Beth Kowaleski Wallace: Britain's ban on the slave trade ... moral lessons for today





[Beth Kowaleski Wallace is an associate professor of English at Boston College.]

"I thought it was the Yanks that had the slave trade." I overheard this comment in 2002 in Liverpool, once one of England's three largest slave- trading ports. Until very recently, Britain rarely gave public acknowledgment of its own involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. But this year, the country is commemorating the bicentenary of the slave trade's abolition.

After nationwide ceremonies and activities, all Britons should better understand their ancestors' connection to the slave trade and its sad legacies. And hopefully, the commemoration will help Britons and others around the world see how easy it can be to slip into the mentality that made slavery possible in the first place.

Though slavery itself was not abolished in the British Isles until 1838, in March 1807, the British Parliament passed a measure that halted the transatlantic trade of human beings.

Across Britain today, the bicentenary events will acknowledge the human atrocities resulting from the slave trade, honor the efforts of those who opposed it, and institute a new phase in a more inclusive, multicultural public history.

Most notably, Liverpool awaits the opening this summer of a new International Slavery Museum that promises to become a global center for the study of slavery. The city of Hull will reopen the refurbished Wilberforce House Museum, the birthplace and residence of the 19th- century abolitionist-parliamentarian William Wilberforce, who lobbied hard to end slave trading.

The Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery is preparing a major exhibit on the life of Olaudah Equiano, an enslaved African who bought his own freedom and became a famous abolitionist in Britain. And a London-based group, "Churches Together in England," has established a national project called "Set all Free" to examine slavery, racism, and the present-date trafficking of human beings.

With so many public events, the commemoration will undoubtedly bring together individuals with differing agendas. For some, the activities signify a time to highlight the historical trauma of slavery. Others may prefer to mark an emerging humanism that first made abolition a matter of social justice. And some who see the bicentenary commemoration as polarizing may eschew the events altogether. It's important, then, for event planners to present their exhibits and activities in proper context.

For example, while celebrating the work of white abolitionists, it would be a mistake to convey the idea that enslaved Africans never rebelled on their own behalf or that their freedom was "a gift" given to them by white liberals. Yet traditional abolitionist imagery depicts enchained Africans as submissive or suppliant. ...



comments powered by Disqus