Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

On or off the rugby field, history haunts the collective experience of France and England alike. Over the Channel, one of the more controversial twists in this shared passion-stroke-fixation will take place on Monday, with the first obligatory reading in all French schools of an eve-of-execution letter sent to his family by the 17-year-old Resistance activist Guy Moquet in 1941. Nicolas Sarkozy commanded this fresh-minted ritual as one of his first acts as President in May – a quick score by a politician who loves to wrap himself in the tricolore.

In Britain, even in Gordon Brown's flag-embracing land, we no longer do super-patriotic charades in schools. What did take root here, after the First World War, was a culture of remembrance that sought to keep history and its tragedies alive without the emotional props of glory and disdain. This sombre recollection of suffering and sacrifice became a national style of commemoration. It has been massively in evidence this year as publishers and theatres, museums and media, have marked the parliamentary abolition of the slave trade. The enormity of the theme has quashed facile rhetoric.

Indeed, the huge span of troubled responses to the bicentenary have matched the doubts and contradictions of the movement against slavery itself. Take the history books alone. William Hague's Wilberforce biography gave an old-fashioned account of top-down abolition with skill and sympathy. James Walvin's The Trader, The Owner, The Slave grippingly recounted the triangular trade from each human point of its compass. Now Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship: a human history (John Murray, £30) docks: a shockingly vivid work about these vessels of profit and despair, and the six million captive souls they carried in the 18th-century. It comes from a gifted chronicler of history's lower decks, at home in the unruly Atlantic world of pirates, slavers, sailors, runaways and rebels.

Rediker artfully welds individual portraits of slavery's agents, victims and foes with an eye-opening study of the slave ship as "a strange and potent combination of war machine, mobile prison and factory". William Hague, for one, would hardly assent to the radical Rediker's conclusion: that the system's "violence and terror" have "always been central to the rise and... operation of capitalism". Discuss... And, meanwhile, relish his range of stories, whether the return of the noble imam's son Job Ben Solomon – a slaver enslaved – to his family on the Senegal river, or the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson's trawl for tales of slave-trading barbarity among tipsy tars in the dives of Bristol.

At present, Bristol is a city laden with striking artworks and exhibitions inspired by the slave trade and the campaign against it. In the city museum stands an installation, "La Bouche du Roi", by Romuald Hazoumé from Benin. It is a modern version of the famous abolitionist engraving of the slave ship Brooks in 1788: a stunning propaganda coup, tirelessly circulated by Clarkson. Rediker unpicks the print's dramatic effect in fascinating detail. In Hazoumé's response, the slaves' packed bodies are replaced by "masks" made out of flimsy petrol cans that, risking fatal explosions, motor-cycle traders now carry across African frontiers. For the artist, as for Rediker, the global inequalities behind the Middle Passage "never ended".

So if Brown ever decides that Britain requires a classroom ceremony to trump Sarkozy's stunt, perhaps he should order a discussion of the Brooks engraving: an icon, but a thoroughly ambiguous one. Does it testify to the trade's dreadful cruelty more than it records the courage of all who challenged it? Or vice versa? History is not rugby, and centuries may pass without a definitive result.