Amazing Grace?: Revisiting the Issue of the Abolitionists

By Cateau, Heather | The Journal of Caribbean History, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Amazing Grace?: Revisiting the Issue of the Abolitionists


Cateau, Heather, The Journal of Caribbean History


Who Were the Abolitionists?

The original title for the presentation from which this paper evolved was "The Abolitionists: Profiles and Objectives". However, I have chosen to use the title "Amazing Grace?" This title is based on the muchpublicized movie, which was produced in 2007 to commemorate the bicentenary of the British abolition of the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans. The movie is based on the life of William Wilberforce. It is a historical drama that depicts details of Wilberforce's lfe as well as anti-slavery activism in eighteenth-century England. The title of the movie clearly suggests that the major causal factor in the abolition process was "Amazing Grace". Thus, the major aboli- tionist thrust, if we can call it that, was moti- vated by this "Amazing Grace". Extending the imagery further, the movie glorifies those individuals who were deemed to possess such grace. The script for the movie could have been produced in the nineteenth or early twentieth century, if we base our assessment on the historiography it reflects. The writers do not even make passing reference to any of the over sixty years of scholarship, much of it written by Caribbean academics, challenging this notion of "Amazing Grace" in explaining British abolitionists.

Sadly, this notion extends beyond the movie screen. In current historiography writers usually employ the expression "the abolitionists" to refer to the members of the official anti- slavery societies and parliamentarians who supported abolition. This paper seeks, in part, to revisit the question of who were these abolitionists and give a central place in abolition to the enslaved persons themselves. As suggested above, the reassessment of the role of persons traditionally regarded as abolitionists is not new to Caribbean scholars. Such reassessment is still pertinent in the present discourse, because I believe that it has not become part of mainstream historiography, and certainly has not become common place in the consciousness of the general public or, at least, not among movie writers and producers. This is clearly reflected in British commemorative activities. Much money has been pumped into the commemoration of the bicentenary, but a skewed version of abolitionism and abolitionists is clearly being promoted: Saints, Humanitarians, the British public and possibly one formerly enslaved person, Olaudah Equiano1 (whose narrative the anti- slavery society adopted, though it has been at least partly discounted). I am therefore extremely pleased that the three campuses of the University of the West Indies have been engaged in a series of commemorative lecturers and seminars. This is necessary to ensure that this Amazing Grace discourse is confronted with a counter discourse. We in the Caribbean must play a major part in answering the question, "Who should be considered as abolitionists?", if, for no other reason, than we are the descendants of the first true abolitionists.

Ironically, a survey of the existing historiography would support the contention that there is enough scholarship to give this counter discourse pride of place (this rich historiography will be discussed later). However, as a first step in grappling with the issues raised by our question, "Who were the abolitionists?", we must begin by considering seriously why Wilberforce and Clarkson usually come to mind immediately. Why not Toussaint L'Ouverture of Haiti, Kofi and Quamina of Guyana, and Sam Sharp of Jamaica?2 My contention is not that they are totally absent from the discussion. Indeed, in some contexts they still are acknowledged. Of perhaps even greater concern, however, is that even when this happens, they are still discussed as merely extensions to the traditional dis- course. As a result, there are clear implications for the teach- ing of Caribbean history and other disciplines in Caribbean schools. The reality is, even in the Caribbean con- text, the term "abolitionists" immediately brings to mind Clarkson, Wilberforce, Buxton and other members of the British anti-slavery campaign. …

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