Next year we mark the bicentenary of Britain's abolition of the Atlantic slave trade - though both the trade, and New World slavery itself, continued for many more years. Already there is heated debate on the nature, the purpose, and the implications of this commemoration. How should Britain remember slavery, its abolition and aftermaths? Should there be formal apologies or reparations? If so, from and to whom? What are the implications for rethinking Britishness and its history, for which everyone from Gordon Brown downwards (or outwards) has been calling?
Clearly, we will be walking a tightrope between a celebration of Britain's role in destroying slavery, and a far more sombre, even shame-filled commemoration of the preceding centuries.
Before 1807, Britain had been the world's biggest slaving power. British merchants transported at least three million slaves, and hundreds of thousands more died. The heritage industry tends to be very good at the celebratory bit while academic historians usually feel more at home with the dark side. Bicentennial planning builds on a long history of different kinds of "memory" of slavery and abolition: from scholarly debates, through novels, poetry, films, plays and music, to political uses and abuses of the past. Indeed, the main value of historical anniversary-mongering may well be the focus it provides for such wider reconsiderations.
William St Clair comes at this vast and grim subject from a new angle, through the history of a single building. Cape Coast Castle, in what is now Ghana, was the most important African base for Britain's slave traders. From 1664 to 1807, it was the trade's main headquarters - so far as any place could claim that title. Yet the Castle's own records had barely been touched by historians before St Clair dug into them. What he builds from those archives, from studying the physical transformations of the buildings themselves, and from deft if sometimes too-brief investigation of wider contexts, is a powerful, poignant, often startling story. It is also one with some disconcerting gaps.
Recent years have seen a substantial body of new research on the infamous trade. The biggest advances have come through study of the African past. For the first time, we are beginning to learn a great deal about who the slaves were, where exactly they came from, how they were seized or sold. The additions to knowledge, though, are mostly in terms of statistics and trends, amid which enslaved individuals remain almost wholly lost to history.
One minor disappointment of St Clair's impressive book is that in his story, too, the victims are almost invisible and unheard. That's not his fault. He can tell us a great deal about the commanders, the officers and senior officials of the Castle; less, but still a fair bit, about their underlings, their families, sexual partners both black and white. We can learn less again - albeit more than we knew before - about the African rulers and traders.
St Clair wisely sidesteps the bitter and fruitless polemics over whether Africans who sold slaves were "as guilty" as Europeans who bought them. But the slaves themselves were, literally, hidden underground within the Castle until they were hustled through the "door of no return" to the waiting ships. They remain so to us today.
Stephen Howe's books include 'Afrocentrism: Mythical pasts and imagined homes' (Verso)Reuse content