Reflections on the Bicentennial of the Abolition of the British Slave Trade

Article excerpt

In March 2007, I visited the United Kingdom to present two conference papers on black abolitionists in the Atlantic world. Both talks drew upon my recently published book Rites of August First: Emancipation Day in the Black Atlantic World (2007). I also planned to use this trip to evaluate bicentennial commemorations of the abolition of the British slave trade. This essay offers an analysis of some of the more important commemorations. Although events were also held in the major slave-trading ports of Liverpool and Bristol, this essay focuses on the capital city of London.(1) I also attempt to address broader questions of historical memory and public history in this essay, which is divided into two parts: a critical examination of the commemorative events, followed by some suggestions for future commemorations. My sources consist of personal notes, published pamphlets, newspaper articles, secondary historical literature, and websites. The essay has three major objectives. The first is to provide readers of The Journal of African American History with a personal walking tour through these important commemorations, identifying various sources for further reading. The second is to make cross-national connections between slavery and abolition in the United Kingdom and the United States both past and present. The final objective is to help to explain why public history matters.

EXHIBITING THE PAST

The City of Westminster, a borough of London with "city" status, has long been home to the British political and legal establishment. Between February and November 2007, Westminster organized a series of events marking the bicentennial of the 1807 Act of Parliament outlawing slave trade participation by British citizens. The exhibit, "On the Road to Abolition: Ending the British Slave Trade, 1807-2007," consisted of a trail around fifteen small and large sites presenting various aspects of the British slave trade and its abolition. Some of these sites were quite revealing. As a native Londoner, I have walked Trafalgar Square (London's equivalent of New York City's Times Square) countless times, but never noticed before a brass relief of a black crewman holding a musket at the base of the south side of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson's column, a 170-foot monument to Britain's most famous sailor. This crewman was either George Ryan, a 24-year-old ordinary seaman listed as an "African," or he was one of nine West Indians who served on Nelson's flagship Victory. (2)

Indeed, black sailors often served on British and American ships. In the early 18th century, white sailors performed maritime labor, while most people of African descent were enslaved. This was to change, however, from the late 18th century onwards. Black men often served as cooks, officer's servants, and musicians in the British Royal Navy. Despite their menial tasks, black seamen obtained a degree of protection from kidnapping by serving on military ships. After the War of Independence, black men also served in the U.S. merchant marines. W. Jeffrey Bolster estimates that black men (mostly free) constituted nearly one-fifth of U.S. seamen by 1803; while Keletso Atkins maintained that between 40 to 50 percent of U.S. whale crews in the South Atlantic off the South African coastline were African Americans. (3) Although menial work and racism were rarely far away, this maritime experience reminds us that not all African Americans were enslaved, and that many of these traveling seamen played a vital role in establishing cross-national connections between people and ports.

The exhibition "Westminster and the Transatlantic Slave Trade" mounted at Westminster City Archives was the 13th site listed on the trail. Through a series of twenty-five panels, the exhibit described the impact of the slave trade at the local level and particularly on the lives of black residents. One estimate puts the black population in Britain during the 1790s at between 10,000 and 15,000, with most living in and around London and working as laborers and domestics. …