Saturday, February 24, 2007

Whatever happened to the heroes?

Nigel Willmott writes a good piece on the abolition of the slave trade making the point about the movement being far wider than Wilberforce's Parliamentary campaign (it is much better than Richard Gott's - see my earlier post). His arguments are reflected in an excellent article in the Economist (via Normblog).

The association of broader campaigns with single figures or movements is very common in the popular historical imagination. For example, the campaign for women's suffrage is almost entirely associated with the Pankhursts. In fact, their militant organisation split from the larger and older non-militant NUWSS, yet the name of Millicent Fawcett does not trip as easily of the tongue when mentioning 'votes for women'. Also, those who have read Thomas Keneally's excellent "Schindler's Ark" will have seen that Schindler was not the lone hero as portrayed in Spielberg's film, but part of a network of rescuers in Nazi occupied Poland.

Perhaps we need the hero figure to remember and commemorate, and I certainly do not begrudge Hull its celebrations of Wilberforce this year. Nor is this always the 'safe' choice, as Willmott implies, otherwise the non-militant suffragists would be the ones with the monuments. What we should not do is to confuse this commemorative effort with academic history. History is always complex and is rarely reducible to single individuals, however decisive their interventions, or to ideological or historicist frameworks of explanations. This complexity explains its endless fascination. Let us enjoy seeing something as significant as the ending of the horror of the Slave Trade brought into the limelight and hope it draws people further into a deeper appreciation of history.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter,

went on a hull cc web site re wilberforce recently (can't remember which one)it began by spouting to me about the 'son of hull' who abolished the slave trade(single-handedly of course-he was from hull!) and finished by asking me to sign a petition to abolish the slave trade. Who's crazy????

Dr Hiding Pup said...

Here's my favourite piece on slavery:

http://www.erudit.org/revue/ron/1999/v/n15/005873ar.html

I particularly like the idea that we ended slavery in order to improve the working conditions of England's racially superior working poor...

Dr Hiding Pup said...

Oops... cut that link off mid-way:

http://tinyurl.com/2v6h5r

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