By ALAN RIDING, The New York Times
LONDON — The way history has long been taught here, Britain’s abolition of the slave trade on March 25, 1807, allowed it to claim the moral high ground in the struggle to end slavery in the New World. Two centuries later, if a series of exhibitions planned for this year leave their mark, perceptions may be about to change.
Rather than dwelling on William Wilberforce, the feisty abolitionist who drove the reform through the British Parliament and is the subject of the film “Amazing Grace,” these shows are highlighting a far uglier back story: Britain’s deep engagement in the slave trade in earlier centuries and the fundamental role this played in forging the nation’s wealth and power.
With the support of the government and a $20 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, national museums and community groups across Britain have begun re-examining what a new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London calls these “Uncomfortable Truths.”
The mood may be ripe for such a reassessment. After years of waxing nostalgic about its lost empire, Britain is now daring to look more critically at its imperial record. At the same time there is fresh curiosity about the history and culture of the Caribbean, African, Arab and Asian immigrants who are changing the face of Britain.
There is also new transparency. Although Prime Minister Tony Blair fell short of an apology, in November he went further than any previous official by expressing “deep sorrow” for Britain’s role in the slave trade. “It is hard to believe what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at the time,” he noted.
Penitence seems to weigh most heavily on the northwestern port city of Liverpool, which in 1800 controlled 80 percent of the British slave trade and over 40 percent of the European slave trade. The triangular trade, by which African slaves were bartered for sugar, cotton and tobacco in the Americas, was the foundation of Liverpool’s enormous prosperity.
Today the city takes this past seriously. In 1994 the Merseyside Maritime Museum opened a Transatlantic Slavery Gallery to tell the story of Liverpool and slavery. This display will close in June to make way for Britain’s first International Slavery Museum, which will open on Aug. 23, named by the United Nations as Slavery Remembrance Day.
David Fleming, the director of National Museums Liverpool, said the new museum would portray and analyze “the vitality and complexity of West Africa prior to the coming of European slavers, the horrors of the Middle Passage, the fate of the enslaved people in the Americas and of course the never-ending fight for freedom.”
London and Bristol, two other major slave-trading cities, are also probing their consciences this year. In October the Museum of Docklands in London will open a permanent gallery called “London, Sugar and Slavery,” while the Bristol Industrial Museum has opened a Transatlantic Slavery gallery exploring how the city profited from the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Opening the bicentennial commemoration is the show at the Victoria and Albert Museum, “Uncomfortable Truths: The Shadow of Slave Trading on Contemporary Art and Design,” which looks at the slave trade and its benefits to Britain through the eyes of 11 contemporary artists from around the world.
In some cases — like Romuald Hazoumé’s striking serpent made from jerrycans, in the museum’s courtyard — the link between the art and this narrative is less than obvious. Mr. Hazoumé, a Benin-born artist, has also created a larger work, “La Bouche du Roi,” transforming 300 jerrycans into masks, which will tour Britain, starting at the British Museum.
With other artists the idea of scattering contemporary works through the Victoria and Albert’s collection is more successful in subverting the museum’s post-imperial elegance. For instance, with a series called “Naming the Money” by Lubaina Himid, the show’s curator, Zoe Whitley, has placed several life-size painted cutouts of slaves in the British Galleries, a reminder of the link between the slave trade and British wealth.
In the Norfolk House Music Room, a headless archer identified as Foster Cunliffe, a grandson of a slave trader, is dressed in period costume made of lively African textiles. And in the same room the American Fred Wilson displays “Regina Atra,” a replica of a royal crown, in this case made of lead and black diamonds.
“I didn’t want to have shackles and chains aesthetics,” said Ms. Whitley, 27, an American who is the museum’s curator of contemporary programs. “I wanted something relevant to the Victoria and Albert.” The show runs through June 17.
The National Portrait Gallery has organized a lecture series for the March anniversary around the theme “People, Portraits and Abolition.” It has also created its own trail through its collection, with panels explaining the role of significant players in promoting — and combating — the slave trade since the time of Elizabeth I. (This route can be followed on the gallery’s Web site, www.npg.org.uk/live/abo_tr_1.asp
The focus of “The Business of Slavery” at the British Museum, opening in May, will be the commodities that sustained the slave trade, starting with Europe’s initial interest in West Africa’s gold and ivory, then detailing the enormous profits earned from the New World’s tobacco, sugar, cotton and rum. This show will also recall the role played by enslaved people in their own liberation, notably in Haiti and Jamaica.
The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich has organized lectures related to Britain’s involvement in the slave trade as well as a new gallery called “Atlantic Worlds,” which will open in October with a display of slavery-related objects. The Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth has an exhibition called “Chasing Freedom: The Royal Navy and the Suppression of the Transatlantic Slave Trade,” which presents the navy’s role in intercepting foreign slave ships after 1807.
It is a measure of the new awareness of the slave trade’s importance to Britain that so many institutions feel a need to respond this year.
For instance English Heritage, which manages large numbers of stately homes, has decided for the first time to research links between the slave trade and the properties in its care. The Palace of Westminster, in contrast, will focus on the March 25, 1807, reform in “The British Slave Trade: Abolition, Parliament and People,” from May 23 through Sept. 23.
For a country where national commemorations invariably relate to royal jubilees or sporting triumphs, this bicentennial represents an extraordinary reflection on a chapter of history that, notwithstanding the courage of Wilberforce and other abolitionists, remains a stain on Britain’s name.
Along with spotlighting the past, the campaign also hopes to draw attention to new forms of slavery, whether in remote parts of Africa, Latin America and the Middle East or closer to home where immigrant women are forced into prostitution. A photography exhibition at St. Paul’s Cathedral through March 29, “Slave Britain: The 21st Century Trade in Human Lives,” holds up just such a mirror to Britain today.