Friday, January 19, 2007

African Heroes on British stamps

Old-school rap fans will remember the lyrics of Public Enemy front man Chuck D on the 1989 track Fight The Power from the Do The Right Thing movie soundtrack, when he uttered the immortal words: ‘Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps’.

Now, almost 20 years later, that rhyme can no longer be said to be completely accurate after it was revealed last week that two pivotal figures in the abolitionist movement will be honoured with a new set of stamps marking the bicentennial anniversary of the end of the trade in slaves.

Olaudah Equiano, an enslaved African turned campaigner whose best-selling autobiography highlighted the plight of his people sold into slavery, features on a first-class stamp against a map of the triangular trade route.

And Ignatius Sancho, also a former slave, appears on a 72 pence stamp against a background featuring one of his own trade cards. He was an accomplished composer and a grocer and brought the horror of slavery to a wider public through his published letters to novelist Laurence Sterne.

A Royal Mail spokesperson said: ‘To honour the achievements of the anti-slavery movement, Royal Mail has produced a range of stamps that combine contemporary portraits of six of the most prominent anti-slavery campaigners, with a background linked to their work.’

Arthur Torrington, Secretary of the Equiano Society, was pleased that the efforts of the men had been recognised at last. He told New Nation: ‘I think it is a good idea as it isn’t something that has happened before. To honour a former slave is welcome and shows that the British finally appreciate the contributions our ancestors made to their society.

‘It is a thing that we have to work on and it will take time. From now 2007 should be seen as an occasion in which we are reflecting and getting the young people to reflect as well.’

Not everyone was happy with the honour. Cultural Theorist Paul Goodwin feels the stamps are symbolic of the attitude of the majority of the British public towards the slave trade. He told New Nation:

‘The issuing of the stamps is just a window dressing to cover up the attitude of the British state. ‘My main criticism is that the government hasn’t taken the lead on this issue. It shows a collective sense of denial, within the official mind, it is still the white emancipators who are commemorated and we’re failing to learn the lessons of the legacy of the trade.

‘Unfortunately after 200 years I think that collectively the government and other major British organisations are still in denial about the slave trade, it is left to the black community to commemorate the role played by black people. ‘This should be a partnership rather than the black organisations pushing the mainstream ones for recognition.

‘I’m involved in a lot of committees, I sit on the Museum Heritage Network, and they don’t see it as a British thing, they see it as something for the black community. But that is the wrong attitude to adopt because if it wasn’t for the slave trade Britain wouldn’t be where it is today.’

Criticising the lack of preparation by the main organisations Goodwin said: ‘The response has been incredibly late, the museums for example, only started getting ready this year and many institutions still haven’t even got a programme.’

Responding to the idea that it was too little too late Torrington said: ‘We should go along with it and try to get more.’

‘The main thing is that we deserve it and the people of the past deserve it.’ The stamps will be available to the general public from 22 March.

Link to: New Nation