Two hundred years ago, in 1807 and early 1808, the governments of Great Britain and the United States enacted laws to end the Atlantic slave trade. The horrific commerce that had delivered more than 11 million enslaved Africans to New World plantations came to an end, first, in the nation that was at the time the world's leading slave trader, and, second, in the nation that would feature one of the world's strongest and most profitable slave systems.
Marcus Rediker is a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and author of "The Slave Ship: A Human History," which will be published by Viking-Penguin in October (www.MarcusRediker.com). More information about contemporary slavery can be found at www.freetheslaves.net.
Other nations followed; the last legal slave ship crossed the Atlantic in 1867. Slavery itself had ended in the United States with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, but it would continue in Cuba until 1886 and Brazil until 1888.
How and why the trade began, and how it ended, are important to understanding the world in which we live today. Even now, the peoples of Europe, Africa and the Americas continue to be haunted by the brutal legacies of the slave trade and slavery. Movements have arisen to demand reparations and redress, and history is critical to the discussion of how injustice might be overcome.
Michael Apted's compelling historical film, "Amazing Grace," raises these issues before a global audience. It suggests indirectly but correctly that profits and the economic interests of the British empire were the causes of the slave trade, and it suggests directly but, in my view, incorrectly, how the slave trade came to an end -- almost solely because of the efforts of the humane and idealistic gentleman, William Wilberforce, member of Parliament.
In the movie, the saintly Mr. Wilberforce wages a long and lonely struggle, assisted by a few fellow abolitionists: his friend, Prime Minister William Pitt; the relentless activist Thomas Clarkson and the anti-slavery writer and former slave Olaudah Equiano. Mr. Wilberforce leads the way and overcomes all, including his "honorable friends" in Parliament, especially the powerful slave merchants of Liverpool; an apathetic nation, in which slavery abroad had been long tolerated, and a world bereft of moral standards. Driven by his Christian conscience and haunted by the suffering of Africans aboard the slave ships, he perseveres and triumphs. The film ends with a standing ovation to him in Parliament after the passage of the abolition bill, and the film's audience is meant to join in. In this morality tale, Mr. Wilberforce embodies perfect virtue.
Of course, a commercial film is under no obligation to get its history right, but the errors are legion. For example: Equiano, a veteran of the dreaded Middle Passage across the Atlantic, is asked by Mr. Wilberforce how long the voyage takes. "Three weeks," he replies, but in fact it more commonly took three to four times as long. More troubling than such errors is something deeper.
The movie is at odds with most recent historical scholarship, which sees abolitionism not as the noblesse oblige of "great white men" but rather as the accomplishment of a diverse social movement. By focusing almost exclusively on Mr. Wilberforce the movie regresses to a 19th-century historiography -- worse yet, hagiography -- in which the gentlemanly British abolitionists were "saints," the saviors of the slaves. Current views are more complex, not least because over the last generation scholars have studied a broader range of historical actors and their deeds "from below," through social history, rather than from above, through the biographies and political histories of the rulers.
We have learned that slaves, sailors, craftsmen and industrial workers played important roles in ending the slave trade. The enslaved -- the first abolitionists -- not only suffered, they fought back. Aboard the ships, they starved themselves to death, jumped overboard and waged hundreds of bloody uprisings in repeated if unsuccessful bids for freedom, thereby inspiring and animating (and sometimes scaring) the metropolitan abolitionist movement.
Much of what the abolitionist "saints" knew of the horrors of the slave trade -- and a substantial amount of what Mr. Wilberforce actually said in his eloquent speeches in Parliament -- had been gathered by Mr. Clarkson in interviews with dissident common sailors on the waterfronts of Bristol and Liverpool. Thousands of artisans and workers, especially in Manchester, refused to consume sugar, signed anti-slave trade petitions and built a national grass-roots abolitionist movement between 1788 and 1792, which made the reforms of the gentlemanly saints possible. In fact, after 1795 Messrs. Wilberforce and Pitt violently repressed the nascent labor movement despite its opposition to the slave trade and slavery. The two gentlemen were not as friendly to "the people" as the movie would have us believe.
Reducing a complex history to the story of a "great man" is commonplace: Mr. Wilberforce abolished the slave trade, Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, and so on. But this way of thinking must be resisted, in history and in the arts, for it disguises the contributions of a broader array of people and distorts our understanding of what happened and why.
Bertold Brecht suggested the limitations of the top-down perspective in his poem "A Worker Reads History": Young Alexander conquered India.
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears? It might make a difference to the people demanding historic justice today to know that the abolition of the slave trade was not an aristocratic gift of grace and that their own forebears had helped to wage -- and win -- a world-changing battle.
It might also make a difference to know that despite that historic victory, the battle is not over. As many as 27 million people are effectively enslaved around the world today, as sex-workers, agricultural laborers, diamond-miners and oriental-rug makers who serve a global capitalist economy. To understand and reckon with the harsh legacies of race, class and slavery that plague us still, it will require not the moral and political simplicities of "Amazing Grace," but broad-based social movements who seek to make history "from below."