Historians lament absence of commemorations of the end of the slave trade





On Jan. 1, 1808, the U.S. government banned the transatlantic importation of people as slaves. By any account, it was landmark legislation. But its 200th anniversary passed with little public acknowledgement -- and certainly with nothing like the commemorations for the 1976 bicentennial, or even, locally, for Pittsburgh's 250th anniversary.

This inattention puzzles Marcus Rediker, the University of Pittsburgh history professor who recently published his groundbreaking The Slave Ship: A Human History (Viking), timed to coincide with the anniversary. Rediker's book tour visited Great Britain, whose seaports were for two centuries the corporate headquarters of the Western slave trade. There, the 2007 bicentennial of England's abolition of the trade brought a year of public and scholarly events, everything from news articles and museum exhibits to the feature film Amazing Grace, about British abolitionist William Wilberforce.

"I had hoped that we might actually have a discussion about the legacy of the slave trade and slavery in this country," says Rediker. So far, we haven't. The biggest public event seems to have been a Jan. 10 scholarly symposium, at the National Archives, in Washington, D.C. And while President Bush, on Feb. 5, signed HR 3432, creating a national commission on the abolition of the slave trade, the bill includes no funding for commemorations. "I think the collective denial of this part of our history is very powerful," says Rediker. "Many people would just rather not know about this."

"We've done virtually nothing," agrees Thomas N. DeWolf, author of Inheriting the Trade, which chronicles his research into his prominent New England family's lucrative role in the slave trade....


comments powered by Disqus