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63 t w o 1807 and All That Why Britain Outlawed Her Slave Trade B o y d H ilt o n I t w o u l d seem that many a patriotic lip was licked in anticipation of the bicentenary in March 2007 of the abolition of the slave trade, or, to be more precise, the bicentenary of the act that outlawed Britain ’s central role in its Atlantic triangle. Appetites had been whetted by the two-hundredth anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar seventeen months earlier, but abolition was more comforting to Blairites in search of a national narrative insofar as its two most acknowledged heroes, William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, could be presented as virtuous idealists, whereas ethically speaking Admiral Lord Nelson had all-tooobvious feet of clay. And so the plans were laid. An official service of remembrance was to be held in Westminster Abbey. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott would call for an annual “antislavery” day in honor of Wilberforce, his predecessor as MP for Hull. On Merseyside it was decided to build a£12 million International Slave Museum on the site of docks that had once grown rich on slave-grown sugar.These initiatives were to be accompaniedbyaplethoraofcommemorativeexhibitions ,musicals,dances,plays, television documentaries, and radio dramas, not to mention a number of So Sorry walks, one of which would trace Clarkson’s campaigning footsteps over 470 miles.1 Lo, all these things came to pass, and in addition at least eight books on Wilberforce were published or republished 64 Boyd Hilton during the calendar year with any number of unctuous titles, subtitles, and chapter headings: “God’s Politician,” “Statesman and Saint,” “The Man Who Freed the Slaves,” “The Washington of Humanity,” “The Millionaire Child Who Gave Up Everything for the African Slaves.”2 The biggest impact of all was made by Michael Apted’s full-length feature film Amazing Grace. According to this biopic’s promotional Web site, “a nation was blind until one man made them see.” Such concentrated glorification of Wilberforce personally, and such belief in the power of human virtue generally, had not been ventured by serious historians and commentators for a very long time, if ever. However, because exhibitions, books, and films take years to project and complete,it often happens that their intended message may easily be blown aside by the whirligig of public opinion and national mood. The anniversary of abolition certainly struck a chord in the media, but few within the ranks of officialdom and bumbledom can have anticipated the extent to which their intended morality play would be subverted. Most spectacularly, the 27 March service in Westminster Abbey faltered to a momentary halt when Toyin Agbetu, an invited representative of the African pressure group Ligali, rushed up to within twenty feet of the altar (and even fewer of the queen) shouting words to this effect: “You should be ashamed. This is an insult to us. The Queen has to say sorry. There is no mention of the African freedom fighters. This is just a memorial for William Wilberforce.”3 Likewise, Diane Abbott led a chorus of condemnation directed against Amazing Grace, partly because it “prettified” the slave trade by neglecting to depict any irons or whips or weals, any gore or rapine or mutilation,4 and partly because, as Agbetu also complained, its concentration on Wilberforce and the politicians led it to neglect the blacks’ own agency in revolting against their often terrified colonial masters. A member of the UK-based Global Afrikan Congress went so far as to argue that a “perverted, misogynistic and racist” Wilberforce had done his best to prevent the abolition of slavery (as distinct from the trade) after 1807 because “it could have led to a personal ‘loss of privileges’ on his part, by denying him his unrestricted access to the group of disempowered Afrikan women whom he used as sex toys.”5 Such responses on the part of the descendants of the victims of slavery were hardly surprising. More interesting was the extent to which descendants of the slave-owning race seem to have shared their jaundiced perspective. Certainly, most of the broadsheets’ public commentary, like 65 Why Britain Outlawed Her Slave Trade most individual blogs and Web sites, concentrated not on abolition but on the trade itself: on its role in making Britain the richest and most powerful country in the world, and in laying the basis for its immense empire; on the likelihood that as many as...


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