School students are becoming hard-headed at a much earlier age. Willing to challenge, question, disbelieve, when fake news is an everyday phenomenon, they will not accept simple assertions.
Year 7 students who studied the history of the slave trade this year would have been challenged about their own opinions as to why the slave trade ended. The assessment essay they were given to write required them to compare printed sources and to suggest which factor was the most important in Britain’s decision to bring an end to the inhumane activity. The decision to be made whether the principal factor was: the work of the white abolitionists; the increasing resistance from slaves and former slaves; or economic factors.
The economic argument pointed out that slavery was no longer profitable, that paying wages to workers when and where they were required cost less than buying and keeping slaves; that imports from Cuba and South America had become cheaper. Perhaps the worldview of twelve year olds is more monochrome, but the argument about whether or not money was being made was more convincing to many of them than the complexities of parliamentary politics, or the direct action taken by some African groups in the Caribbean.
A full and truthful explanation of Britain’s abolition of slavery would demand an interweaving of all of the factors considered in the assessment question, with a few more added. (The abolition of the slave trade gave the Royal Navy pretext to stop and search American merchant ships on the grounds they were enforcing the prohibition of slave trading).
Whatever conclusion they may have drawn about which factor they considered most important in the ending of the slave trade, the Year 7 students will have expressed a more complex understanding of the abolition than that expressed by the Church of England. The church’s liturgical calendar noted that 29th July was the day to commemorate, “William Wilberforce, Social Reformer, Olaudah Equiano and Thomas Clarkson, Anti-Slavery Campaigners, 1833, 1797 and 1846.” The date chosen to commemorate the three is the anniversary of the death of Wilberforce in 1833.
The inclusion of Equiano, a former slave whose autobiography was influential among Britons who could read and who could afford to buy the book, and Clarkson, whose work was to challenge the racist stereotypes that were used to justify slavery, is a step forward from the time when only Wilberforce was commemorated. Yet it perpetuates the myth that slavery was ended because of the activities of the abolitionists in England, neglecting the other factors.
At the bicentenary of abolition of the slavery trade in 1807, there was the opportunity to acknowledge the full reality of why the trade had ended. It seems likely that it will not be until the bicentenary, in 2033, of the ending of slavery itself, that there will be proper acknowledgement of what happened and an end to an explanation that rests only on the good-nature kindness of a small group of white middle class men.