On 18 August 1823, two hundred years ago today, an uprising of enslaved African people occurred in the British colony of Demerara-Essequibo, which became British Guiana in 1831. The Demerara Rebellion was instigated by Quamina and Jack, a father and son who were both enslaved on the Liverpool merchant John Gladstone’s ‘Success’ plantation.
The actions of these African abolitionists built upon a long history of freedom fighting among enslaved Africans in the Americas, who, whether aboard slaving vessels or on plantations, demonstrated their refusal to accept the transatlantic economic system that was based on their enslavement. That freedom struggle had been most powerfully expressed in recent history through Tacky’s War in Jamaica (1760-61), the Berbice Uprising (1763), the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), Fédon’s Rebellion in Grenada (1795-96), and Bussa’s Rebellion in Barbados (1816).
The August 1823 uprising in Demerara saw more than 10,000 enslaved women, men, and children directly challenge the system of transatlantic slavery. They took radical action because of their longstanding dehumanising experience of enslavement and because the leaders of the uprising had heard rumours about the formation of the Anti-Slavery Society (ASS) in London in January 1823. The ASS’s Parliamentary representative, Thomas Fowell Buxton, had delivered an impassioned speech on 15 May 1823, in which he proposed the gradual termination of slavery in the British colonies. Whispers of these political developments in Britain were misinterpreted by the enslaved in Demerara as representing immediate emancipation. Quamina and Jack responded by mobilising armed resistance against the Demeraran plantation-owners, who they thought were unlawfully denying them their liberty.
The Demerara Rebellion lasted two days and was ultimately unsuccessful. Several hundred enslaved people who participated in the uprising were killed during skirmishes with the colonial militia, and a court martial led to the execution of a further 27 enslaved people. News of the brutal treatment of the enslaved African people involved in the Demerara uprising was met with outrage in Britain, strengthening the resolve of the resurgent anti-slavery movement. It also led to the political intervention of the British government, which chose to ‘ameliorate’ the condition of enslaved people across the empire. The ameliorative legislation was largely ineffective in improving daily life for the enslaved because of difficulties with its enforcement. This stemmed from a rejection of its implementation by each of the colonial political assemblies which viewed the ameliorative resolutions as an infringement on their rights to govern and as another step towards the termination of slavery.
It would take a further 10 years before slavery was legally abolished in the British empire through Parliamentary legislation passed in 1833, which came into effect in the Caribbean on 1 August 1834. The delay in securing abolition was in large part due to the political manoeuvring of the West India lobby – a pro-slavery pressure group in Parliament consisting of colonial agents, merchants, and plantation-owners – which bitterly resisted emancipation due to the impact this would have on their business interests.
As part of the political compromise with the West India lobby that helped to secure abolition, the British government agreed a two-pronged compensation package valued at approximately £47 million by contemporaries. The first part comprised a payment of £20 million (equivalent to 40% of the government’s annual income in 1834) as financial recompense to the ‘owners’ of enslaved African people for the loss of their ‘property’. The second part forced the 800,000 enslaved African people in the British Caribbean, Mauritius, and the Cape to work off the remaining balance of £27 million by labouring on the estates of their former owners as ‘apprentices’ for a further four years without pay. Emancipation was, therefore, only truly achieved after the end of the apprenticeship system in 1838.
Planning for the bicentenary: why now?
1823 was a pivotal year for the abolition of slavery across the British empire. The intensification of anti-slavery activity that began to take place was spearheaded by both African freedom-fighters in Demerara and white abolitionists in Britain, and their actions directly influenced the events that would lead to the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833.
The re-commencement of discussions about the abolition of transatlantic slavery in the British empire at this point 200 years ago makes 2023 an appropriate moment for the British government, heritage institutions, corporations, community groups, and individuals to begin thinking about how they are going to mark the bicentenary of slavery’s abolition and African emancipation between 2033 and 2038.
Early planning and consultation with various stakeholders in this history, including professional historians and African-Caribbean enslaved descendent communities, will ensure that the memorialisation of abolition and emancipation communicates this history to the public in an accurate, sensitive, and holistic manner. For instance, it will help to make certain the process of abolition is contextualised within the three centuries of British involvement in transatlantic slavery, foregrounding the remembrance of the millions of African people who were enslaved and died. It will also mean that events memorialising this history are directly informed by empirical evidence derived from recent research on British participation in transatlantic slavery and its abolition.
Co-ordinated planning at an early stage will, therefore, help avoid the limitations and shortfalls of previous efforts in Britain to remember the history of transatlantic slavery, its abolition, and African emancipation.
Britain has a fragmented and selective memory of its involvement in the transatlantic economy, which was based on the trade, sale, enslavement, ownership, and exploitation of African people. Britain’s rise as Europe’s second largest slave-trading nation (after Portugal), through its purchase and transportation of over 3.25 million African people into enslavement from 1556-1807, and the significance of the Caribbean plantation economy and slavery as a central pillar of the country’s economy until 1833-34, have largely been ignored during key years of remembrance. Instead, national memorialisation has focused on celebrating the legal abolition of the trade in enslaved African people in 1807 and the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. Indeed, these events have now been firmly established as key features of Britain’s national identity as an enlightened, civilised, and humanitarian nation.
This selective national memory has been increasingly contested since the publication of Dr Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery in 1944, and particularly with the growing presence of Britain’s African-Caribbean population post-1948. The African-Caribbean community in Britain, who descend from enslaved people in the former British West Indies, have stood at the forefront of calls for a fuller account of Britain’s involvement in transatlantic slavery and the role enslaved African people played in influencing abolition and emancipation. However, this perspective has, to date, only had a limited influence on national memorialisation in Britain, which has continued to promote a celebratory national narrative of abolitionism.
As Prof John Oldfield has shown, the first event in Britain to mark the termination of transatlantic slavery was the quadranscentenary (25 years). This took place in the form of a private meeting of abolitionists at the Music Hall in London’s Bedford Square on 1 August 1859. Speakers at the gathering characterised the abolitionists as ‘Saints’, emphasised Britain’s ‘culture of abolitionism’, and portrayed Britain as a morally superior nation committed to the liberation of humanity. This set the tone for subsequent memorialisation during the semicentenary (50 years) of slavery’s abolition in 1883-4, the centenary in 1933-34, and the sesquicentenary (150 years) in 1983-84. These years were marked by national events, such as public gatherings, exhibitions, parades, and widespread media coverage, as well as plays, school resources, and literature for wider public consumption produced by the Anti-Slavery Society. This programme of events and materials was explicitly commemorative and celebratory, and mirrored the abolitionist, humanitarian, and anti-slavery rhetoric adopted by Britain during the final decades of transatlantic slavery from 1834-88. Very little was mentioned of Britain’s longstanding involvement in the system of transatlantic slavery, the payment of compensation to British ‘slave-owners’, the apprenticeship system, or the influence of African resistance and freedom-fighting on the government’s decision to abolish slavery.
The abolition of the trade in enslaved African people, in 1807, has not been remembered in the same way as emancipation. Indeed, the first major national programme to memorialise this event did not take place until 2007, which marked 200 years since Britain’s outlawing of the trade. During the run up to this bicentennial year, the Heritage Lottery Fund allocated between £15 and £20 million to bicentenary projects, and there was a shift in traditional sentiments, with some Members of Parliament (MPs) increasingly listening to their constituents who argued for a broader national acknowledgement of Britain’s extensive role in the transatlantic ‘slave’ trade and the legacies of slavery in modern Britain and the Caribbean. This impetus was reflected in many community-led initiatives to mark the bicentenary, which can be viewed online using the Remembering 1807 database – a digital archive collated by researchers at the University of Hull that preserves nearly 350 research projects and exhibitions from 2007.
Whilst the bicentenary was underpinned with political intentions to reflect on Britain’s deeper participation in the transatlantic ‘slave’ trade, in reality, most country houses, media distributors, and national institutions adopted the celebratory model established for memorialising emancipation in 1933-34. This resulted in extensive praise of William Wilberforce along with the wider group of white abolitionists for ending the ‘slave’ trade, and an emphasis on celebrating what Tony Blair, then the Prime Minister, described as ‘the different and better times we live in today’. The BBC, for example, marked the bicentenary with a series of programmes collectively titled ‘The Abolition Season’, which recapitulated the established account of British abolitionism, compassion, and humanitarianism.
Subsequently, many of the events, exhibitions, literature, and popular media in 2007 were criticised for constituting a ‘Wilberfest’ that portrayed Britain’s abolitionists as ‘white saviours’ and for overlooking the resistive efforts of enslaved African people that influenced the government’s decision to abolish the ‘slave’ trade. Moreover, Britain’s self-proclaimed status as the first country to terminate the trade was also highlighted, when, in fact, the enslaved population in Saint Domingue (modern day Haiti) outlawed the trade in 1790s, followed by Denmark in 1803. This contrasted sharply with the bicentenary’s remembrance in the Caribbean, where the abolition of the ‘slave’ trade was clearly not seen or termed as something to ‘celebrate’ or ‘commemorate’. Rather, it was perceived as a key event to memorialise and remember the millions of African people who were forcibly transported into enslavement and died, and to focus on establishing a pathway for healing from the persistent legacies of transatlantic slavery.
Recent research findings, 2007-2023
The self-reflective agenda advocated by some MPs, organisations, and community groups across Britain in the lead up to the 2007 bicentenary encouraged a small number of national institutions to explore their histories and the possibility of their connections to the transatlantic ‘slave’ economy. For example, as part of English Heritage’s commitment to mark the bicentenary, it commissioned a study of the 33 properties under its care which discovered that 26 were linked to transatlantic slavery and its abolition via the families who owned them. The findings were presented at the Slavery and the British Country House conference in 2009 and were subsequently published as a book in 2013. The text encouraged organisational custodians and the private owners of country houses to ‘develop new understandings of this challenging and important part of our national story’.
Around the same time, Dr Nicholas Draper’s foundational analysis of the ‘slave’ compensation records was providing the empirical basis for the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project (LBS), formerly led by Prof Catherine Hall and established at University College London in 2009, shortly after the bicentenary. The LBS project’s public-facing database was launched in 2013, and demonstrated that absentee slave-owners living in Britain claimed almost half of the £20 million in financial compensation paid by the government in exchange for the freedom of enslaved African people, and that much of this was money invested into Britain’s economic, commercial, cultural and infrastructural development. The research findings therefore stressed the need for transatlantic slavery to be re-inscribed into public memory as a key factor in the nation’s growth.
The growing tendency towards national and institutional self-examination, which began with public history projects in the run-up to 2007, and was consolidated by research carried out by English Heritage and the LBS project in the aftermath of the bicentenary, initiated a paradigm shift away from the orthodoxy of understanding the nation’s links to slavery through the lens of abolitionism, to comprehending it within the longer history of the transatlantic ‘slave’ economy. Over the following years some British universities commissioned initial investigations into their historic connections to the slavery business. The University of Glasgow was the first to publish the findings from its report in September 2018, with Bristol, Cambridge and Dundee following suit in 2022.
This movement to reckon with the longer history of Britain’s connections to transatlantic slavery and its legacy of racism was intensified when George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officers in May 2020, which ignited global racial justice protests under the banner Black Lives Matter. In Britain, the activism of anti-racism protestors and journalists – who often drew upon online databases such as LBS for their evidence base – heightened the public’s awareness of transatlantic slavery and its most disadvantaging and offensive vestiges in the nation’s public spaces. In June 2020, the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol – a leading investor in the ‘slave’-trading Royal African Company from 1680-92 – was the most high-profile and contentious event of this activist moment in Britain. But, for professional historians, perhaps one of the most important effects of 2020 was how it caused the study of institutional connections to transatlantic slavery to spread far beyond heritage organisations and universities, and into wider British society.
Since 2020 there has been a proliferation of investigations concerned with understanding institutional ties to transatlantic slavery. Organisations allocated significant financial resources to conduct this research, leading both to the opening of new archives and the re-interrogation of existing ones frequently used by historians. For example, banks, corporations, and insurance markets in the City of London began research projects to explore their historic links to enslavement, drawing upon the expertise of professional historians. The Bank of England opened an exhibition in its museum in April 2022, displaying new archival research into its connections to the transatlantic ‘slave’ economy since its founding in 1694. This display highlights both the ties of its former governors and directors who profited from enslavement in a private capacity and the Bank’s institutional involvement through its financial stake in two plantations in Grenada and their enslaved workforce from 1772-90, along with its role in facilitating the payment of compensation to British ‘slave-holders’ from 1835-46.
Religious, healthcare, and media organisations have also interrogated their historic connections to transatlantic slavery with renewed vigour since 2020, sometimes announcing commitments to restorative justice alongside their new research findings. The Church Commissioners of the Church of England employed professional historians and forensic accountants to analyse the investment portfolio of Queen Anne’s Bounty, an eighteenth-century predecessor fund of the Commissioners’ endowment, which an academic report published in January 2023 revealed was a fund heavily invested in the stock of the ‘slave’-trading South Sea Company. Consequently, the Church Commissioners established a £100 million fund for ‘investment, research, and engagement’. The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh drew upon unexamined archival material to highlight its ownership of a Jamaican estate worked by enslaved and indentured labourers from 1750-1892. In March 2023, The Guardian newspaper published new research findings that revealed its founders’ links to the transatlantic ‘slave’ economy during the nineteenth century via partnerships in Manchester cotton manufacturing firms and merchant houses that imported raw cotton cultivated by enslaved people in the Americas. The newspaper subsequently apologised and announced a £10 million financial commitment to a programme of restorative justice for communities descended from enslaved Africans.
There has been some opposition to the way this archival evidence has been interpreted and presented to the public. Organisations such as History Reclaimed argue that the history of British involvement in transatlantic slavery, as well as other topics relating to the nation’s imperial past, are being distorted and manipulated by activists for present political purposes in a way that undermines the legitimacy of Western liberal democracies. Restore Trust mobilised a campaign in opposition to the National Trust’s investigation into the colonial past of the properties in its care through the Colonial Countryside project and an interim report on historic links to slavery, which members of the organisation have claimed serves a politicised agenda and detracts from the charity’s founding values.
Despite differences in matters of interpretation, since 2007 there has been an accretion of new empirical evidence on Britain’s historic connections to transatlantic slavery, a trend which has accelerated since 2020 and will continue to develop as other current research projects are completed. For instance, the AHRC-funded Register of British Slave-Traders project is expected to launch its public-facing online database in 2024, which contains thousands of biographies of British investors in the transatlantic ‘slave’ trade between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Much like the earlier work completed by the LBS project, this forthcoming research on ‘slave traders’ will shed new light on the social depth of Britain’s involvement in the system of transatlantic slavery and the extent to which it contributed to the formation of the country’s infrastructure in the early and late modern periods.
Looking ahead to 2033-38
As we approach the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery and African emancipation, how might the array of new empirical evidence and research insights that have emerged since 2007 be incorporated effectively into the process of national and local memorialisation between 2033 and 2038? Approaches to remembrance will differ significantly depending on whether it is the government, corporations, charities, or community groups that are planning an event; and an important variable in determining the scale of remembrance will be whether the National Lottery Heritage Fund, or another organisation, decides to make a significant financial commitment to support a programme of memorialisation like the 2007 bicentenary. But we maintain that some broad principles should be followed to ensure the historical accuracy, inclusion, diversity, and equity of the memorialisation process at the national, regional, and local levels.
To be clear, our intention is not to be prescriptive and to direct organisations about the types of public history that they should use to mark the bicentenary, which could take a variety of creative forms (e.g. museum exhibitions, theatrical plays, digital displays, educational literature), but to inform the planning process by offering suggestions to policymakers on how this history can be presented to the public in a way that is sufficiently contextualised and grounded in the latest research findings.
It is, of course, important for tributes of remembrance to acknowledge the actions of both black and white abolitionists in influencing the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. For instance, enslaved African abolitionists in the Caribbean who, following the Demerara Rebellion in 1823, continued to fight for their freedom through successive uprisings. In Jamaica, up to 60,000 enslaved people challenged the system of slavery during the ‘Baptist War’ of 1831-32. It is also vital to foreground British abolitionists in Parliament such as Thomas Fowell Buxton and grassroots campaigners whose mass petitions and boycotts of ‘slave’-grown produce played a key role. Collectively, their actions put pressure on politicians in Britain and hastened emancipation.
However, in light of recent research and the latest archival findings – which have underscored how deeply embedded transatlantic slavery was within the social and economic fabric of Britain between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries – it is vital that policymakers resist presenting the bicentenary as a moment for unqualified celebration by focusing solely on abolitionist campaigning. Instead, the bicentenary should be used as a moment to reflect more soberly on the long and complex history of Britain’s role in the transatlantic economy which was underpinned by the trade in and labour of enslaved African people. The 3.25 million African people who Britain transported into slavery should be placed at the centre of national remembrance, just as the British soldiers and civilians who died in World Wars One and Two have been the focal point of these significant periods.
To this end, our key policy recommendation is that an independent historical advisory panel, appointed by the government (with guidance from expert historical scholars) but free from external political oversight, should be immediately established now that the ten-year run-up to the bicentenary has begun. The panel would function as a ‘sounding board’ for the government, institutions, and groups looking to memorialise the bicentenary in the period 2033-38, enabling them to receive expert advice and input from both professional historians and representatives of the African-Caribbean community on their plans for remembrance. Not only would this ensure the historical accuracy of the programme for memorialisation, but it would also help to promote an inclusive approach to remembrance.
To ensure a range of expertise and historical perspectives, the panel could include professional historians, public history leaders, and museum professionals specialising in Britain’s involvement in transatlantic slavery, the abolitionist campaigns, and the post-emancipation Caribbean. The historic dearth of African-Caribbean perspectives from narratives on transatlantic slavery makes it incumbent that the panel also contains representation from African-Caribbean descendent communities in both Britain and the Caribbean, enabling the direct descendants of people enslaved in the British empire to help shape plans for remembrance at national, regional, and local levels. The panel should also be inclusive in terms of ethnicity and gender, emulating the model adopted by the committee established to advise on the commemorations for the Northern Ireland Centenary in 2022-23.
The advice offered by the advisory panel would help to limit the occurrence of factual inaccuracies in events and initiatives associated with memorialisation; for instance, the unhelpful conflation between the ‘slave’ trade and the institution of slavery, which is common in public discourse but often leads to confusion and misunderstanding.
Through their knowledge of the latest archival findings and secondary literature, the advisory panel would also help to make sure that the history of transatlantic slavery is memorialised as a fully national story that encompasses all the constituent nations of the Britain; and is remembered not only for its role in shaping the development of coastal port cities such as Liverpool and Glasgow, but also for the imprint it left on the local history of inland manufacturing centres and rural regions of the country. To this end, the panel could fruitfully use the Remembering 1807 database to both learn from and build upon the efforts of organisations and community groups in 2007 to memorialise the history of British involvement in transatlantic slavery. They could also use that project as a model for how to create a detailed record of the various public history initiatives marking the bicentenary in 2033-38; something that was not organised centrally and mandated by funders in 2007, meaning today there is only limited information surviving about many of the smaller community-led events held in that year.
The panel might also assist policymakers and officials involved in planning the memorialisation programme to look beyond 1833, encouraging them to reflect on how the political compromise in Parliament to secure emancipation was contingent on the compensation package awarded to Britain’s slave-owners. The panel may urge policymakers and equality officers from British banks, companies, and manufacturers to consider how their institutions could have maintained extensive economic and financial links to nations in which slavery remained integral to social and economic organisation, such as the United States (where slavery was not abolished until 1865), Cuba (1886), and Brazil (1888), despite the outlawing of slavery in the British empire.
The panel could also play a vital role in making sure this history is dealt with in a sensitive and respectful manner when being presented to the public. For instance, as Prof John Oldfield has noted, there has been a tendency in previous years to conflate the death of Wilberforce in July 1833 with the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act the following month. As a result, the story of Wilberforce’s life has eclipsed the long history of Britain’s enslavement and exploitation of African people. A clear distinction must, therefore, be made in 2033 between these two events, so that the programme for memorialisation does not evade the issue of Britain’s complicity in the longer history of transatlantic slavery.
Perhaps the best way to avoid this elision is to not concentrate our attentions solely on the date of the Abolition Act’s passage through Parliament (28 August 1833), but instead to conceive of a longer period of memorialisation lasting from 2033-38, with different events for remembrance interspersed throughout the five-year period. This would help to reflect the fact that 1 August 1838 is the date marked in the Caribbean as representing full emancipation for enslaved African people, because it is the point when the apprenticeship system was terminated. Displaying an awareness of this when planning how to approach memorialisation in Britain might help to facilitate a more linked-up programme of remembrance between Britain and Caribbean nations.
Ultimately, the process of memorialising the abolition of slavery in 2033-38 should serve as an opportunity to reflect not just on the past, but also on the present and future. The legacies of transatlantic slavery – racism, stereotypes, inequality, discrimination, and prejudice – still exist in British and Caribbean societies, causing disparities in access to healthcare, education, and home and business ownership for African-Caribbean people, as well as influencing disproportionately high incarceration rates and underrepresentation in the workplace. The bicentenary will be a time to reflect on the progress that has been made in race relations over two centuries, but also on the work that still needs to be done to make Britain and the world a more equitable place moving forwards; a process that could involve a formal apology for transatlantic slavery by the British government and reparatory justice for African-Caribbean descendent communities.
It is unlikely that every stakeholder in the history of transatlantic slavery will be entirely happy with the forms of remembrance that take place. But hopefully by planning the programme of memorialisation for 2033-38 well in advance, and with the guidance of an independent panel of experts, a broadly effective approach to remembering this complex and contested history can be achieved; one which includes the perspectives of enslaved descendant communities, avoids repeating the shortfalls of the 2007 memorialisation, and is informed by the latest archival findings and historiography.
Da Costa, Emília Viotti, Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood (Oxford, 1994).
Draper, Nicholas, The Price of Emancipation: Slave-Ownership, Compensation, and British Society at the End of Slavery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
Forum on ‘Remembering Slave Trade Abolitions: Reflections on 2007 in International Perspective’, Slavery & Abolition, Vol. 30, No. 2 (2009): 161-167.
Hall, Catherine, 'Doing Reparatory History: Bringing "Race" and Slavery Home', Race & Class, Vol. 60, No. 1 (2018): 3-21.
Oldfield, John, ‘Chords of Freedom’: Commemoration, Ritual and British Transatlantic Slavery (Manchester, University of Manchester Press, 2007).
Oldfield, John & Mary Wills, ‘Remembering 1807: Lessons from the Archives’, History Workshop Journal, Vol. 90 (2020): 253–272.
Williams, Eric, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944).
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