Legacies: Commemorating the bicentenary of British abolition

Monuments and memorials

by Dr Alan Rice

'There is no place you or I can go, to think about, or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves; nothing that reminds us of the ones who made the journey and of those who did not make it. There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby. There's no 300-foot tower. There's no small bench by the road. There is not a tree scored, an initial I can visit, or you can visit in Charleston, Savannah, New York, Providence, or better still on the banks of the Mississippi.' Toni Morrison, 1989

It has taken nearly 20 years since the writer Toni Morrison made this statement for her call to be finally answered. In the USA there has been the commissioning of 10 benches by the roadside by the Toni Morrison Society. The first was inaugurated with great fanfare at Sullivan’s Island Charleston in July 2008. 'It’s never too late to honor the dead,' said Ms Morrison… as she sat down on the 6-foot-long, 26-inch-deep black steel bench facing the Intracoastal Waterway. 'It’s never too late to applaud the living who do them honor,' she said.

However, despite the big impact slavery had across the world and its importance historically to the Americas, Africa and Europe, there are still remarkably few memorials to commemorate the victims and their struggles.

British remembrance

The 2007 bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade sparked national debate, which is still ongoing, over how best to remember the millions of people displaced by the transatlantic trade. Liverpool opened a new museum dedicated to the history of slavery, London and Bristol were planning public memorials and Lancaster, the fourth largest slave-trading port in Britain, commissioned its own public memorial sculpture from artist Kevin Dalton-Johnson in 2005.

Local initiatives have been more successful. These include Bristol's Pero's Bridge built in 1999 and specially designed to commemorate the life of a local black servant (1753-98); and a dynamic new quayside memorial in Lancaster unveiled in October 2005. Sculpted by Kevin Dalton-Johnson and raised by the Slave Trade Arts Memorial Project (STAMP), this memorial - in the shape of a ship with materials built into it explaining the story of the slave trade - has shown the possibilities of creating memorials without national governmental support.


Tucked away near Fenchurch Street station on Fen Court, the City of London Corporation together with Black British Heritage in a project managed by Futurecity, finally erected its first memorial for the victims of the slave trade and in honour of those who abolished it in 2008. A collaboration between the Scottish sculptor Michael Visocchi and the black British poet Lemn Sissay, Gilt of Cain is situated aptly close to the heart of the financial district of the City of London that provided the finance for the British slave trade and to St Mary Woolnoth church where the sermons of reformed slave ship captain John Newton inspired William Wilberforce to take on the cause of abolition. This paradoxical positioning inspires both the sculpture and the poem which is inscribed upon it.

Lincoln statue, Manchester

In Manchester, the Abraham Lincoln statue raised in 1919, also commemorates the transatlantic struggle against slavery. The statue has built into it writing that describes the sacrifices made by the Lancashire cotton workers during the cotton famine to help the struggle of the Union against the slave power of the Confederacy during the American Civil War (1861-65).

USA memorials

In general, the record of the government of the USA is even worse than that of the European powers. However, some memorials in the USA do exist. One of the most impressive is the 14 foot, bronze-relief statue sculpted by Ed Hamilton in 1992. This uniquely three-sided piece built on the site of the New Haven jailhouse remembers the 1839 rebellion on the slave ship Amistad (which Steven Spielberg also made a feature film about). The Homeward Bound Foundation did manage in 1999 to have constructed a monument to the dead of transatlantic slavery which was placed on the ocean bed 427km off New York facing Africa. But subsequent attempts to have related land-based monuments erected by the group have not met with success.

Caribbean memorials

In the Caribbean there has been relatively more activity. Many memorials have been built. They tend to remember enslaved African rebel leaders and maroons rather than victims of the slave trade. In the British Caribbean, the most noteworthy monument is the Emancipation Statue in Barbados. Erected in 1985 and sculpted by Karl Broodhagen, it depicts an enslaved African man breaking his chains.

Many on the island relate the sculpture to the enslaved African rebel Bussa who led 400 rebels against British forces in 1816. More recently in Jamaica, a memorial to Nanny, leader of the rebels in the First Maroon War was raised in National Heroes Park, Kingston, Jamaica. An interesting feature of this memorial is that it reproduces the sound of the abeng, an instrument used by the fighters.

African slave forts

Much of the memorial activity in Africa is centred on the slave forts of the west coast in Senegal and Ghana. Of particular interest are plans for an ambitious slavery interpretation centre/memorial at Goree Island on Senegal. This centre is being planned with the help of the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) Slave Routes Project.

The project has increased interest in building memorials throughout the Atlantic triangle. Benin has been most active in developing memorials, especially at Ouidah. In addition, the Benin government was presented with a Reconciliation Sculpture by the City of Liverpool in 2005. Around four metres (13 feet) high, this sculpture included drawings and illustrations relating to, and information about, the slave trade. Rochester, Virginia in the USA will also receive a copy of the sculpture as one way in which Liverpool makes amends for its history of enslaving Africans and transporting them to the Americas.

Ironically, Liverpool itself has no monument to slavery on its own quayside. Britain's record generally has been poor. Most recently in 2001 meetings between the government of Tony Blair and black activists led by Lee Jasper to establish a national monument broke up without agreement.


Elsewhere in Europe, a memorial was planned in Nantes in time for the 2007 commemorations, but it has still not been raised. In Luxembourg Gardens there is a compensatory gesture, a new national memorial commemorating abolition unveiled by Jacques Chirac, President of the French Republic in May 2007. Unlike in Britain, where there is still no national memorial, here in France, in the heart of the capital city, a memorial has been constructed: the important political statement made in commissioning such a work and having it unveiled by the head of state should not be underestimated. However, despite having the imprimatur of the French state and its financial and cultural resources, the memorial is deeply disappointing in many ways. The memorial is quite small and placed amidst a welter of other statuary, including a copy of the Statue of Liberty, a memorial to theatrical performers and a commemoration of the student radicals of 1968, so it is not only hard to find, but seems already abandoned in sculpture-park hell with few people knowing of its existence – France officially remembers, but without a memorialisation that makes an impact.  The sculpture, by Fabrice Hyber, Le Cri, L’Ecrit,  is a 3.7 metre (12 feet) high polychrome bronze consisting of three chain-like ovals, one rising out of the ground linked upwards to a full chain and then from that to a broken chain symbolising the moment of abolition.

Netherlands leads the way

There is virtually no effort to build any memorial around slavery in Portugal or Spain. By far the most successful national response to their part in the international slave trade has come in the Netherlands.

Their national monument, opened by Queen Beatrice in 2002 and placed centrally in Amsterdam's Oostpark is a large multi-figure sculpture by the Surinamese sculptor Erwin De Vries.

The figures are arranged in the shape of a large ship and depict the story of the trade: firstly slaves are chained, before breaking through an arch to create a large exultant female figure shaped like the prow of a ship. This memorial was intended by the organising committee to 'give to people a public place and symbol where the horrors of, and struggle against slavery can be commemorated'. It is an example to those governments on both sides of the Atlantic that have failed to raise national monuments to their shameful pasts.

'You will first have to acknowledge that your city would not be the city it is, without the sacrifice of those who were sold by or used by the city in the past. This city can only aspire to being truly great if it can I suppose in some way seek forgiveness. Could it be that a monument is a tangible public seeking of forgiveness?' Lubaina Himid 2003

Public apology

In 2008 the United States Congress made an official apology for America's role in the history of slavery. Several of the southern American states had already issued their own apology. In 2006 British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed his 'deep sorrow' at Britain's role in the slave trade, but stopped short of a full apology. Is 200 years too late, or too long? What would an apology now achieve? Should Britain apologise? Let us know what you think: join the debate and have your say.

For more information on memorials and commemorating abolition see Alan Rice's website.