British Prime Minister Tony Blair will attempt today to draw a line under years of acrimonious debate by expressing "deep sorrow" for Britain's role in the slave trade nearly 200 years after the legislation that led to its abolition.
Blair will make the historic statement atoning for his country's involvement in slavery but will stop short of a full apology, despite pressure from some black campaigners and community leaders.
"It is hard to believe what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at the time," he will say. "I believe the bicentenary offers us a chance not just to say how profoundly shameful the slave trade was -- how we condemn its existence utterly and praise those who fought for its abolition -- but also to express our deep sorrow that it ever could have happened and rejoice at the better times we live in today."
The statement will appear in New Nation, a newspaper aimed at the black community, which has been campaigning for an apology for slavery in a statement to parliament.
Blair's decision to make a final statement on the issue will reignite the debate on the role of apology in modern politics. He was criticized when in 1997 he said he "reflected" on the deaths caused by the Irish potato famine. In Japan there has been a long and heated debate about whether that country should apologize for its actions during World War II.
According to notes seen in the possession of Baroness Amos, the leader of the House of Lords, earlier this month, Blair wanted to make a bold gesture that will be "internationally recognized" and will back a UN resolution by Caribbean countries to honor those who died at the hands of international slave traders. The notes suggested that Blair was willing to accommodate the requests of many campaigners and is "prepared to go further than [he is] being asked to."
The slavery issue has come to a head in the build-up to next March's bicentenary of the Slave Trade Act following a long and determined campaign.
Between 10 million and 28 million Africans were forcibly sent to the Americas and sold into slavery between 1450 and the early 19th century. Britain was then the dominant trader, transporting more than 300,000 slaves a year in shackles on disease-ridden boats.
An advisory committee chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, whose Hull constituency was once represented by the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, has been planning the 200th anniversary commemorations including a solution to how Britain should acknowledge its historic responsibility.
It was reported that Whitehall advisers had warned that a full apology could provoke claims for reparations, and that a briefing document suggested the phrase: "We regret and strongly condemn the evils of the transatlantic slave trade."
Blair has been closely advised by Amos.
Two years ago the Rendezvous of Victory drive said it would ask the Queen to issue an official apology on behalf of Britain next year. Its joint leader, Kofi Mawuli Klu, said last night that he was disappointed by the government's compromise.
"It's adding insult to the lingering injuries of the enslavement of African people by the European ruling classes," he said.
"It's totally unacceptable. The message is that if you commit crimes against African people you cannot be held responsible: even when you acknowledge that you have done wrong, you do not feel it necessary to apologize but make only a token gesture," he said.