Abolishing the slave trade isn’t Britain’s credit to take. It is a history that belongs to black rebels


24 August 2018

Yesterday the UN commemorated the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. It doesn’t really roll off the tongue and it didn’t get much attention in the media. But choosing this date to mark the abolition of the slave trade is incredibly important to the history of the black men and women who rebelled to fight for it.  Britain must stop taking credit as a nation for ‘abolishing’ the slave trade. It’s a story of black rebellion.

If, like me, you went to school in the UK you might remember being taught about the slave trade and its abolition in a distinct way. Diagrams of slave ships, the triangular trade route, a few photos of white abolitionists - William Wilberforce, anyone? Teaching about Britain’s empire in this way is problematic for two reasons. First, we’ve been taught about the slave trade and its abolition in a way that makes us feel better, that allays our emotional reaction in case, heaven forbid, we might start questioning the morality of how our country was built. Secondly, because of this, it allows us to pose the British Empire as a positive force which ended the slave trade. And this isn’t a narrative that seems to have changed.

Earlier this year, the Treasury tweeted (and then quickly deleted) “Millions of you helped end the slave trade through your taxes.” It went on to say that in 1833, the British government used 40% of its national budget to buy freedom for slaves in the empire. So huge was that sum that it was only finally paid off (in repayments on the loans taken out) in 2015. I suppose we should pat ourselves on the backs - we’re part of the movement that ended the slave trade! 

The Treasury’s tweet on 9 February 2018

Except that we’re really not. Firstly, that money was used to pay off 46,000 British slave owners as compensation for their lost ‘property’. Secondly, the slave trade was banned in the British Empire in 1807 as part of the Slave Trade Act (not 1833 which abolished slavery itself throughout the British Empire). And though the Slave Trade Act is generally attributed to white abolitionists like William Wilberforce, we must focus on the history of slave rebellions which were central to its introduction.

Here’s where 23 August comes in.

On this date in 1791 Saint-Domingue under French rule (now Haiti) saw an uprising of rebel slaves that spurred what is now known as the Haitian revolution. France did what it could to keep a colony whose commodities were consumed in Europe and generated income that fuelled the French empire. 1 in 10 slaves who were brought to the island died each year. The ‘black jacobins’, the men and women sold into slavery, revolted against the system.

Known as the ‘Night of Fire’, on the night of 22- 23 August, thousands of rebels began to strategically attack and set fire to plantations in Saint-Domingue in a highly organised way. It is said that “the finest sugar plantations of Saint Domingue were literally devoured by flames.” And a colonist said that there were “as many rebel camps as there were plantations.” It was this insurrection that sparked a successful slave uprising which weakened the grip of the slave system. Ultimately, the events of 22-23 August 1791 set in motion the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807 and beyond. From this date, 13 years of unrelenting warfare (including against British armies) began. Black slave rebels under the leadership of  Toussaint L'Ouverture beat Napoleon Bonaparte’s army, the world’s most powerful at the time, and Haiti gained independence in 1804, known as the first ‘black republic’.

So why don’t we learn about this? Why are tweets not centered around this? Why are the the most memorable portraits in our school textbooks still of white abolitionists?

In a society where black students campaigning to get rid of colonial statues is seen as far more offensive than the monuments to colonists to begin with, where over 40% of people believe that the British Empire was a good thing, where being taught that white men are the saviours of black bodies, the 23 August is a poignant date.

It should serve as a reminder that the abolition of the slave trade and, ultimately, slavery was won as a result of the black rebels who resisted it.  It’s time to start learning and teaching about the real legacy of empire, and that can only really start by accepting reality. We must stop taking credit as a nation for ‘abolishing’ the slave trade from which we continue to profit.


Photo: Battle of Vertières in 1803/ Wikipedia commons

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