Why We Need to Stop Saying White People Ended Slavery

While I acknowledge and admire the work that many white abolitionists put in to this cause at various points and in various places in history, they did not end slavery themselves. It wasn’t just about them, many slaves all over the world worked towards the abolition of slavery through various forms of active or passive resistance, and it’s a shame that this gets so overshadowed by figures such as Abraham Lincoln and his emancipation proclamation.

When you search for “famous abolitionists” online you are presented with a pull out tab saying, “Who helped to end slavery?” When you click on it it says “William Wilberforce.” Why doesn’t it say Frederick Douglas or Olaudah Equiano/Gustavus Vassa? Both of whom were slaves themselves during their lives. These men are just a couple examples, there were too many people involved in the abolition of slavery to give just a few people credit, yet the history is portrayed all too often in a simplistic light, as if a single white person like Abraham Lincoln just got up and ended slavery. This ignores the agency and initiatives of slaves throughout history to end colonial slavery.

For example, during the Haitian Revolution, slaves took their freedom and overthrew the French military through force and declared independence by 1804. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who led many of the revolutionary troops, and his take no prisoners strategy combined with his expert military leadership contributed greatly to ending French slavery there. He was able to overcome overwhelming odds and defeat one of the world’s strongest military forces, on the battlefield. It can be argued that this was a more significant factor in ending slavery in the rest of the world than any moral compulsion, as colonial powers became afraid of similar uprisings in their own empires. As Tsar Alexander II of Russia said of serfdom “It is better to abolish it from the top than to allow it to abolish itself from the bottom.” Serf rebellions had intensified and threatened Russian stability, and one can’t help but to wonder if a similar worry was the main motivation behind abolition.  It can be seen as less than coincidental that an attempt to abolish slavery passed in the British House of Commons in 1805 but did not make it into law. 

We need to stop giving all the credit to white abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Blackwell, and James Beattie. School curriculums should spend less time on the emancipation proclamation and more time understanding the factors that led to that decision. To fail to acknowledge the agency of slaves in the effort to abolish slavery is in itself deeply racist and symptomatic of the patriarchal attitudes of colonial and postcolonial empires.



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