Britain's ban on the slave trade: moral lessons for today

"I thought it was the Yanks that had the slave trade." I overheard this comment in 2002 in Liverpool, once one of England's three largest slave- trading ports.

Until very recently, Britain rarely gave public acknowledgment of its own involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. But this year, the country is commemorating the bicentenary of the slave trade's abolition.

After nationwide ceremonies and activities, all Britons should better understand their ancestors' connection to the slave trade and its sad legacies. And hopefully, the commemoration will help Britons and others around the world see how easy it can be to slip into the mentality that made slavery possible in the first place.

Though slavery itself was not abolished in the British Isles until 1838, in March 1807, the British Parliament passed a measure that halted the transatlantic trade of human beings.

Across Britain today, the bicentenary events will acknowledge the human atrocities resulting from the slave trade, honor the efforts of those who opposed it, and institute a new phase in a more inclusive, multicultural public history.

Most notably, Liverpool awaits the opening this summer of a new International Slavery Museum that promises to become a global center for the study of slavery. The city of Hull will reopen the refurbished Wilberforce House Museum, the birthplace and residence of the 19th- century abolitionist-parliamentarian William Wilberforce, who lobbied hard to end slave trading.

The Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery is preparing a major exhibit on the life of Olaudah Equiano, an enslaved African who bought his own freedom and became a famous abolitionist in Britain. And a London-based group, "Churches Together in England," has established a national project called "Set all Free" to examine slavery, racism, and the present-date trafficking of human beings.

With so many public events, the commemoration will undoubtedly bring together individuals with differing agendas. For some, the activities signify a time to highlight the historical trauma of slavery. Others may prefer to mark an emerging humanism that first made abolition a matter of social justice. And some who see the bicentenary commemoration as polarizing may eschew the events altogether. It's important, then, for event planners to present their exhibits and activities in proper context.

For example, while celebrating the work of white abolitionists, it would be a mistake to convey the idea that enslaved Africans never rebelled on their own behalf or that their freedom was "a gift" given to them by white liberals. Yet traditional abolitionist imagery depicts enchained Africans as submissive or suppliant.

Activity planners could contextualize these images by showing how the efforts of white abolitionists were matched by slaves who fought for their own freedom. Though slavery was an utterly degenerate and debilitating social condition, those subjected to it struggled to preserve their human dignity and agency, and this fact – not slaves' dehumanized status – should be emphasized.

One of the most important lessons that the bicentenary commemoration can impart is that none of us should smugly claim that we are more morally advanced than our predecessors. Though it is possible to come away feeling superior to those who carried on the slave trade for so long (surely we would all have been abolitionists), the regrettable fact is that many Britons lived quite comfortably with the slave trade.

And many more were touched by the trade in Britain, whether they sold copper pipe to be traded on the Guinea Coast, invested in the ships that took the pipe to Africa, or outfitted the sailors who manned the ships. With the true horrors of slavery far away off the coast of Africa or in the Caribbean, it was relatively easy for many Britons to convince themselves that the slave trade was benign.

The unfortunate truth is that a profound and widespread evil such as slavery doesn't necessarily unfold in the moment as a story of human suffering. The worst kind of evil is often invisible to most as they carry out their mundane daily business.

From this bicentenary, all of us the world over can learn to ask – and answer – these types of questions: Where are we similarly complicit with invisible or hidden social or commercial injustices? Where might our descendants look back and find us to have been culpable? If through these queries we discover unjust situations, we can begin taking steps to right the wrongs.

In the end, there are many salutary lessons in the history of British transatlantic slavery. From the commemoration of its abolition, we all stand to learn the moral courage to question what consequences our own actions have on the communities around us, and around the world.

Beth Kowaleski Wallace is an associate professor of English at Boston College.

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