You are here: Reports » Phase 1: media » Reviews » The Legacies of Abolition

The Legacies of Abolition (BBC Radio 3)

Presenter: Henry Bonsu
Producer: Sara Davies
Date: Sunday 25 March 2007
Time: 8.30pm

The Legacies of Abolition featured a round-table discussion hosted by the journalist Henry Bonsu with Professor James Walvin, journalist Adam Hochschild and human rights lawyer and activist Esther Stanford. The programme examined the way in which slavery and abolition is represented in Britain and the issues and complexities which are still faced today because of the Atlantic slave trade.

Bonsu opens the discussion with an admission that the programme is the result of the difficult memory of enslavement and the commemoration of the abolition, stating 'we're uncomfortable with this subject, this anniversary.' The initial discussion regards the issue of the commemoration of abolition. The significance of the 1807 Act is set into its historical context by Walvin who argues that whilst it is a 'big moment…it did not end slavery.' The peculiarly British condition of remembering the nation's part in the ending of African enslavement but not Britain's complicity in the crime is commented upon by all. Stanford exclaims, 'The truth about 1807 has to be told. What are we marking?' Stanford's intention is move the discussion away from the blinkered approach that the legend of abolition has induced. 'We should be looking at the system which legitimated slavery. Britain, the British nation, we have to examine what really happened.' Hochschild also refers to the self-congratulatory nature of the anniversary. The 1807 Act is thereby bypassed as it appears as an inconvenient topic to be dismissed before the real issues are raised. This begins the fiercely contested debate concerning memory, identity, complicity, guilt and reparations. Whilst Walvin manages to tread the middle ground in these arguments, Stanford and Hochschild engage in angry debate. Hochschild reacts to what he appears to view as the fashionable trends in the examination of enslavement and instead draws attention to what he describes as an apparent innate character of human nature: the drive to conquer and enslave others. These trends for Hochschild are further evidenced in the differences in Britain and America, where enslavement rather than slavery is used as a term in the former more than the latter. Stanford reacts to this seemingly blasé approach to the importance of language in the representation of the brutal oppression of millions, 'it concerns me that a historian could hold these views...'

The topics covered in the discussion focus on the existence of slavery in Africa before the Atlantic trade, which Stanford dismisses as a 'red herring', the presence of enslavement in the national curriculum in Britain and the issue of reparations. Stanford's rejection of African slave traders also ensures that the programme doesn't address a topic which has been alluded to and discussed in the majority of programmes in the season. The role of educating a generation about enslavement is essential for Walvin and Stanford. Walvin desires that the issue should be viewed as a part of modern Britain, 'slavery is as British as a sweet cup of tea. Slavery made Britain.' Stanford however states that the way in which enslavement is taught should be rethought entirely, with 'Eurocentric' modes of thought accompanied by African histories and philosophies. 'History is not neutral', states Stanford, 'there are different ways in which we can narrate the past.' The discussion closes with the issue of reparations which further divide the panel. Hochschild regards the issue as unhelpful for the debate as the term 'reparations' brings 'associated baggage' with it, presumably referring to guilt or responsibility. Stanford however reminds Hochschild again that language and meaning are significant as they form the preserve of the powerful. Around the world today Stanford says, 'African people are not free...We can't move on because we haven't dealt with it.' The case for reparations is argued for strongly by Stanford to rectify both past and present damage wrought by the enslavement and its legacy. This is believed to take the form of recognition rather than solely financial compensation. This concept of recognition as a form of reparations is echoed by Walvin who describes it as, 'one of the first steps on making good on the past.' The programme thereby provides an informed, passionate debate on the way enslavement needs to be addressed in Britain. The absence of discussion regarding abolition marks the programme out in comparison to others in the BBC season.

Reviews | back to the top