Topic one: Memory matters - Britain and the abolition of the slave trade 1807-2007

A photo of a statue of William Wilberforce

Statue of William Wilberforce, Wilberforce House, Hull

This article examines the diverse literature available on the subject of memory within academia and applies it to the commemorations of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain. Wider social reasons are sought for the reasons as to why the abolition is being remembered in this particular manner at this particular time, and a challenge is issued to find a manner of representation which engenders social justice and equality rather than division.

Memory studies

The topic of memory has been one of the most of the most fiercely debated areas of the humanities and social sciences over the last three decades. The question of what it means to remember the past, why the past is remembered and the effect of that remembrance have perplexed historians, sociologists and anthropologists alike. Memory has become an area of study all by itself, though the exact nature of its meaning and application has remained fiercely debated.

The origin of this current obsession with memory is considered to be the work of the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs. His Collective Memory (1992) opened the door for the discussion of the way in which groups and societies collectively remembered the past. Halbwachs defined memory in comparison with history, labelling the latter a dry, academic pursuit, where memory was a living phenomenon. Since the 1980s studies of memory have begun to engage with these issues and expand into other areas of concern. Of particular importance has been the emergence of analyses which seek to examine the memory of the traumatic events of the twentieth century. The memory of these events has been examined as a means to address the legacy of these events, in effect to provide a form of therapy for the troubled aspects of the past. Prominent in this respect has been the Jewish Holocaust 1939-1945, the Apartheid in South Africa and the struggles of Indigenous peoples for self-determination. Soyinka (1999: 58) states, 'a people who do not preserve their memory are a people who have forfeited their history.' What has emerged in these areas is the importance of memory in the construction of identity, as aspects of the past are drawn upon to construct a sense of who we are in the present.

This recruitment of memory by groups has also revealed a separate focus of study as to why particular histories are remembered at particular times. Memory is shown to be quite a flexible device in this respect in a variety of social and political agendas. Novick (2001) has brought this question to the fore in his study of the remembrance of the Holocaust in America; far from being constant, Novick suggests that the past is returned to at different moments to achieve different objectives. Sociologists have also pointed to this trend. Schudson's (1992) study, Watergate in American Memory, highlights how the scandal of Richard Nixon's Presidency resurfaces periodically in public discourse not to draw attention to the events themselves but to give definition to other areas of debate. Schwartz's (2003) Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory, a Study of the Memory of the Assassinated President in American Society, also reveals how the return to the past is used to mobilise the present. In this case the image of Lincoln in a variety of guises is drawn upon by successive American governments to legitimise their actions, politically, economically and militarily. This is neatly summarised in Irwin-Zarecka's (1994) work, Frames of Remembrance: The Dynamics of Collective Memory, which expertly considers the manner in which the past is drawn upon by societies in various contexts.

Remembering the abolition

These discussions are highly useful in the commemoration of the Abolition Act of 1807; they provide a stimulus to a number of questions regarding the presence and absence of particular areas of the past from the 'collective memory.' Significantly these theories of memory enable a means of assessing interpretations of the past firmly in the present. They demonstrate that remembrance is an activity carried out in the here and now, influenced by contemporary needs and desires. Samuel and Thompson (1990) in their edited work, The Myths We Live By, demonstrate that figures and events of the past play a vital role in the creation of identities as well as in the social struggles we engage in. The memory of the past is deeply significant in the stories told regarding, who we are, and where we've come from. These stories are not fixed however; they shift and alter with time in relation to wider processes in society. The bicentenary of the 1807 Abolition Act offers an opportunity of engaging, challenging and recreating 'the myths we live by' in Britain today.

A photo of the Wedgewood supplicant slave on a museum information panel

Information board from the Equiano exhibition, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, September 2007

Larger image (49KB)

Memory is used as a vehicle by groups and individuals to express themselves to themselves and to others. The memory of William Wilberforce and the abolitionists achieves prominence because it has been used by a variety of groups to stake their own claim in the present. The memory of Wilberforce, whether used as indicative of the kindness of the 'British' character (Hague 2007), an example of the value of a 'Christian life' (Metaxas 2007), or humanity's ability for compassion (Vaughan 2002), is frequently evoked. The memory of Ignatius Sancho, Olaudah Equiano and Frances Barber amongst others are similarly used to highlight the presence of strong black characters in Britain in the eighteenth century to inspire the present (Dabydeen 1987). Similarly Hannah More, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman are also drawn upon as figures that in this case represent the struggle against both enslavement and a staunchly patriarchal society (Adi and Sherwood 2003). The recent controversy surrounding the actual character of Wilberforce and the authenticity of Equiano's narrative highlight how groups will defend their figures of memory because of their importance in the construction of their sense of identity. These groups refute historical research that Wilberforce as a high Tory, campaigned against the rights of working-class British citizens, or that Equiano may well have been born into slavery in South Carolina rather than captured on the West Coast of Africa. This is the difference between history and memory, they are entwined, but memory doesn't need to be restricted to historical rigour, and in the quest for representation and recognition such academic niceties appear unimportant.

Remembering slavery?

During the commemorations of 1807 a definite tension could be witnessed in exactly what was and what should be commemorated, abolitionism or enslavement. The passing of the 1807 Act ended only the trade in enslaved Africans, the institution of slavery would not be formally ended in the British Empire until 1838. This apparent loss of thirty-one years highlighted the way in which memory is drawn upon by contemporary society. In Britain enslavement can be seen sometimes to be remembered only through abolition, perhaps as a means of overcoming and obscuring the painful recognition of complicity in the Atlantic slave trade. Perhaps this is also the case because the work of the abolitionists, their moral fortitude, their perseverance, speaks more about how certain groups might want Britain represented today. In a time when the actions of Britain in Iraq and Afghanistan are criticised, when anti-terror laws appear to curtail individual freedom and when environmental and economic pressures highlight the damage caused by 'British' interests, the memory of the abolitionists provide a haven for those wishing to define a sense of identity and self. If the construction of identity is regarded as on ongoing discourse, utilising the memory of the past to articulate current desires and needs, then the memory of past peoples and events is used as a resource to state a distinctive identity concurrent with the prevailing social context (after Hall 1990, 222). The significant amount of Government attention and Heritage Lottery Funding for commemorations of 1807 might be considered indicative of a concerted effort to promote and inspire a vision of Britain's largesse rather than its complicity.

This is not a denial of events, but evidence that stories haven't been accessed which can deal effectively with this sense of responsibility. Old stories however can be replaced by new stories. Figures or events can be found or 'reinvented' which can play an equally prominent place in the accounts of our history. What this requires however is a consideration of a shared heritage. The bicentenary of the 1807 Abolition Act offers an opportunity of engaging, challenging and recreating 'the myths we live by' in Britain today. As debates regarding the prominence of the abolitionists, the agency of the enslaved and the representation of the Middle Passage are played out, a prime motivating factor should be: why are these aspects of the past important to us now? And why are some histories forgotten? This is not an easy question, as it engages with the issues of why the memory of British involvement in the slave trade has remained largely neglected within public discourse, why the memory of Wilberforce has achieved prominence over others and why the depiction of the experience of enslavement is fraught with controversy. Popular memory is used as a means of representation; therefore, we should take account of this in the way the past is told. Offering characters and events which speak to individuals about the way they can view themselves should be a prominent concern. This need not focus on figures unique to Britain, as the history of enslavement informs us of an 'Atlantic heritage' (Gilroy 1993). What it does need to be however is infused with purpose and meaning for society: to provide a means of strengthening and sharing the memories within social groups.

Alternative myths

A photo of a bust of Thomas Clarkson

A bust of Thomas Clarkson

Following this principle, an alternative means of representation can be suggested. Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Claudia Jones, Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, Mary Birkett are characters from history that should be accessed by all regardless of ethnicity or background. This access is prevented by the manner in which they are represented to the wider public. Museum displays which describe for example, Frederick Douglass as a 'black, American abolitionist' fail to communicate to their audience that here was an individual who 'fought for social equality.' Similarly, Mary Birkett was not a, 'Liverpool-born, British woman who campaigned for abolition', she was an individual who worked, 'to inspire a social conscious.' The text which accompanies exhibits and pictures in museums is an authoritative statement; it demands that its audience comprehends the information relayed in a particular manner. Opening up the memory of the past to be shared, and not automatically to construct boundaries in the dissemination of material is essential. Dividing the figures of the past into nationality, ethnicity and gender prevents their appreciation and recognition by the public, as it acts to reinforce the divisions and boundaries of society. The 'myths we live by' are flexible, they are adaptable to new situations. Accessing a past in a manner that encourages a sharing of stories and memories across groups and communities is a means of re-imagining the memory of the past.


Amongst other questions this article raises it might be worth considering the following discussion points.

The issues raised in this article are of interest to those involved in the commemoration of 1807 as it concerns the matter of why and what is chosen to be remembered. In responding to these questions correspondents should consider practical as well as theoretical alternatives. This article should be thought of as a provocation for the visitors to 1807 Commemorated to challenge their own ideas and perceptions as to the representation of the memory of abolitionism and enslavement.

Respond to this article, email:


Introduction | back to the top