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Teaching Slavery: Interpretations

John Simkin

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Olaudah Equiano is one of our best primary sources on early life in Africa and the slave trade. Chinua Achebe called him “the father of African literature”. Another critic has described him as being the “founding father of the Afro-American literary tradition”.

Equiano’s importance concerns his autobiography. It includes a detailed account of his birth and childhood in Nigeria. His account of crossing the Atlantic on a slave ship is used by virtually every one who teaches the subject in the classroom.

However, recent research by the historian, Vincent Carretta (Equiano the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man) has established that Equiano was actually born in Carolina on 9th February, 1759. It is now believed that his account of his early life in Africa and his journey on a slave ship is pure fiction. That it is a work of propaganda (Equiano was active in the abolition movement). However, Carretta, claims that Equiano’s autobiography is “a monumental 18th century text, a unique mixture of travel-writing, sea lore, sermon, economic tract and fiction.”

Does this mean that Equiano's writings should be used in the same ways as in the past? Is it a primary or secondary source (it is based on interviews with people who did live in Africa and did endure the slave trade)?


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  • 1 month later...

Yesterday the Church of England said sorry for the role it played in the 18th century in benefiting from slave labour in the Caribbean.

When parliament voted compensation in 1833 - to former slave owners rather than the slaves themselves - the Archbishop of Canterbury received £8,823 8s 9d, about £500,000 in today's money, for the loss of slave labour on its Codrington plantation in Barbados. The Bishop of Exeter received even more, nearly £13,000.

A recent book, Bury the Chains, by the American author Adam Hochschild, clearly influenced the debate. It says the church's missionary organisation, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, branded its slaves on the chest with the word SOCIETY to show who they belonged to.

Rowan Williams, the present archbishop of Canterbury, told the synod that the church ought to acknowledge its corporate and ancestral guilt: "The Body of Christ is not just a body that exists at any one time; it exists across history and we therefore share the shame and the sinfulness of our predecessors, and part of what we can do, with them and for them in the Body of Christ, is prayerful acknowledgment of the failure that is part of us, not just of some distant 'them'.

"To speak here of repentance and apology is not words alone; it is part of our witness to the Gospel, to a world that needs to hear that the past must be faced and healed and cannot be ignored ... by doing so we are actually discharging our responsibility to preach good news, not simply to look backwards in awkwardness and embarrassment, but to speak of the freedom we are given to face ourselves, including the unacceptable regions of ... our history."

The Rt Rev Tom Butler, Bishop of Southwark, told the synod: "The profits from the slave trade were part of the bedrock of our country's industrial development. No one who was involved in running the business, financing it or benefiting from its products can say they had clean hands. We know that bishops in the House of Lords with biblical authority voted against the abolition of the slave trade. We know that the church owned sugar plantations on the Codrington estates."

The important point that was ignored in the debate was the role played by the Church of England in justifying slavery. The main point argued at the time was that there was no evidence from the scriptures that Jesus Christ ever argued that slavery was wrong. As he lived in a society (the Roman Empire) where slavery was the norm, the fact that he did not criticise it, meant that he must have been in favour of slavery.

We should not be too surprised by this point of view. At this time, the Church of England was also arguing against democracy and in favour of repressing those demanding equality. The 19th century is just one long argument against religion. The fact that Church leaders could find passages in the Bible to justify the dominant ideology, exposes the role that religion has been used to reflect the needs of those in power.

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Tristram Hunt is the author of Building Jerusalem: the Rise and Fall of the Victorian City. This article looks at the issue of how we interpret the past:

Tristram Hunt

Saturday March 25, 2006

The Guardian

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 plantations.

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.


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An excellent article from Tristan Hunt. You may be interested to find out more about the campaign to make the 200th anniversary recognise role that Black abolitionists played here. I am going to be producing a display for schools and libraries with my year 8 class for the 2007 anniversary. It will be split into 2 sections, the first on the horrors of the slave trade and the second on resistance and abolition. The display will include audio, video, pictorial and written material and the lesson plans, activities and scheme of work will all be put on blackhistory4schools.com. The whole project will be based on the TASC (Thinking in an ACtive Social Context) framework, which is a fantastic model for problem solving and independent learning. The students will also be contributing to a blog and a wiki as part of the project and I will be presenting this as a workshop at the SHP conference this year, along with Belle Wallace, President of NACE.

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  • 11 months later...

Interesting article by Nigel Willmott on the issue of Wilberforce and slavery:


Nigel Willmott

Saturday February 24, 2007

The Guardian

William Wilberforce probably had more influence than anyone else in this place on the course of human history, Melvyn Bragg intoned reverentially from Westminster Abbey in a special radio broadcast this week marking 200 years since the abolition of the slave trade. It's a dubious claim, given that the mortal remains of Newton and Darwin are slowly evolving into dust nearby, but it may have some literal truth. Those who might challenge Wilberforce's claim to be The Man Who Abolished Slavery are not, and could not, be buried in the abbey, given that a large number were nonconformists, particularly Quakers. Of course Wilberforce, as the spokesman of the anti-slavery movement in parliament and promoter of several bills to outlaw it, played a key role, but to indulge in this canonisation of one man is a travesty of history.

It not only ignores the role of black people themselves in the colonies, who made slavery increasingly untenable through resistance and rebellions - and, in the case of Haiti, outright revolution under Toussaint L'Ouverture - but also those black leaders such as Olaudah Equiano, who campaigned in Britain for abolition. And why Wilberforce, a member of the Anglican-Tory establishment then enriching itself on slavery, rather than those who created the movement a generation before he even entered politics? Men such as Granville Sharp, who fought legal battles to ensure the freedom of runaway slaves, or the Rev Thomas Clarkson, the founder in 1787 of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. They were supported by a nationwide movement, including great figures of the industrial revolution: men such as Wedgwood - who raised funds with medallions declaring "Am I not a man and a brother?" - Joseph Priestley, Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) and other members of the Lunar Society, committed abolitionists all. And if you want Anglican and establishment figures, what about Lord Mansfield, who as chief justice handed down the judgment - interpreted as "Britons never shall be slaves" - that the runaway slave James Somerset could not be returned to his "owner" on British soil. Of course it was much more equivocal than that, but that didn't stop this case becoming a rallying call for freedom. (Is it coincidence that Mansfield had a much-loved adopted black daughter, Dido, immortalised in a painting by Zoffany?)

But perhaps the biggest victim of this hagiography is the anti-slavery movement itself: one of the greatest popular political movements in British history, and in many ways the prototype of every reform movement since - from the campaigns over suffrage and factory hours, to anti-apartheid and the fight for racial equality and gay rights - with its combination of legal challenges, parliamentary lobbying and popular agitation. It is understandable why the Victorians would want to enthrone Wilberforce, to claim the moral high ground, as they sought to justify Britain's growing imperialism. But why are we repeating this nursery-book history in 2007?

Slavery itself was abolished in Britain in 1833. The half-century of struggle is in reality a complex history full of ambiguity (Mansfield later ruled on a point of law in favour of a ship's captain who threw slaves overboard); altruism mixed with self-interest (yes, slavery was an inferior competitor to the new factories, as abolitionist Adam Smith realised); and defeats and false dawns, elating and exhausting campaigners by turn.

All this is being increasingly documented in books such as Adam Hochschild's Bury the Chains and Michael Jordan's The Great Abolition Sham, as well as in others with a wider remit - Simon Schama's Rough Crossings usefully shows that it's not only the British establishment that likes to rewrite history; the flight of tens of thousands of slaves to enrol in the British forces to fight slave owners such as Washington and Jefferson is a rarely told story of the American revolution.

So let's give Wilberforce his due. Perhaps, as Bragg has argued in his Twelve Books That Changed the World, Wilberforce's 1789 arguments in parliament should be seen as a key historical text. But remember that the 1807 act was passed not because Wilberforce finally, after 25 years of trying, convinced the Anglican-Tory establishment that the trade was wrong, but because a brief non-Tory government provided the parliamentary arithmetic. The successful abolition bill was promoted by Sir Samuel Romilly - not Wilberforce.

The Tories returned for the next 25 years and only with their defeat in 1830 did the abolition of slavery itself come about, following the Great Reform Act of 1832. Both acts were the result of huge popular movements and political engagement, not of individual Great Men. Let's celebrate the many, not the few.

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Nigel Willmott's article is to be praised for questioning the obession the media has about the role played by Wilberforce. However, he does not point out the most important argument against Wilberforce. Nearly all school textbooks feature the role played by William Wilberforce in this struggle. Very few of these authors point out that until just before he died Wilberforce was in favour of slavery (he was a campaigner against the slave-trade which is not the same thing although most textbook authors think it is). As Wilberforce pointed out in a pamphlet that he wrote in 1807: "It would be wrong to emancipate (the slaves). To grant freedom to them immediately, would be to insure not only their masters' ruin, but their own. They must (first) be trained and educated for freedom."

Textbook authors also give the impression that Wilberforce was motivated by a sense of religious morality. In fact, Wilberforce had been converted to the campaign by Adam Smith who argued that capitalists could obtain higher profits from free workers than slaves (Smith provided plenty of examples from the costs of production of sugar, etc. throughout the British Empire).

Although it is important to study Wilberforce when dealing with the slave trade it is also important to look at the role of others like Elizabeth Heyrick (Wilberforce refused to allow women hold senior positions in the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade), Olaudah Equiano, Ottabah Cugoano and Zamba Zembola.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Article by Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, in today's Guardian:


Next Sunday marks the bicentenary of the abolition of one of history's greatest crimes - the transatlantic slave trade. The British government must formally apologise for it. All attempts to evade this are weasel words. Delay demeans our country. Recalling the slave trade's dimensions will show why. Conservative estimates of the numbers transported are 10-15 million; others range up to 30 million. Deaths started immediately, as many as 5% in prisons before transportation and more than 10% during the voyage - the direct murder of some 2 million people.

Conditions imposed on survivors were unimaginable. Virginia made it lawful "to kill and destroy such negroes" who "absent themselves from ... service". Branding and rape were commonplace. A Jamaican planter, Thomas Thistlewood, in 1756 had a slave "well flogged and pickled, then made Hector xxxx in his mouth" for eating sugar cane. From 1707, punishment for rebellion included "nailing them to the ground" and "applying fire by degrees from the feet and hands, burning them gradually up to the head".

When in 1736 Antigua found there was to be a rebellion, five ringleaders were broken on the wheel, 77 burned to death, six hung in cages to die of thirst. For "lesser" crimes, castration or chopping off half the foot were used. A manual noted: "Terror must operate to keep them in subjection."

Barbarism's consequences were clear. More than 1.5 million slaves were taken to the British Caribbean islands in the 18th century, but by its end there were only 600,000. By 1820, more than 10 million Africans had been transported across the Atlantic and 2 million Europeans had moved. But the European population grew to 12 million while the black slave population shrank to 6 million.

If the murder of millions, and torture of millions more, is not "a crime against humanity", these words have no meaning. To justify murder and torture on an industrial scale, black people had to be declared inferior, or not human. As historian James Walvin noted, there was a "form of bondage which, from an early date, was highly racialised. By 1750, to be black in the Americas (and often in Europe) was to be enslaved." The 1774 History of Jamaica argued black slaves were a different species, able to work "in a very bungling and slovenly manner, perhaps not better than an orangutan".

Material being produced today to mark the anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade makes it appear that white people liberated black - the assumption being they could not do it themselves. In reality, slaves rose against the trade from its inception. This broke it.

The first recorded slave revolt was in 1570. There were at least 250 shipboard rebellions. Jamaican slave society faced a serious revolt every decade, in addition to prolonged guerrilla war. In 1760, 30,000 Jamaican slaves revolted. The culmination, recorded in CLR James's magisterial The Black Jacobins, was the 1791 slave revolt in St Domingue. After abolition of the trade, slavery in British possessions was abolished following revolts in Barbados in 1816, Demerara in 1823, and Jamaica in 1831, in which 60,000 slaves participated. For this reason Unesco officially marks August 23, the anniversary of the St Domingue rebellion's outbreak, as slavery's official remembrance day.

No one denigrates William Wilberforce, but it was black resistance and economic development that destroyed slavery, not white philanthropy.

Slavery's reality is increasingly acknowledged outside Britain. One of the few things on which I agree with George Bush is his description of transatlantic slavery as "one of the greatest crimes of history". The Virginia general assembly last month expressed "profound regret" for its role, stating slavery "ranks as the most horrendous of all depredations of human rights and violations of our founding ideals". The French national assembly declared slavery a "crime against humanity". In 1999, Liverpool became the first major British slaving city to formally apologise. The Church of England Synod followed suit.

The British government's refusal of such an apology is squalid. Until recently, almost unbelievably, it refused even to recognise the slave trade as a crime against humanity, on the grounds that it was legal at the time. It helped block an EU apology for slavery.

Two arguments are brought forward against official apology - not only by the government but by David Cameron. First, an apology is unnecessary because this happened a long time ago. This would only apply if there had been a previously apology - there hasn't been. Slavery was the mass murder of millions of people. Germany apologised for the Holocaust. We must for the slave trade.

Second, that apologising is "national self-hate". This is nonsense. Love of one's country and its achievements is based on reality, not denying it. A Britain that contributed Shakespeare, Newton and Darwin to human civilisation need fear comparison with no one. A British state that refuses to apologise for a crime on such a gigantic scale as the slave trade merely lowers our country in the opinion of the world.

It is for that reason that I invite all representatives of London society to join me in following the example of Virginia, France, Liverpool and the Church of England, by formally apologising for London's role in this monstrous crime.

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I almost choked on my soup in the staffroom at lunch time today when one of the History teachers said that this apology stuff is nonsense, they should be thanking us for stopping the slave trade. I couldn't bring myself to argue with him, particularly as we have to co-exist and have been down a lot of controversial journeys before - he had been apopleptic (?) with rage when I wore my white poppy!

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