.

GIFFORD: The commemoration took place under the slogan: Remembrance, Repentance, Reconciliation. But some have complained that there's been too much focus on the white abolitionists such as William Wilberforce and not enough on the unknown African slaves who fought for their own freedom.

Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, speaking into a biting wind, made sure no one was allowed to feel too complacent.

Archbishop ROWAN WILLIAMS (Archbishop of Canterbury, Church of England): The easiest thing in the world is to look back 200 years or 300 years and say, we wouldn't have made those mistakes. And part of what we're doing today is recognizing that the people who worked in the slave trade, the people who kept going a system of inhumanity, were people like you and me.

GIFFORD: Another theme of the rally was the issue of modern day slavery, which human rights groups say is still a huge problem. Beth Herzfeld works for Anti-Slavery International.

Ms. BETH HERZFIELD (Press officer, Anti-Slavery International): Two hundred years ago, against all odds, hundreds of thousands of people came together in Britain to demand an end to the transatlantic slave trade. Today, at least 12 million people throughout the world are in slavery, and Anti-Slavery International is calling on people to harness the abolitionist spirit, see what was achieved and what they, today, can still achieve, that the fight is not over.

GIFFORD: Anti-Slavery International is urging everyone to sign its fight for freedom declaration, which calls on governments to make eradicating modern day slavery as much a priority as the abolitionists did 200 years ago. Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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