Memory, myth and forgetting: the British transatlantic slave trade
Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis
Based on Halbwachs’ theory of collective memory and Connerton’s notion of collective forgetting, this thesis contends that the history of the British transatlantic slave trade has been deliberately omitted from British collective remembrance, replaced by a stylised image of the campaign for its abolition, in the interests of maintaining a consistent national identity built around notions of humanitarian and philanthropic concern. This thesis examines the way that this collective amnesia was addressed during the bicentenary of the passage of the Slave Trade Act in 2007 in museological display and the media, alongside its interrogation in novels published during the last seventeen years. The exploration of the bicentennial commemoration provided a unique opportunity to examine the way in which the nation presented its own history to the British public and the international community, and the divergent perspectives at play. Analysis of the artefacts and panel text featured at the International Slavery Museum, the Uncomfortable Truths exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Chasing Freedom exhibition at the Royal Naval Museum reveals an emerging desire amongst curators to reduce attention garnered on the previously-lionised British abolitionists in favour of an increased representation of the experiences of the enslaved, including instances of their resistance and rebellion. Examination of neo-slave narratives scrutinises the way that postcolonial novelists draw attention to the process by which eighteenth-century slave narratives came to be published, demonstrating their unsuitability to be considered historical texts. S. I. Martin’s Incomparable World (1996), David Dabydeen’s A Harlot’s Progress (2000), Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes (2009), Bernadine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots (2009) and Andrea Levy’s The Long Song (2010) re-write the slave experience and the process of writing, reframing abolitionist motivations around self-interest and political necessity rather than humanitarian concern. Media engagement was analysed through newspaper articles reporting on the bicentenary, the output of the BBC’s Abolition Season, and the representation of slavery in film, revealing a surface-level engagement with the subject, furthering the original abolitionist imagery, with any revisionist output needing to be specifically sought-out by the consumer. The thesis concludes that a revisionist approach to the history of the slave trade is becoming more apparent in challenges to collective memory occasioned by the bicentenary of its abolition; novelists make this challenge unavoidably clear to their readers, whilst those visiting museums are presented with an opportunity to reassess their understanding of this history by engaging with exhibits; the media, however, provides this revisionism but only in small ways, and has to be sought out by audiences keen to engage with it.
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