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Whitewashing the Slave Trade

An Amazing Disgrace

by PETER LINEBAUGH

W.E.B. DuBois taught us that the slave trade and the struggle against it were magnificent dramas superior even to the Greek tragedies. This year is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade by the English Parliament, and the bicentennial is celebrated in the movie, Amazing Grace. Far from being a majestic human drama involving millions of human beings on three continents in the protracted and mighty struggle of greed and cruelty against liberation and dignity, Amazing Grace presents an English story of pretty people either having tedious tea-parties at various country estates or compromising with one another in boring rhetoric in that exclusive British men’s club, the House of Commons.

Greek drama depended on the protagonist challenging the cosmic laws of the gods. His pride teased a fate beyond his control. The masses were represented by the chorus which witnessed and recorded what transpired. This movie omits drama because it avoids the historical conflicts: the primary conflict was between the slave in the plantations and the master, the secondary conflict was between the worker in the factory and the boss. You wouldn’t know that from this whitewash.

The two historical faults with the movie are first it does not show us that the English abolitionist movement owed its beginning, its thrust, and its ending to the activity of the slaves themselves. The second fault is that it does not consider the historical proposition that the abolition of the slave trade could only succeed at the moment in economic development when other sources of exploitation became available to English capital, namely, the working class in England. Now, those are themes of tragedy.

The steel workers of Sheffield opposed the slave trade in the 1790s; the United Irishmen did likewise. These were the allies of the Jamaicans, the vast number of Afro-Americans, and above all the Haitian slaves. These men and women waged near constant struggle in rebellion (1760s), in the War of Independence (1776), and in the Haitian revolution against slavery (1791-1803). The drama of the time arose from the possibility of revolutionary combinations of proletarians – Irish, African, English even against the lords of humankind. But not a word, not a whisper, about them in Amazing Grace.

This was the decade when English humanitarianism became warped by racialism beyond recognition. Wilberforce was a leader of both a political and a cultural counter-revolution. As the head of Society for the Suppression of Vice he opposed stage dancers, ballad singers, gingerbread fairs, nude swimming, and favored imprisonment for adultery. In 1802 alone the Society clocked 623 prosecutions for Sabbath-breaking. Wilberforce had a direct hand in the suppression also of the Constitutional Society of Sheffield where the graffiti writing on the walls were Liberty, Equality, and No King. A government spy noted "thousands of Pittmen, Keelmen, Waggonmen and other labouring men, hardy fellows strongly impressed with the new doctrine of equality".

Wilberforce was their magistrate in Yorkshire as well as Member of Parliament. He approved of the burning in effigy of Tom Paine, and to suppress democratic urges he proposed a national day of fasting and humiliation. He helped to draft the Sedition Act in 1795 making it treason to write or speak against the King or government. In 1799 William Pitt brought in a bill against the millwrights of London, the machine designers and makers, which Wilberforce promptly extended to all working people. This was the Combination Act which forbade the workers of England from combining to reduce the hours of toil or to increase the remuneration of labor. He wrote on the management of the poor suggesting that they console themselves for the inconveniences of poverty with the thought that life is "very short."

What passes for ‘the civilization of the west’, to use the traditional but absurd phrase, is the direct result of the unpaid labors of millions of African proletarians, a fact so fundamental that it is the beginning of all modern history as Franz Fanon taught us long ago, and hence of our understanding of the world. The movie reduces this fact to the sugar cube. However, this historical premise of modernity applied to all European wealth and treasure because wealth in one form quickly turned to other forms by the alchemy of trade and money. Thus that sugar and rum, that tobacco and coffee, the staple products of the slave’s labor on plantations, was transmuted into the infrastructure – the bricks and mortar, the bridges and roads, the ports and factories of the industrial revolution, and these in turn were represented by stocks and bonds, by paper and debentures, and the chits of the gambling table.

The movie shows us the young William Wilberforce gambling against the Duke of Clarence, a royal pipsqueak, who runs out of cash and must play by the rules of the club which say that, even if at a loss for money, he may wager any other possession he might have with him. "Bring me my nigger," he commands. The illusion of the entire social system shatters at this point as the Afro-British coachman enters to be traded at the gaming table of White’s (one of the exclusive clubs of Pall Mall). Wilberforce in shocked naiveté concedes his hand and withdraws in a huff. Where did he think money came from? The trees?

William Wilberforce is the protagonist whose dogged determination and persistence in Parliament is attributed to either his saintliness or to the sweet support of his wife. As a hero he is handsome, romantic, with a sonorous singing voice, and rides a white horse whenever possible. He suffers from colitis and sometimes we see him jonesing from an opium habit which began as medicine. In the first scene we see him stopping his coach in the rain in order to relieve the suffering of a wounded horse being beaten by two teamsters. The film depicts sympathy towards animals and antagonism towards workers, unless they are beggars, in which case he offers them a seat at his bountiful table. (But where is that bounty from?)

His friend is William Pitt, the young prime minister of England, himself every bit as pretty and reactionary as Tony Blair. We see these guys gallivanting about the English countryside, a place of fenced-in beauty, spiritual spider webs, and golf courses but not of labor or production, because its greenery depended upon that enclosure movement which sent the commoners into the cities and factories. And where are they in this movie? Nowhere, apart from nearly formless gray and brown tones in the background.

One of the powerful scenes in the movie is the unrolling on the floor of the House of Commons a petition of hundreds of thousands of signatures for the abolition of the inhuman trade. Another historic scene was the insertion into the bill to abolish the trade of the word "gradually." The same prevarication was employed by the white power structure against Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. ‘Gradually, gradually,’ murmured the authorities, meanwhile doing nothing, or letting loose their tools of violence the lash in the 19th century or the water cannon in the 20th.

This movie is part of the self-congratulation of the English ruling class excusing itself for the most odious and reprehensible crimes in history. This self-congratulation is accomplished with all the charm that money can buy, with cute production values of costume, scenery, English character acting, and camera work. If you want to see how that self-congratulation works, go to the movie and watch the gentry and the politicians, row upon row of them, wearing their powdered, white wigs clapping their fair, uncalloused hands: you’ll hear the sound of humanitarian hypocrisy. The name of William Wilberforce became a by-word for liberation in the Caribbean islands thousands of miles away, but at home in industrial Yorkshire his name was a synonym for prudery and political repression. Say his name with a West Indian intonation – William Wilberfarce.

Meanwhile the intelligent movie-goer will go read about Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian war of independence, or will read the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano which belongs on the shelf next to Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X, or the classic discussions of abolition by C.L.R. James, Eric Williams, or W.E.B. DuBois. Adam Hochschild Bury the Chains is the best current study of the British abolitionists. In it you can learn about some of the movie’s secondary characters – Hannah More, Thomas Clarkson, Charles James Fox, Olaudah Equiano, and John Newton, the slave dealer who composed the lyrics but not the music to the song "Amazing Grace." The movie, far from expressing the truth about the abolition of slavery and the slave trade, is a whitewash and a disgrace, fit only for an anglo-american ruling class still robbing us blind and than offering to help us see!

PETER LINEBAUGH will be speaking on "The Political Alchemy of the Red
Atlantic" at noon, Saturday, 3 March 2007, at University of Southern California, Los Angeles, at a conference called "The Black and the Green Atlantic."

PETER LINEBAUGH teaches history at the University of Toledo. He is the author of two of CounterPunch’s favorite books, The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: plineba@yahoo.com