Today we remember the tragedy of slavery, but the culture war that denies Britain’s past continues | Olivette Otele

Rightwing activists see any reckoning with Britain’s colonial past as an attempt to destabilise the country – but collective memory can bring societies together

There are so many dates in the history of Britain’s involvement in colonial slavery that choosing one for collective remembrance is difficult. On 23 August every year, Unesco’s day of remembrance focuses on the Black men and women who started an uprising in Haiti in 1791. In Britain and former British territories, 25 March marks the 1807 legislation that would end the country’s involvement in the slave trade, and Emancipation Day on 1 August commemorates the 1834 act abolishing slavery coming into effect. Despite all of these dates, there has been little recognition of Britain’s historical role in the slave trade from our government or political leaders.

When discussions about slavery do happen, they focus narrowly on the British empire and tend to be polarised. David Cameron declared his “pride” in the empire but rarely mentioned slavery or colonialism (on a visit to Jamaica in 2015, the then prime minister urged the country to “move on” from this history). Meanwhile, the current Conservative party displays a nostalgia for the glorious days of the British empire, when imperial subjects didn’t “disturb” Britain’s social and cultural landscapes.

Discussions of slavery bring several, often opposing, viewpoints to the surface. Some would rather focus on abolition and erase the difficult history and legacies of subjugation at the core of enslavement; others keep telling us we need to focus on a multicultural present in a sort of post-racial Britain where, paradoxically, colour doesn’t matter. Both of these approaches have a tendency to deny the persistent reality of institutionalised racism and discrimination towards minorities today. They have led to controversies such as the Sewell report, which presented a “new story about the Caribbean experience” that recommended schoolchildren should be taught about the positive side of slavery – such as how enslaved people in the Caribbean supposedly culturally transformed themselves.

The history of enslavement involved subjugation, power, trade and violence. It is complex, and has created intergenerational trauma on all sides. So it is understandable that Britain might be reluctant to organise a high-profile commemoration each year. In France, the state’s national day commemorating the abolition of slavery takes place on 10 May (the televised ceremony is always attended by the president and the president of the senate). Britain has no national ceremony for the thousands of lives that were lost to slavery. Unesco’s International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition provides an opportunity for Britain to share responsibility with other European empires for slavery, and therefore exonerate itself by framing slavery as a common historical practice.

Avoiding discussions of slavery for the rest of the year plays into the hands of culture warriors who are itching for a US-style standoff, and prefer to frame any reckoning with Britain’s colonial past as an attempt to destabilise the country. Take, for example, Kemi Badenoch’s distracting and ill-informed grandstanding over critical race theory, or Cressida Dick’s portrayal of institutional racism and police brutality as merely a few bad apples, or the repeated attempts to frame Black Lives Matter as a movement that is hostile to white people.

This culture war has become a mechanism of distraction that prevents us from discussing the painful legacies of Britain’s colonial past, and examining how this history has entrenched social inequalities in the present day. Instead of intelligent and compassionate conversation about history, there has been a hardening of positions on all sides.

The conversation shouldn’t be about deciding whether the British empire was “good” or “bad”. The purpose of slavery was to build wealth for Britain by any means necessary, through subjugation, division and coercion. And even in the midst of the exploitation and enslavement that defined plantation life, there were forms of collaboration that benefited some at the expense of others, and hierarchies and class systems among enslaved people that ultimately allowed slaveholders to retain control. On plantations, favouritism based on skin colour was even more complex. Yet we can’t teach these layers of history if we don’t even acknowledge how important that history was – and still is.

This culture war is the symptom of a selective history about enslavement that has defined how we view this issue in Britain. Frequently we hear the paternalist account of Britain’s role in the slave trade, which focuses on the country’s contribution to ending slavery and the navy’s role in rescuing enslaved people after 1807. Britain would rather be remembered as a saviour and emancipator than a perpetrator. As a result, we hear far less about other parts of its history, such as how, in the scramble to colonise parts of Africa in the 19th century, abolitionist arguments helped to justify imperial expansion.

The solution to this collective amnesia should be honest conversations about the past and its impact on 21st-century Britain. A national dialogue that doesn’t turn into a point-scoring shouting match could be the start of powerful momentum for restorative justice. The Bank of England, which has publicly acknowledged its role in the slave trade and recently hosted an exhibition about the links between slavery and the City of London, and the Church of England, which launched an investigation into its links with slavery, have already started this conversation. Such initiatives could open the door to a greater understanding of our common history.

Some may ask: why does a nation need to publicly commemorate slavery, when there are already local initiatives, such as Black History Cymru 365, which commemorate and celebrate Black history all year long? The first answer is a “duty of memory”: Britain built unprecedented wealth by exploiting people of African descent as labour and commodities for 300 years and colonising parts of Asia. Parliament played a central role in that history and even paid compensation to owners of enslaved people. The least any government in its place could do would be remembering those who were enslaved, supporting the teaching of this history through curriculum change, and engaging in discussions about restorative justice.

The second answer is related to the idea of collective memory. As memory studies scholars have demonstrated, collective commemoration can be a way to heal from traumatic pasts and bring societies together. In fact, Liverpool’s museums are bringing together playwright Bonnie Greer and Laurella Rinçon, director general of Mémorial ACTe (MACTe), a memorial and museum dedicated to the memory of the transatlantic slave trade in Guadeloupe, for a public conversation and keynote address. In Greenwich, the National Maritime Museum is organising a series of talks and performances. On this day and during Black History Month, there is a flurry of activities around the history of slavery. Now we must ensure this question does not fall into oblivion for the rest of the year.

  • Olivette Otele is distinguished professor of the legacies and memory of slavery at Soas University of London

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 300 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at


Olivette Otele

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
If we can’t speak honestly about Britain’s links to slavery, we turn our backs on change | Nesrine Malik
Today’s generation is not responsible for what happened two centuries ago – but it can be guilty of refusing to learn from it, says Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik

Nesrine Malik

30, Mar, 2023 @5:00 AM

Article image
The Guardian view on our links to slavery: a necessary reckoning with the past | Editorial
Editorial: Facing up to the fact that Britain was built on subjugation and empire will help navigate the future


28, Mar, 2023 @5:53 PM

Article image
Cambridge is right: you can’t take pride in the past and ignore the horror of slavery | Gaby Hinsliff
The university’s inquiry into its slave trade links is an admirable attempt to grapple with historical truth, says Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff

Gaby Hinsliff

30, Apr, 2019 @10:35 AM

Article image
The Guardian view on commemorative art: remember differently | Editorial
Editorial: Better to own up to Britain’s murderous history than hide it, but sensitive curation is everything


07, Aug, 2022 @5:25 PM

Article image
Crude, racist textbooks have no place in today’s education system | David Lammy
Don’t teach children that Caribbean fathers are ‘largely absent’, teach them about slavery and exploitation, says Labour MP David Lammy

David Lammy

10, Oct, 2018 @10:36 AM

Article image
The Guardian view on the history of slavery: much to be learned | Editorial
Editorial: The appointment of Bristol’s new professor of the history of slavery is a small but encouraging step towards understanding a painful past


03, Nov, 2019 @6:30 PM

Article image
Beware the ‘ghostliners’: who mask Britain’s slavery shame and mute calls for justice | Kris Manjapra
The row about a Cambridge monument to a slave trafficker shows how far the UK has to go to confront its racist past, says history professor Kris Manjapra

Kris Manjapra

27, Aug, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Windrush is a chance to end British intolerance dating from slavery | Guy Hewitt
We must end the discrimination that is the legacy of a horrific past, says the Barbados high commissioner, Guy Hewitt

Guy Hewitt

01, Aug, 2018 @11:48 AM

Article image
The case for British slavery reparations can no longer be brushed aside | Afua Hirsch
There is now a global debate focused on all those nations who built their wealth by denying black people humanity, says Guardian columnist Afua Hirsch

Afua Hirsch

09, Jul, 2020 @3:55 PM

Article image
Along with the Queen, Britain is laying to rest a sacred national image that never was | Nesrine Malik
In this new era we will speak of national and royal fallibility, says Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik

Nesrine Malik

11, Sep, 2022 @2:00 PM