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A kindly Act - newspaper coverage of the bicentenary of the 1807 Abolition Act

Ross Wilson (University of York)

The representation of the bicentenary of the Abolition Act of 1807 in the British press was centred on a number of key themes. Assessing the manner in which the commemoration was represented in the newspapers exposes the way in which this traumatic past is dealt with by the British press and wider society.

Perhaps one of the most interesting features of the newspaper coverage of the bicentenary was the large amount of material present, articles reporting from the Caribbean and Africa as well as special anniversary reports. These articles however concerned respectively the Cricket World Cup, Darfur, Zimbabwe and the 50th anniversary of the European Union. The events held for the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade appeared only briefly. The majority of articles which discussed the commemoration were also placed in the 'Comments' pages of the newspapers. Only a minimum amount of space in the prominent sections of the newspapers was devoted to the remembrance of 1807. This relegation signals an important feature of this coverage, the commemoration was both present and absent. Whilst there was reporting on the events there was no engagement with the history or legacy of enslavement or abolition. With the British newspaper coverage a specific act of commemoration was performed. This performance was not specific to individual articles or newspapers but general across all the tabloids and broadsheets. The use of the term performance is not intended to indicate the fabrication of reporting, rather that this performance necessitated that its audience believe in the manner of representation. In this respect the concept of performativity is useful, as it relates to the way in which language and the arrangement of language when used to describe or explain an individual, object, or event shapes in effect creates that same individual, object, or event (Loxley 2007: 15). In practice, what we say is what we do and who we are (Austen 1962: 16). These statements have greater impact depending upon the authority and power of those who make the statements and the number of times that statement is repeated (Butler 1997: 23). The articles in newspapers, through their authoritative position, are therefore able to state to a wider public a particular way of apprehending the commemoration of the abolition of the slave trade. The almost uniform stance on the commemoration expressed in articles heightens this effect, and the exclusion of dissenting voices to the 'Comments' pages serves to undermine critics, by labelling them as on the fringe of acceptable society.

What is significant in the analysis of the commemoration is the reluctance to address the problems of the legacy of enslavement in British society. No connection is made by any of the major articles to this effect. The largest article in the Independent regarding the bicentenary is a piece describing the six commemorative stamps that are being released to mark the event (anon 23/3/07: 24-25). Equiano, Wilberforce, Sharp, Sancho, More and Clarkson are depicted on the stamps and a brief biography of each is given. This uncritical reporting is again featured in Sengupta's (25/03/07) article, 'Mandela boycotts Bristol's slavery commemoration.' This piece which reports on the plea, made by black community groups in Bristol, to Nelson Mandela to avoid the celebrations in the city so as not to implicitly condone the overwhelmingly white city council, which is accused of riding roughshod over the wishes of the city's black population. No relationship between these circumstances and the legacy of slavery is made. This act of displacement between Britain and the slave trade is continued through a Guardian article discussion of an apology for the slave trade (Wintour 23/03/07: 6). Reporting on former deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's comments, an apology is stated as irrelevant as, 'Africa didn't want this.' Prescott stated that demands for an apology weren't coming from Africa, and on a recent visit to Sierra Leone Prescott revealed that children had told him; 'Not every white man was guilty and not every black man was innocent.' This subtly obscures any suggestion that the legacy of slavery effects British society, and introduces slavery as an issue solely for an undefined 'Africa' to consider as significant or not. The small column inches devoted to the commemorations indicate the low priority given to the bicentenary. It is also a means of avoiding painful and traumatic histories. Batchelor's (25/03/2007: 18) report on James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, and his comments on the murder of Anthony Walker being connected to the legacy of slavery is given two inches of space. The report on the question of an apology for the slave trade is considered, but only in the terms of using the arguments to further taint the image of former Prime Minister Blair (anon 26/03/2007: 8). The title, 'Shame...but no apology: Blair won't say sorry for slave trade', is represented more to highlight the lack of contrition from the discredited former Prime Minister for the war in Iraq, rather than a genocide which only ended partially two hundred years previously.

What is another central feature across the newspaper coverage is a focus on the British achievement in the ending of the slave trade. The Daily Mail leads the way with three articles praising the work of British abolitionists. Isabel Wolf's article on Thomas Clarkson (23/03/2007: 38-41), the article written by Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester (25/03/2007: 18), titled, 'Why I am NOT saying sorry for slavery' and Melanie Phillips (26/03/2007: 14) article, 'Yes, slavery was evil. But all this orgy of breast-beating is utterly absurd.' This reactionary response to the prospects of a recognition of Britain's role in the slave trade and the realisation that the legacy of slavery still shapes British society is also present in reports in The Times. In the 'Letters' (25/03/2007: 20) section in The Sunday Times, members of the public criticise those who have backed the campaign for an apology. These letters are along the lines of, 'shall we make Rome apologise for the invasion and enslavement of Britons?' This mocking attitude is continued with the article by Rod Liddle (25/03/2007: 6) who reports on members of the Evangelical Christian group who were marching to London in chains as a gesture of repentance and apology. 'Today in London, there will be more people saying sorry to one another than at a national convention of invertebrate apologists.' Liddle (25/03/2007: 6) continues to suggest that, 'we were not the first offenders…nor did we invent slavery.' The creation of slavery as an issues and a problem concerned with another is palpable. This tone is repeated in the G2 supplement article in The Guardian on Friday the 23rd of March, as Kevin Bale from 'Free the Slaves', reveals the extent of modern forms of slavery. 'This weekend it will be 200 years since Britain abolished the slave trade. But…enslavement is still very much with us.' The continuance of slavery as exploitation is addressed but the legacy of transatlantic slavery is concealed.

The limitation of debate to the 'Comments' pages places the arguments regarding apologies, reparations and legacies of enslavement on the periphery of public perception. Almost as if the troubling aspects of the commemoration are confined away from view so as not to disturb or offend. Perspectives, both positive and negative regarding abolition and enslavement, are represented in this form. Overwhelmingly however it is those who are sceptical of the bicentenary and Britain's multicultural status who are confined to these pages. The article in The Times by Alice Mills (23/03/2007: 19), draws attention to the way in which Britain still suffers from the poisonous heritage of slavery. Entitled, 'That's enough self-congratulations about the slave trade: Racial equality in Britain? Don't make me laugh', Mills highlights the racism still present in the country, these prejudices are considered to have been inherited from the period of the slave trade. Mills (23/03/2007) asks the pointed question regarding the abolition commemorations, 'should we, modern multicultural Britain, be patting ourselves on the back quite yet?' This is also considered in one of the most critical articles of any newspaper during the weekend. In the Independent Alibhai Brown (26/03/2007: 31) attacked the representation of abolition and slavery in the 'Editorial and Opinion' section, stating that, 'The history of slavery lives on in the devaluation of black and other non-white lives here and abroad.' The non-appearance of the enslaved themselves in discussions is considered as evident that to, 'give them proper credit proves a step too far for Britain.' Alibhai Brown draws attention to the limited and specific nature of the commemoration of the abolition but the article relegated to a lesser section in the newspaper is itself reduced and obscured. Harker (24/03/07: 35) in The Guardian provides an analytical perspective in his assertion that the, 'brutal legacy of the slave trade is manifest in the problems afflicting so many black Britons today.' Kwame Kwei-Armah (25/03/07: 18-19) similarly reveals the manner in which slavery's legacy has robbed many of a sense of belonging and community. These perspectives are however made to compete firstly on the lesser stage of the 'Comments' page and secondly with an ingrained perception also expressed through the 'Comments' pages that, 'rather than apologise for our past we should absorb it (The Observer, anon 25/03/07: 28).

Therefore through the newspaper representation of the bicentenary of the abolition we can observe the means by which a painful past is dealt with. This performance of commemoration induces the belief that enslavement is certainly not an issue for white Britons and those who dissent from this view are the minority troublemakers. Imagining the structure of newspapers as well as the language used in articles enables a means of assessing a reflection of trends within British society. The reinforcing of traditional modes of remembrance, of the heroism and dedication of British abolitionists is present throughout the coverage, as the stories of those who were enslaved are absent. This performance is a means of addressing the trauma of the past; it is also a means of avoiding disturbing the present.

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