The Past in Print, Sound and Vision: After the Bicentenary: The Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in Recent History

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Heroes are tall and handsome these days. Yet they are not all that dark. In the 2006 film Amazing Grace (directed by Michael Apted), loan Gruffudd makes a fantastic hero, standing a full eight inches taller than the real William Wilberforce and--to lapse shamelessly from objectivity--being rather more likely to set the hearts of ladies afire. He rampages across the sets of the film with true heroic fervour, on the side of right and good and being kind to the poor, children and animals all.

It's all great stuff and Wilberforce was undoubtedly a great man, but the problem is that it tells only one side of the story. Yet again it's the story of the big white hero protecting all those poor denigrated Africans. Didn't we get over this years ago with the end of colonialism?

In the film the only dark-skinned person seen at all is Youssou N'Dour playing Olaudah Equiano and he has only a small role. All the other countless people of African origin who fought to resist the slave trade and enslavement happen off-screen, unmentioned and as if largely irrelevant to the work of the great (white) man.

I am not the first historian to point out that this type of hagiography is not only historically incorrect, it also reverts to an earlier understanding of how the transatlantic slave trade came to be abolished. It ignores decades of research and countless works of scholarship to make it all about the 'saints' once more.

Ever since Eric Williams' Capitalism and Slavery was published in 1944 any such simplistic analysis has not washed with academic historians. Williams asserted that the British abolished the slave trade because profits from plantation agriculture were in sharp decline. It is a view which has been roundly decried by many, not least Seymour Drescher in his classic book Econocide (1977) and more recently in The Mighty Experiment (2004). But it will not completely go away, having been reinvigorated in the last decade by new works exploring Williams' ideas.

Whether correct or not, Williams' arguments have ensured that no serious historian can afford to see Wilberforce as the stand-alone great man without at least acknowledging that there was a great deal more to abolition than that. …