Don’t knock Nelson for failing to fight slavery – he had a war to look after | Letters

The descendant of a 19th-century abolitionist points out that even Wilberforce had his flaws. Plus other reactions to Afua Hirsch’s piece on Britain’s view of its imperial history

Afua Hirsch’s article (Britain doesn’t just glorify its violent past: it gets high on it, 30 May) is of great interest to me as the great-great-grandson of Samuel Bowly, who campaigned in the early 19th century against the slave trade. One of the most lauded of the many Quakers who fought slavery in his lifetime, and pictured in Robert Haydon’s monumental painting of the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London (now in the National Portrait Gallery), he has been largely overlooked, although a blue plaque commemorating him was recently erected in Gloucester.

However, to condemn Nelson for not joining the fight is surely to ask a great deal of a naval hero overly occupied elsewhere. The anti-slavery movement only began in the 1780s, and was largely suspended during the wars with France; the bill abolishing the slave trade didn’t receive royal assent until 1807, two years after Trafalgar.

Wilberforce himself was by no means perfect, disapproving of female campaigners and opposing Catholic emancipation. So let’s recognise that we all have flaws, even while we strive to do good where we can, and very often fail in the attempt. We are all complicated beings capable of good and bad at the same time.
Antony Barlow
Wallington, London

• Afua Hirsch is simply wrong when she says it is “ludicrous” to claim that Captain Cook discovered Australia. The first people to settle Australia fifty-odd-thousand years ago did an amazing thing in founding a vibrant, complex and successful human society in one of the harshest environments on Earth. But, until Cook and other European explorers arrived on the scene, nobody outwith Australia knew that it was there.

If you want the credit for discovering something, it’s not enough just to find it – you have to tell other people about it, so that what you’ve found has a chance of becoming widely known. Captain Cook literally put Australia on the map, so he rightly gets the credit for making Australia known to the rest of the world. Whether, given all that has followed, this was a good idea is another question entirely.
Richard Ellam

• Thank you to Afua Hirsch, for exposing the one-sidedness of the history we British learn from childhood on. If we had been taught how much we have gained from our interaction with other nations, we would not now be facing the madness of Brexit.
John Bond

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