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Trade Roots (BBC Radio 4)

Presenter: Michael Buerk
Producer: Tony Phillips
Date: 26, 27, 28 March 2007
Time: 11.00am

Trade Routes explores the penetrating and long-lasting influence of the slave trade in Britain. In this three-part series, Michael Buerk investigates the way in which the Atlantic slave trade provided the economic basis for Britain's imperial and industrial expansion. Uncovering the links that a variety of well-known institutions have to the slave trade, including the Church of England, Barclays Bank and the National Gallery, Trade Routes seeks to demonstrate how profits from the slave trade shaped Britain. The programme features interviews amongst others with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury; Charles Saumarez-Smith, Director of the National Gallery; and David Lascelles, heir to the title of Lord Harewood at Harewood House near Leeds.

The central feature of Trade Routes is to examine various British institution and 'call them into account.' The programme presents itself as a defender of morality and chastises institutions, their representatives and the descendents of those who profited from the slave trade. What is implied throughout is that the programme's presenter Michael Buerk takes on the role of a latter-day abolitionist. In the Wilberforce and Clarkson model, Buerk appears at times to be taking on the establishment. The programme is therefore half-documentary and seemingly half-personal moral crusade. On one occasion Buerk states with vehemence after conducting a pained interview with Bishop Michael Doe, Director of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, 'I haven't finished with the church.' As Bishop Doe sought to downplay his society's involvement with the slave trade, Buerk confronts him with aggressive questioning which both alienates the interviewee and further puts him on the defensive. Despite the fact that the Bishop worryingly seems to want to question the extent of the branding of slaves held by the society, this is indicative of the interviewing style throughout the programme.

Though reined in on occasion by Professor James Walvin and Professor David Richardson, Buerk leads an assault throughout the programme on a succession of individuals with connections to the slave trade. The drive to 'call them into account' appears to be focused on Buerk's continual question of guilt. Repeatedly he asks in one guise or another, 'do you feel guilt regarding your ancestors or predecessors role in the slave trade.' The proof of this guilt is seemingly contained within the dramatic intonation and emotive language of the programme, the lavish interiors of country houses, galleries and museums are described ,and pride in family history are discussed before Buerk poses the question of guilt. Almost all of those interviewed refuse to participate in this process, as whilst they might admit shame at the actions of the past, they deny the responsibility of guilt. In the rush to label these individuals as complicit in the denial or obscuring of Britain's role in the slave trade the programme misses out on an opportunity of engaging with these complex and contradictory issues.

The programme does make a pertinent point regarding the celebration of the abolition in Britain: that the legacy of slavery in Britain is 'worth remembering in the week when we congratulate ourselves for abolishing the trade in human chattels.' This however reveals a glaring omission in the programme and the offensive nature of the commentary by Buerk. By focusing on economic issues the programme presents everything from a British perspective, enslaved Africans appear only in constant reference to 'human chattels.' One of the results of enslavement and the African Diaspora is the rich African cultural heritage brought to Britain, a subject worth celebrating for its strength and vivacity. These issues are ignored in a programme devoted to British interests and it therefore ensures that the warning of hypocrisy in the commemoration of the abolition appear hollow and sanctimonious. The programme itself promotes the absence of the enslaved in historical perspective.

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