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  • Esmé Cleall

As meeting-place for historians in London, the Institute for Historical Research (IHR) hosts a number of seminar series where people present and discuss their research. The 'Reconfiguring the British: Nation, Empire, World' seminar meets fortnightly, and is concerned with thinking about British history in its wider imperial and global contexts. The seminar marked 2007, the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave-trade, by pausing to reflect on the slave-trade, its academic and public commemoration, and its resonance and meanings today. Over the course of the winter term, five papers were presented on the slave-trade and slavery. Barbara Bush discussed African women and the transatlantic slave-trade; Christopher Leslie Brown, the origins of abolitionism; Nick Draper, compensation claims made by the owners of slaves post-Emancipation; Diana Paton, the stories told and plays written about 'Three fingered Jack', a Jamaican outlaw; and Marcus Wood showed us two short films relating to slavery and cultural memory. The final seminar was a roundtable discussion in which Caroline Bressey, Katherine Prior and Jim Walvin, who have all been involved in curating exhibitions commemorating abolition, explored public history, memory, and slavery. As well as being an opportunity to engage with this current research, the seminar has provided a forum to talk and to think about what the bicentenary means: to discuss questions of memory, representations, and the legacies of the slave-trade.

Frustration with repeated media misdescription of 2007 as the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery was expressed in several sessions. Beyond its inaccuracy, such carelessness prompts the question, raised in the final seminar, whether focusing on 1807 obscures recognition that slavery itself continued in the British Empire until the 1830s. As Katherine Prior discussed, whilst the anniversary provides a useful 'hook for funding', it can be used to catch the far bigger issue of slavery itself. The seminar series has both used the anniversary as such a 'hook' to explore the wider question of slavery, and focused at different points on the meaning of 2007 more specifically. From this perspective, Barbara Bush's paper usefully started the programme with a focus on the slave-trade as trade, outlining stages in the capture of women in raids, their sale in polyglot ports and their experiences of the long middle passage.

A different consequence of focusing on 1807, addressed by Christopher Leslie Brown in his paper, is the way in which 1807 frames abolitionism through a teleological framework of both 'triumph' and inevitability. Brown's paper explored the roots of abolitionism and the early representation of the abolition movement by Thomas Clarkson, who claimed it was [End Page 456] Providentially guided. Clarkson's 1808 interpretation of abolitionism – as inevitable, a 'long march of progress' – has become institutionalized. The acceptance of this narrative obscures the more cynical motivations of individual abolitionist campaigners or the political accident and opportunism around abolition. Challenging such a thesis is uncomfortable not only because it questions the 'morally pure' interpretation of abolitionism, but because it raises the spectre of slavery continuing, in its transatlantic form, far longer than 1807.

Another consequence of a focus on 1807 is that the date inevitably centres attention on the Parliamentary abolition of the slave-trade, and with it on white British 'heroes', rather than on black resistance to the trade – on William Wilberforce rather than Oulandah Equiano, for example. Jim Walvin noted with regard to the exhibition he has been working on in Westminster Hall that the British Parliament is a place where abolition can be geographically hinged. As Christopher Leslie Brown suggested, unlike emancipation with its strong tie to the Caribbean, there is no immediately obvious geographical site where the effects of abolition are spatially rooted. The places most associated with the abolition of the slave-trade may be those like Sierra Leone, where the naval squadron 'liberated' captured people, with disastrous consequences which Katherine Prior outlined in her contribution. In emphasizing the element of transition, and the slave-ship as a place of brutalization and identity reformulation, Barbara Bush hinted at the spatiality of the slave-trade...


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