Newspaper reports on the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade

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By Tiria Barnes, Gale Ambassador at the University of Liverpool
I am currently a third-year History student at the University of Liverpool, hoping to graduate with an extensive knowledge of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and good quality banter. When I’m not in the library plugging Gale’s amazing resources, I am usually in a hipster independent coffee shop sipping on a cheeky chai latte. Some of my passions include Jesus, street dance, and charity shops.

On the 25th of March 1807, the British Parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act which prohibited the carrying of slaves in British ships. While it is important to note that this did not outlaw slavery itself, which came about in 1833 as a result of the Emancipation Act, 1807 was a significant step in the right direction. Two hundred years later, the UK commemorated the bicentenary of the act, and attempted to reflect on the brutality of slavery [1]. Using Gale Primary Sources, I thought it would be interesting to study how this was reported in the media, taking note of the ways in which newspapers depicted the actions taken by the UK as part of the commemoration.

One way in which the UK attempted to commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition was through a government apology. According to Anthony Tibbles, ‘the issue of apologies is clearly contentious’[2]. More specifically, he highlights that while Liverpool’s apology for its part in the slave trade in 1999 received little attention at the time, suggesting that people were not really interested, a questionnaire showed that 62.8% of people called for Bristol to apologise. Similarly, an article found in the Financial Times Historical Archive pointed out the controversial nature of government apologies. The author suggests that while a ‘statement of regret’ would be accepted by black activists who felt that the UK should acknowledge its significant role, it was also likely to enrage those who believe that a ‘politically correct lobby is using slavery to inspire guilt in whites’.

Guthrie, Jonathan. “Apology for Slave Trade Could Be Made to Commemorate Abolition.” Financial Times, 21 Sept. 2006, p. 2. The Financial Times Historical Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5yimC8.

An article found in the Times Digital Archive also discusses the nature of government apologies. The newspaper is more critical of these apologies however and suggests that such statements can easily be offered when ‘no real contrition or consequence is involved’. While the author does agree that an apology is better than not acknowledging Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, he suggests that the motive for such statements can be questioned.

Macintyre, Ben. “Hardest word? Don’t be soft.” Times, 29 Sept. 2006, p. 24. The Times Digital Archive http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5yJzF5

Another article found using the Times Digital Archive depicts the role of churches in commemorating the bicentenary abolition of the slave trade, showing that church groups attempted to ‘seize the public imagination afresh’. The tone of the article is largely positive, where it highlights the success of these groups in raising awareness for the legacy of slavery. For example, it points to the work of the Methodist Church Women’s Network who wanted to bring to light the nature of human trafficking, and focused on a project which raised awareness for the 40,000 women and children who were trafficked to work in German brothels during the 2006 World Cup. In addition, the article finishes with the quote ‘this will be the start of the road to healing’, signifying that such campaigns and events during the bicentenary go some way towards helping the UK to reconcile its painful involvement in the slave trade.

Wyke, Nick. “Slavery was halted but many shackles remain.” Times, 24 June 2006, p. 76. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5yK3d8 .

I also managed to find another interesting article using the Times Digital Archive, which discusses how galleries and museums attempted to mark 200 years after abolition. The author is critical of the galleries, highlighting that the messages portrayed are unclear. For example, she suggests that an exhibition at the V & A Museum attempted to show that modern day slavery is still present in the world but struggles to convey this message. More specifically, she suggests that the exhibit attempts to use contemporary art to engage with the idea of slavery but there was no discussion of the trafficking of people. While the author does suggest that ‘art is not a bad way of commemorating an anniversary like this’, she shows that more care needs to be taken.

Pitman, Joanna. “It’s still a buyers’ market.” Times, 21 Feb. 2007, p. [14][S]+. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5yLgT6.

In conclusion, while these newspapers show the importance of commemorating the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, and highlight that it gave the UK the opportunity to reflect on the horrors of slavery, the ways in which this commemoration took place proved complex and, in many cases, unsuccessful.

Blog post cover image citation: Wyke, Nick. “Slavery was halted but many shackles remain.” Times, 24 June 2006, p. 76. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5yK3d8

[1]http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20120920020405/http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/communities/pdf/322014.pdf
[2]A. Tibbles, ‘Facing Slavery’s Past: The Bicentenary of the Abolition of the British Slave Trade’, Slavery and Abolition, 29.2 (2008), p. 301.