International Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Thursday 25 March is the International Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The United Nations will commemorate this Day under the theme “Ending Slavery’s Legacy of Racism: A Global Imperative for Justice”.

Today is not a public holiday, but a day for global observance. It gives us the opportunity to honour and remember those who suffered and died at the hands of the brutal slavery system. It also rises the awareness about the dangers of racism and prejudice today.

The International Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade gives us an occasion to educate ourselves and our children about the effects of racism, slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.

Last August I took my eight- and thirteen-year-old nephews to the National Gallery (and for pizza, of course). While preparing for the outing, two paintings caught my attention – Sir Joshua Reynolds’ ‘Colonel Tarleton’, and ‘The Sharp Family’ by Johann Zoffany. Granville Sharp was a leading British abolitionist and instigator of the first settlement of freed African slaves in Sierra Leone. As well as his campaign for the abolition of slavery, Sharp held other radical political opinions, supporting parliamentary reform and better wages for labourers. These two paintings, displayed close to each other, in Rooms 33 and 35, they talk very different stories of slavery, abolition of slavery and racism.

Zvezdana and her nephew viewing ‘The Sharp Family’ at the National Gallery

Thanks to Jason Isaacs’ portrayal of British Colonel Tavington (based on Tarleton)in the film ‘The Patriot’, I was much better acquainted with the “flamboyant and controversial figure” of Sir Banestre Tarleton. He was a cavalry officer, famous for his cruelty during the American war of independence. Tarleton was known as commander of the ‘Tarleton Raiders’, and for ‘Tarleton Quarters’ (shooting after surrender).  

Unlike in the film where this odious character was killed on the battlefield, the real Sir Banestre Tarleton returned to Great Britain in 1781 as a hero, at the age of twenty-seven.  Moreover, he was elected a Member of Parliament for Liverpool. Given the importance of the slave trade to the British shipping industry in Liverpool, Tarleton strongly supported slavery as an economic means. He was working to preserve the slavery business with his brothers Clayton and Thomas and became well known for his taunting and mockery of the abolitionists.

‘Colonel Tarleton’ by Joshua Reynolds
‘The Sharp Family’ by Johann Zoffany

Whether we are studying, reading, enjoying football matches, working, shopping, travelling, or taking part in the Black Lives Matter movement, we are aware of racism lurking everywhere. Even an innocent visit to the gallery cannot steer clear of these issues. I was disappointed that the information next to these paintings at the National Gallery did not give more, proper insight into the subjects of these paintings. (Luckily, I was ready to step in.) Although I appreciate and like Joshua Reynold’s art, today’s visitors need more honest and critical information and galleries, museums and historic houses must adapt and address the visitors’ needs.

“By the time of abolition, slavery was widely seen as a shameful thing.” Historian David Olusoga comments in the documentary programme Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners. “Many slave owners went out of their way to avoid admitting their involvement. But the lure of compensation drew them out of shadows. Every single slave owner who came forward is recorded in the national archives in Kew in London, 46,000 of them. It’s a complete census of ownership, at the point when slavery was taking its last gasp.” The slave owners walked with millions, while the enslaved received nothing.

by Zvezdana Popovic

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