Monday, 20 March 2017

Lighting the Monument

It’s taken 3 years of fundraising with huge support from the public of Hull and beyond, and finally, on 23rd March, the Wilberforce monument will be lit.

This idea was conceived with the City of Culture year in mind to celebrate the city’s pride in William Wilberforce, a legacy which places the onus on us to remember the horrors of historic slavery and to acknowledge that there are many millions of people who suffer within modern day slavery still.

The lighting was approved of by Hull City Council, who embraced the idea and not only helped us in our endeavours to achieve this, but cast the net wider as the monument becomes part of Hull’s wider illuminations of its buildings in later months.

We are proud that the life of this campaign has seen us through the Modern Slavery bill and the greater realisation of our shared history in films such as 12 Years a Slave. Many thanks to everyone who has supported us.

So what about our timing?

Adam Hochschild wrote: "In 1787, approximately three quarters of the people on Earth lived under some form of enslavement, serfdom, debt bondage or indentured servitude. This was the year the popular movement against the British slave trade suddenly ignited. There were no slaves in Britain itself, but the vast majority of its people accepted slavery in the British West Indies as perfectly normal."

The acceptance of human suffering on such a staggering scale is as hard to believe then as it is now. The inconvenience of the unpalatable truth was acknowledged by Wilberforce himself during his great speech of 1789 in which he admonished our tendency towards collective amnesia or to "choose to look the other way".

It took a revolution in thinking to affect the abolition of the slave trade when it was the norm to oppress so many people. Just imagine battling against a ‘tradition’ of over 200 years standing. And, whilst some may argue that the economic climate of that time had much to do with it, it is beyond doubt that the strong will and determination of the many who fought before the first bill of 1791, towards the 1807 Abolition Act and beyond, had much to do with change.

So, the lighting of the Wilberforce monument will take place two days before the 210th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British colonies, to acknowledge all those who contributed to the anti-slavery movement.

In Britain, the powerhouse of the slave trade, we know the names of the many great men and women who fought this great evil. But there perhaps were others in the slave trading nations of Portugal, Brazil, Spain, France, Holland and the United States that we know less about. There were also the many slave rebels who are more readily overlooked and written out of the story (such as Tacky and Toussaint L’Ouverture, to name just two).

The lighting of the Wilberforce monument is a tribute to these overlooked heroes, as well as the notable names of the abolitionist movement, including: Thomas Clarkson, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, Anthony Benezet, Phyllis Wheatley, Granville Sharp, John Wesley, Ignatius Sancho, James Ramsay, Olaudah Equiano, John Newton, Hannah More, Josiah Wedgewood, James Stephen, Zachary Macaulay, William Allen, the Sons of Africa, the Quakers, and all those who continued the struggle thereafter.

Let’s hope that their legacy proves to be inspirational to the politicians, activists and ordinary people who need to affect change for the oppressed today.

Image: A collage of the heroes of abolition, including Wilberforce's monument with the gilded scroll.