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

Seymour Drescher , Capitalism and Antislavery (Pittsburgh, 1986)

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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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