UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Slavery, abolition and the myth of white benevolence Johnston, Sasha


This thesis interrogates gestures of remembrance in British culture, specifically as they serve to construct and maintain a collective memory of Britain’s involvement in Atlantic slavery and abolitionism. I am particularly interested in what representations of slavery and abolitionism tell us about the permissible limits of Britain’s historical narratives, and the relationship of those narratives to contemporary ideals of national identity. The achievement of abolition in the nineteenth century – or “the emancipation moment,” as David Brion Davis so appropriately describes it – enabled a form of strategic denial, wherein the self-congratulatory celebration of abolition was used to elide important moral and ethical questions engendered by Britain’s participation in Atlantic slavery. As a result, Britain was not required to contend with its paradoxical position as champion of both slavery and abolition. Through an examination of various public debates initiated by the 2007 bicentennial of abolition in Britain, and an analysis of “Breaking the Chains” – an exhibit in Bristol’s British Empire and Commonwealth Museum – I seek to demonstrate that the discursive formation of slavery and abolition in contemporary Britain continues to both inform and invoke what I am calling the myth of white British benevolence. This allows many Britons to cling to a national identity that is grounded in assumptions about racial whiteness, and to avoid having to confront the ways in which the legacy of slavery (and its abolition) informs racial/ethnic tensions in Britain, putting future policies and practices of multiculturalism into question.

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