For Diverse Book Week this year, I’m reading David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History. I explain in this earlier post why I chose this book. You can read my previous daily posts here:
This post is about Chapter 6 in which Prof. Olusoga covers the campaign for the abolition of slavery in Britain which finally led to the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 and the eventual ending of slavery in British territories in 1833.
Like most other people in Britain, I was aware of the history of the abolitionist cause and the role of figures such as William Wilberforce. What I did not realise was the extent to which that narrative, which I would say is part of Britain’s National ‘legend’ in the twenty-first century, has been shaped not by the actual events, but rather by narratives of them written afterwards, including, notably, by Wilberforce’s own sons.
This has resulted on a focus on a single campaigner, to the exclusion of other key figures and events. These include the accounts of former slaves, those who had formerly worked in the trade, women, and that of slave protests and uprisings in the Caribbean. Once again, this book has filled in some of the gaps left by my formal school education in the 1970s and 1980s.
Former slaves such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano were able to give powerful accounts of their own experience which proved highly effective in swaying both public and political opinion. They and the group they founded, The Sons of Africa, cast light on a trade whose most brutal aspects were out of the public gaze on the western shores of Africa and other side of the Atlantic. First hand accounts coupled with physical evidence such as shackles and plans of slave decks could not be refuted by slave traders and investors.
The pivotal role of women Such as Elizabeth Heyrick in the abolitionist campaign is also made clear. Women’s groups were often more radical than their male peers, often seeking immediate abolition rather than the gradual approach promoted my the most prominent male figures in the movement, or even giving open support to slave uprisings on plantations. While politically disenfranchised, women played a key role in campaigns such as the sugar boycott.
Protests and uprisings by increasingly informed, literate, and connected slaves communities in Caribbean plantations also played a huge role. The successful uprising in Haiti led by Toussaint Louverture and the brutal oppression of a slave strike in Jamaica made military support of slavery increasingly untenable and helped sway public opinion towards the abolitionist cause. In the end, freedom from slavery was not so much ‘given’ but demanded and achieved by the enslaved.
It struck me that a further factor which the book repeatedly mentions, but has not so far focussed on, is literacy. Whether as a crucial factor in the emancipation of a single individual such as Jonathan Strong, or as the crucial factor in enabling the idea of freedom to spread within and between slave communities, it seems to me that literacy was a central factor. Through literacy, Informations and ideas as disparate as Thomas Paige’s The Rights of Man, British parliamentary proceedings, and the evangelical baptist Gospel message contributed to the end of slavery in British territories.
You can read the Day 6 Update here.