Abolition of slave trade: easy on the euphoria

Tristram Hunt

Slavery underpinned the economy of 18th century Britain as oil does business today. 2007 should give us a chance to learn.

AS BEFITS the MP for the eastern English port city of Hull, the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, 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.

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 colleges of Oxford and Cambridge universities, 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 per cent mortality rates among the ten 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 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 in the Westminster parliament, 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 fine china maker 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. 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. So, while the unrivalled horror of the slave trade should never be diminished, Mr. 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. )

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