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Easy on the euphoria
Slavery underpinned the Georgian economy as oil does ours: 2007
should give us a chance to learn
Saturday March 25 2006
As befits the MP for Hull, John Prescott has assumed William
Wilberforce's mantle and placed himself in charge of next year's
200th anniversary of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade
in British ships.
It promises to be a suitably august commemoration with an exhibition
in Parliament Hall, renovated museums in Liverpool and Hull, and
academic conferences. But if the anniversary is to have any lasting
value, the heritage sector must say something more challenging about
Britain's multiracial past.
To historians such as Richard Beck, the story of the slave trade is a
morality play with the British cast as evil knaves. Profits from the
bloody trade secured the imperial hegemony of Georgian England. It
was only brought to an end in 1807 because of the move from a
colonial sugar trade to industrial capitalism. There was nothing
noble about abolition and the proper response today is a
comprehensive package of reparations.
By contrast, Whiggish champions of Britain's imperial past point to
1807 as symbolic of our "good empire". It was a heroic moment when
idealism trumped materialism as the Royal Navy scoured the seas for
illegal slave ships. This is the story of Rule Britannia, William
Wilberforce and the Society of Friends.
Certainly, the slave economy underpinned the riches of 18th century
society. It also had a dominating influence across the British
politico-financial establishment. Institutional investors in slavery
included the Hanoverian royal family, numerous Oxbridge colleges and
even the Church of England.
This needs to be the starting point for any commemoration. As
Professor James Walvin has commented: "My worry about 2007 is that
there will be such a euphoria of nationalistic pride that people will
forget what happened before, which was that the British had shipped
extraordinary numbers of Africans across the Atlantic."
And in what conditions. The barbarity of the Middle Passage often led
to 30% mortality rates among the 10 million slaves shipped across the
Atlantic. They were shackled together and laid back to back for weeks
on end; suicide and self-mutilation were daily occurrences. The
lingering stench of vomit, sweat and faeces worked its way into the
very planks of the ships. One escaped slave described how "the
shrieks of the women and the groans of the dying rendered the whole a
scene of horror almost inconceivable". The response of good,
Christian British captains was to throw sick slaves overboard - and
then claim insurance on the lost cargo.
Despite its barbarity, ending this lucrative trade was an uphill
struggle. Few today would go so far as to hail it, as one
contemporary did, as "the most altruistic act since Christ's
crucifixion", but halting trafficking had serious economic costs. Yet
the moral certitude of Wilberforce and his evangelical allies
convinced MPs, many of whom had slaving interests, of the ethical
case for abolishing "the foul iniquity".
However, this had as much to do with purifying England from the taint
of slavery as any great humanitarian concern for slaves. There was
little sense of racial equality, and a new image of the ever-grateful
black subject subsequently developed - seen to greatest effect in
Josiah Wedgwood's cameo of a slave kneeling in chains. The
inscription read: "Am I not a man and a brother?" But few among
Wilberforce's Clapham Sect honestly thought so.
This is a complex, nuanced story for curators and councils to grapple
with. What this must mean in terms of commemoration is a new emphasis
on the black voice within the abolitionist movement. The contribution
of such anti-slavery activists as Olaudah Equiano, Phillis Wheatley
and Ignatius Sancho in mobilising society needs to be appreciated
alongside the role of white parliamentarians.
The commemorations must also extend beyond the port cities. Slavery
infected the Georgian economy as readily as oil underpins business
today. The cotton mills of Lancashire and metal industries of the
Black Country were seamlessly interwoven with the Atlantic trade, as
were the riches of those aristocrats who dwelt innocuously in
Mansfield Parks erected on the back of slave ships and sugar
So while the planned slavery museum in Liverpool is to be commended,
similar themes need to be explored in the municipal galleries of
Manchester and Glasgow as well as the industrial museums of the West
Midlands. And I look forward to the Historic Houses Association
putting its weight behind 2007.
Equally importantly, the anniversary should be a living one.
Magnificently, Hull has long twinned itself with Freetown, Sierra
Leone, the promised land for so many freed slaves. Next year will see
a wealth of sporting and cultural exchanges between the cities.
Beyond such symbolism, 2007 offers a unique opportunity to say
something new to a broad audience about our imperial and postcolonial
past. For much of its modern history, Britain has stood at the hub of
a series of global networks: religious, commercial, political. Much
of it has been exploitative and racist. But it hasn't all been one
way. Ideas, people, and cultures have influenced the British
metropolis as much as the colonies. Ours is a global history of
migration and multiculturalism stretching back long before the
arrival of the Empire Windrush.
So, while the unrivalled horror of the slave trade should never be
diminished, John Prescott could use next year's anniversary as much
to enlighten 2007 as to commemorate 1807.
· Tristram Hunt is the author of Building Jerusalem: the Rise
and Fall of the Victorian City. firstname.lastname@example.org
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