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In search of Wilberforce (BBC 2)

Presenter: Moira Stuart
Executed Producers: Pam Fraser Soloman / Jean-Claude Bragard
Produced and Directed: Gillian Bancroft
Date: Friday 16 March 2007
Time: 9.00pm

In Search of Wilberforce is a documentary presented by Moira Stuart which sets out to discover the truth regarding the abolitionist William Wilberforce and his contribution to the ending of the slave trade and emancipation. The documentary features interviews with academics and a variety of commentators and professionals; the programme follows Stuart as she travels to Ghana, Jamaica, America and back to Britain to examine enslavement and its legacy.

The programme makes a substantial effort to undermine the iconic status Wilberforce holds in Britain. The documentary is well-structured and the informed questioning by Stuart enables a debunking of the Wilberforce legend and a challenge to the myopia in Britain which focuses upon the abolitionists rather than those who were enslaved. This valorisation of Wilberforce is challenged at the opening of the programme with Stuart asserting that, 'history didn't happen that way', and that a focus on the abolitionist is, 'not the full story.' Stuart travels to the slave castles on the Ghanaian coast where she is shown the abject conditions in which enslaved Africans were held before the Middle Passage by the poet and academic Dr. Abena Busia. Stuart weeps at the sight of dungeons and the condemned cells, she exclaims, 'I'm sorry. No, it's the horror of it.' The deep emotion which is evoked by this experience is used as the starting point to the documentary, 'I've come in search for William Wilberforce and I've found some of my greatest fears and I'm angry and I'm in pain. The ocean is a burial place for my ancestors. I cannot understand how for so many centuries...mankind allowed this inhumanity to continue.' Stuart then takes a personal agenda to the documentary which adds an extra dimension to the programme. This is particularly evident in her journey to Hull, to examine the home of Wilberforce. Stuart speaks to a member of the American Baptist Association Kevin Belmonte, a firm supporter of Wilberforce, who asserts the status of Wilberforce as the great emancipator. Stuart challenges this interpretation of history and Belmonte is evidently uncomfortable with this questioning. Stuart focuses on Wedgewood's image of the supplicant slave to confront Belmonte that his view of the past is skewed. The opportunity of pushing these issues further is lost though as Stuart chooses to joke with Belmonte regarding the image of the enslaved African.

Stuart also seeks to discover if Wilberforce is similarly venerated in other parts of the world. In Ghana she finds that 1807 and Wilberforce are unheard of, as the Emancipation Act of 1833 has far more weight. In Jamaica, Professor Verene Shepherd tells Stuart of the folk song in the island which included the line, 'he had the will but not the force.' Shepherd with fiery indignation tells Stuart of the brutalities of enslavement and its continuance after 1807 and Wilberforce's apparent 'victory.' Prominent in this respect is an emphasis on the efforts of enslaved peoples to free themselves, wrestling the victory of abolition and emancipation away from white campaigners. The revolt on Jamaica in 1831-1832 is discussed as, 'the greatest assault on slavery', and the figure of the Jamaican revolutionary Sam Sharpe is shown as one which is held above others. Shepherd tells Stuart, 'we don't care how England is commemorating the abolition. Here in Jamaica we are saying these are the people we need to honour.' Stuart thereby offers an alternative to the commemoration of the 1807 Abolition Act in Britain. This alternative message is confirmed back in Britain with an interview with Catherine Hall, the then Birmingham Museums Coordinator. Hall states that through the exhibitions and displays in the museums in the city, 'what I want to stress that without the agency of black people it wouldn't have happened, without white people it wouldn't have happened. It's a shared heritage.' This notion of collective history is propounded by the programme as comparisons are made with the 1939-1945 Holocaust, 'it's a history for white and black people.' Whilst the programme attempts a major revision of the popular memory in Britain, it falls back on reconciliation and recognition. The figure of Wilberforce is acknowledged but the audience is asked to view a wider perspective which includes the enslaved peoples themselves. Stuart emphasises this perspective as she closes the programme with the statement, 'if Wilberforce is remembered as the conscious of the nation surely they should be remembered as the conscious of the world.'

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