Over spring break I had the opportunity to visit London with the University of Maryland. The trip was guided by Associate Professor of History Richard Bell and the topic of his course was the British Empire. Slavery played a major role in the history of the British Empire, and since the trip heavily focused on seeing physical places, such as museums and monuments, I couldn’t help but think comparatively about how the British remember slavery and how we remember slavery, here across the pond.
In terms of remembering slavery, 2007 was a significant year for the British. It marked the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade within the Empire and the British debated the appropriate way of marking the occasion.
In Fen Court London, a Memorial to the Abolition of the Slave Trade was unveiled by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It shows a series of columns which represent sugar cane, and an auction block. No depictions of people appear in the memorial and perhaps the message is that slavery destroys people and turns them into simple commodities. This is a worthy message, but I wonder if it gets too far away form the elements of human suffering caused by slavery.
Contrast this with Montpellier’s exhibit opened just last year, The Mere Distinction of Colour. The house of James Madison opened an exhibit which made an effort to raise the voices of the enslaved on the plantation so they could be heard. The exhibit uses the recordings of enslaved people’s descendants to read the stories of their ancestors. The first thing you see with the accompanying audio is text which says something such as, “I was a son. I was kidnapped. I was a fiddle player”. Of course this is a capability which would not be possible in an outdoor monument, but one can see a clear difference in intent. This exhibit seeks to call on the humanity of the enslaved, which seems absent in the Fen Court Memorial.
At the 2018 American Historical Association Conference in DC, representatives from Monticello, Montpelier, and Highland, the homes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, held a panel to talk about the appropriate way to tell the story of slavery on the plantations of presidents. They all had slightly different approaches, but they all mentioned how recently this focus has developed. They noted that it was so long ago that slavery was not talked about on presidential plantations. In fact, they still get some people who express outrage about confronting the past.
One British Museum we went to was the Docklands Museum. The British seemed to have no issues confronting their involvement in the slave trade. However the museum seemed to heavily avoid mention of the roll of the monarchy. Instead merchants were highlighted as leading members of the Royal African Company. I did not see mention of how the Company was led by James Duke of York, the eventual James II.
The British also seem to cope by paying heavy attention to the strong support of the abolition movement. In 2006 the film, Amazing Grace was released, telling the story of William Wilberforce, one of the leaders in Parliament who tried to end the slave trade. The film portrays Wilberforce as a hero, and pushes to the fringes the efforts of people like Olaudah Equiano, a former slave whose narrative helped galvanize the movement to end the slave trade. A table Wilberforce used was also one of the prized relics in the Docklands Museum exhibit on slavery.
Wilberforce is due celebration, he was important, however the idolization of him, and the special emphasis on the British role in the abolition movement keeps the British from confronting their role in the beginnings of the slave trade. Both the British and the United States have a long way to go in confronting their roles in slavery, but recent public monuments like the Fen Court, and the Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit, give hope that we are headed in the right direction.