As Britain draws near to the 187th anniversary of the Slave Emancipation Act, (though albeit after a period of years), we must not forget the events that let “freedom” reign on the enslaved Africans and their descedents in the British Empire. If we are to take Coupland’s way of abolition to heart, we would be led to believe that Wilberforce and co freed the slaves of their own goodwill. The same Professor Reginald Coupland who lead the way in documenting abolition as a good part of British history propelled by the humanitarian good intentions of the British. That after centuries of lucrative profits from the sugar economy, the British elite suddenly had a change of heart.
What the Wilberforce narrative misses out is how Black people in Britain and the British Empire did not sit idly by for centuries waiting to be freed. In Insurgent Empire Prof. Priyamvada Gopal talks about how the African-American ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass discussed the abolition movements in the then British West Indies in an address he made in New York in 1857. He pays homage to British abolitionists, which also included Black British activists like Olaudah Equiano. His autobiography (1789) brought the movement into the public eye. There was also Mary Prince, the first Black woman to publish an autobiography in England – a detailed account on her experiences of slavery in the [British] Caribbean.
Published in 1831, The History of Mary Prince lit a fire under the anti-slavery movement in the run up to the 1833 Slave Emancipation Act. Moreover, Ottobah Cugoano, a close friend of Equiano, who together worked in ‘Sons of Africa’ which was a Black abolitionist collective. Cugoano’s Narrative of the Enslavement of a Native of Africa was published in 1787 retelling his abduction from his home in what today is Ghana, and his then enslavement and subjugation in Grenada. His Narrative was also the first public demand for the total abolition by an African in Britain.
It’s pertinent to consider Black political expression in relation to the guerrilla Black Lives Matter movement, which is simply another example of Black seemingly “radical” ideas. Whilst first instigated in response to the aquittal of George Zimmerman in July 2013 after he murdered Trayvon Martin, this movement saw a resurgence in the aftermath of the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other victims of American police forces. It could also be argued to encompass issues in the UK like Black deaths in police custody, whitewashed curricula and The Windrush Scandal, case studies on how Black Lives Matter is not just a US problem.
It shows how it is also a British problem. Tying back to the Wilberforce narrative, it’s telling me that we cannot wait or rely on the elite establishment to do the right thing. That whilst now, it is not Black against white but more positively, anti-racists vs the rest, I am also of the mind that as Black people we are tired of waiting for our white colleagues to educate themselves. The looming anniversary makes me question what freedom is and what race equity / equality looks like, as we are breaking new ground.
That whilst the abolition movement lasted for fifty years, there was centuries before that of slave resistance on the slave ships and on the plantations themselves. The concept of freedom makes me raise eyebrows because of what the abolition movement had to sacrifice in order to get that legislation passed. In order to get the slave-owning class to agree, in the final moments of Britain’s slave-owning saga, for a moment the abolitionists had to acknowledge slaves as property. They had to say yes to Parliament compensating the slave-owners to a sum of £20m (£17bn today), loved by men like Wilberforce’s contemporary plantocrat George Hibbert. For true equality for Black people globally, what will the establishment make Joe and Jane Bloggs agree to? Will we have to sell our souls again for another piece of legislation? In all honesty, in concept I believe anti-racism only works if every single person holds every single person to the same moral and ethical standards.
In 1807, Parliament passed The Slave Trade Act, outlawing the trading of slaves in the British Empire but it was a further three decades until slavery was outlawed outright in Britain and the British colonies. The fact it took another thirty years to convince The House is a seperate issue to the logic of having two individual pieces of legislation of slavery and slave-trading.
Black Lives Matter… a slogan ringing through many of our minds. The protesters shout “no justice, no peace” but justice and peace are relative terms. To the enslaved Africans, not being slaves anymore was peace and justice. To those that marched at Selma, that was an end to those Jim Crow Laws. To me living in Britain, who has never been enslaved nor had his voting rights curtailed by state police at the polls, what does that look like? Was Mansfield’s landmark ruling against the slavers on the Zong Case justice? Did he dispense justice on the Somerset Case in 1772? That whilst James Somerset wasn’t repatriated to the Caribbean, the fact he was part of a society and system where he could have been, is an indictment in itself.
The Wilberforce characters of the 18th and 19th century shouted the loudest and historians wrote slave abolition narratives about them. BLM is about anti-Black discrimination; I sit cautiously now thinking in the years to come, will I be reading about Blacktivism or I will be reading whitewashed history books penned by another Professor Coupland saying how white people gave us justice?