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The Road to Abolition (BBC Radio 3)

Written by: Amanda Whittington
Producer: Sara Davies
Date: Sunday 25 March
Time: 7.30pm

This show broadcast during Radio 3's Abolition Evening represents an innovative narrative exploration of the social context of the Abolition Act of 1807. Written by dramatist Amanda Whittington the programme features eminent historians of the period James Walvin, Anne C. Bailey and Adam Hochschild, and enactments of the thoughts and words of some of the notable characters of the movement, Thomas Clarkson, Olaudah Equiano and Granville Sharp.

The intersecting narratives follow a chronological order from 1787 following the Abolitionists as the historians comment upon the social, economic and political situation of the period. The programme is keen to provide a revisionist version of the history of the slave trade whilst respecting traditional historical boundaries. The works of abolitionists are studied but this is balanced with the consideration of the uprising and revolutions of enslaved Africans in the Caribbean. The programme prevents any complacency or self-congratulatory histories of the abolitionists as they are represented not as the voice of the silent majority, but a minority composed largely of those on the edges of society, dissenters and non-conformists. Wilberforce is mentioned once, but focus is placed upon Sharp and Equiano. A great deal of attention is paid to the way in which the abolitionists controlled and managed the information released to the public. Their adept organisation is remarked upon and their shrewd use of events to accomplish their goals is described by Hochschild as an early form of propaganda. An interesting feature of the documentary is the analysis of those who opposed the abolition movement. The Member of Parliament for Liverpool, Tarleton, an opponent of the Abolitionists, and his opinions regarding the potential ruin of Britain's commercial interests are fully assessed by the programme. This use of alternative voices also enables an assessment of the opinions of the lower classes in eighteenth century Britain. This however forms a weaker section of the programme as the working class poor are represented through outmoded stereotypes as 'humble people', simple and sympathetic to the plight of enslaved Africans. This sympathy is derived from the actions of Royal Navy press gangs which were viewed at the time as a form of enslavement itself. Another alternative voice concerns the sugar boycott which introduces the way in which eighteenth century English women shaped the abolition movement from a position in society which was highly restrictive.

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the documentary was the contribution of the historian Anne C. Bailey who emphasises the role of resistance in African enslavement. Stating her intention to rework the memory of enslavement to one which celebrates resistance rather than commemorating suffering, Bailey uses this history to affirm black heritage in the shaping of the modern world. In effect this attempts to change the consciousness regarding enslavement within Britain, reversing perceptions of unmitigated suffering towards regarding enslaved peoples as possessing an active engagement with their world and indeed significantly upon our own. The documentary thereby fuses the traditional historical emphasis on abolition in Britain with alternative voices and perceptions. This however generates a contradictory history which appears hesitant to go too far in its revisionism but which finds faults in received opinion.

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