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  • James Walvin

The bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807 prompted a remarkable wave of public commemorations across Britain. In contrast to the low-key events of 1907, 2007 saw a sustained and nation-wide urge to commemorate, publicise and discuss the Atlantic slave trade and its abolition. Government interest proved an important influence, and was reflected in a lively educational debate (resulting in changes to the National Curriculum.) This political interest may have stemmed from the parallel debate about modern human trafficking, and contemporary slave systems. Equally, the availability of funding (from the Heritage Lottery Fund) may have persuaded a host of institutions to devise exhibitions, displays and debates about events of 1807. Perhaps the most striking forms of commemoration were in broadcasting and publishing: the BBC was especially active. There were few regions or localities which remained unaffected by the year's commemorations.

But why was there such interest? Was 1807, with the outlawing of an unquestioned evil, seen as a moment of national virtue? But if so, how are we to recall the role played by the British in the perfection of Atlantic slavery and the slave trade? The lively debates in 2007, from major national institutions to small local gatherings, revealed the problematic nature of abolition itself. After all, slavery survived, and even the slave trade continued after 1807. So what was important about 1807? The commemorations of 2007 raised public awareness about an important transformation in the British past; it also exposed those intellectual and political complexities about the ending of the Atlantic slave trade which have proved so fascinating to academic historians.

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1 Times, 25 Mar. 1907.

2 The Anti-Slavery Reporter, fourth series, 27 (1907), ‘Annual Report’, 1907, 2–12.

3 Ibid., 41–5.

4 Times, 23 Mar. 1907.

5 Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), Tuesday 20 Mar. 2007, vol. 458, no. 64, cols. 687–780.

7 I had decided to set aside the year for abolition activities. In the end I did eighty-nine lectures on the topic at a range of gatherings, from local libraries through to national institutions and international venues.

8 Figures provided by the curators, Melanie Unwin (parliament) and Clare Weston (Birmingham). For parliament see also

9 I was adviser/guest curator for the Equiano Exhibition at the Birmingham Museums and Galleries, and at the parliamentary exhibition in Westminster Hall.

10 See Liverpool and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, ed. David Richardson, Suzanne Schwarz and Anthony Tibbles (Liverpool, 2008).

11 For the broad history of slavery, see Davis, David Brion, Inhuman Bondage (New York, 2006).

12 Howard Temperley, After Slavery: Emancipation and its Discontent (2000).

13 For these and all other details, see the TransAtlantic Slave Trade Data Base,

14 William Pettigrew, ‘Parliament and the Escalation of the Slave Trade, 1690–1714’, in The British Slave Trade: Abolition, Parliament and People, ed. Stephen Farrell, Melanie Unwin and James Walvin, Edinburgh University Press for Parliamentary History Yearbook Trust (Edinburgh, 2007).

15 James Walvin, Fruits of Empire. Exotic Produce and British Taste, 1660–1800 (1997), ch. 8.

16 Smith, S. D., Slavery, Family and Gentry Capitalism in the British Atlantic. The World of the Lascelles, 1648–1834 (Cambridge, 2006).

17 The BBC played an active role, through their local/regional stations in encouraging scrutiny of local slavery connections. See e.g.; Isle of Man;

18 For a list of the major events, see Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, 1807–2007 (HM Government, 2007), 14–15.

19 Service to Commemorate the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, Tuesday 27 Mar. 2007.

20 The major abolition events for the year can be found in Calendar of Events, 2007, Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, published by the Dept for Communities and Local Government, 2007.

21 Among the many pamphlets published by local authorities see Kirklees Council, The Abolition of the Slave Trade, 2007, City of Westminster, Abolition of the Slave Trade Events to Mark the Bicentenary of the 1807 Act of Parliament, 2007; Connecting Histories, Birmingham City Council, 2007.

22 For a very good example, see John Charlton, Hidden Chains. The Slavery Business and North East England, 1600–1865 (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2008).

23 My own book, A Short History of Slavery (2007), delivered to the publishers in 2005, was ‘parked’ for a year by Penguin in order to hit the abolitionist market in 2007.

24 Information kindly provided by Dr Fiona Spiers, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund, Yorkshire and Humberside.

25 ‘A Message from the Prime Minister’, Calendar of Events.

26 Home Office, Press Release, 17 Dec. 2008.

27 Reaching Out. An Action Plan on Social Inclusion, Cabinet Office, Sept. 2006.

28 In God's Name. The Role of the Church in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, City Hall, Aug. 2007.

29 Drescher, Seymour, Capitalism and Antislavery (Pittsburgh, 1986).

30 Morgan, Kenneth, Slavery and the British Empire (Oxford, 2007).

31 For the origins of abolition see Christopher Leslie Brown, Moral Capital (Chapel Hill, 2006).

32 This is the subject of my forthcoming book, The Zong. One Ship in the Age of Slavery (2010).

33 Ellen Gibson Wilson, Thomas Clarkson. A Biography (1989).

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Transactions of the Royal Historical Society
  • ISSN: 0080-4401
  • EISSN: 1474-0648
  • URL: /core/journals/transactions-of-the-royal-historical-society
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