Moira's journey to expose the real Wilberforce

By The Ligali Organisation | Wed 14 March 2007

Renowned broadcaster Moira Stuart presents an authoritative and intellectual insight into the disingenuous British phenomenon of William Wilberforce deification.

In line with the government’s Wilberfest commemorations, the BBC has commissioned a series of programmes for its 'abolition' season. Amongst the programmes to be aired is Moira Stuart: In Search of Wilberforce, which will be broadcast on BBC2 on Friday 16th March at 9pm. The documentary reveals the insignificance of the 1807 Act passed in the British parliament to abolish the ‘slave trade’. As we follow Moira on her travels from Britain to Africa and the Caribbean, she meticulously pieces together the reasons why the story of William Wilberforce as the liberator of African people is legitimately viewed with such irreverence throughout the African Diaspora.

In Britain, speaking with Adam Hochschild, author of Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery, Moira restores to history the leading role of abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson, the Quakers and of course the African British, Olaudah Equiano. Most importantly whilst in Jamaica and with the help of renowned historian, Verene Shepherd, we are reminded of the heroic deeds of African freedom fighters such as Samuel Sharpe whose strategic uprising was one of the many revolutions that forced the British to pass legislation 'abolishing' slavery.

Engaging: Moira Stuart in search of the truth about William Wilberforce and Abolition

Critics concede documentary is informative

The Observer newspaper has already denounced this powerful and honest critique of Wilberforce as "coloured", "emotional" and antagonistic for ensuring that "Wilberforce's status and achievement seem diminished". Media reviewer Stephanie Billen writes; "Even the anniversary itself is questioned, with Stuart keen to point out that the Slave Trade Act only made the trade illegal; the act of abolishing British slavery itself was not passed until 1838". However, even Billen is forced to concede that "[a]t the end of an hour we have learned much about British slavery".

This documentary successfully and credibly highlights the moral and political inconsistencies of the mythical demigod, William Wilberforce.

Moving, diplomatic and engaging Moira Stuart: In Search of Wilberforce will be on Friday 16 March, BBC 2, 9pm.

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Most importantly Moira with the help of renowned historian, Verene Shepherd, reminds us of the heroic deeds of African freedom fighters such as Samuel Sharpe whose strategic uprising forced the British to pass legislation

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Following the BBC's atrocious Radio 4 Wilberfest broadcast by Melvyn Bragg last month, In Search of Wilberforce is a necessary and well researched programme, revealing what the BBC is capable of achieving when it affords the resources at its disposal to those most capable of delivering quality programming dealing with African British affairs. Whether the BBC will maintain this level of quality when the spotlight and impetus is no longer on it remains to be seen but those behind this production have certainly raised the bar and this at least needs to be acknowledged.

However there is a caveat to this appraisal.

We have to question the motivation of the BBC in scheduling a programme of this calibre on BBC Two against Comic Relief night on BBC One? This sends a clear message that the history of enslavement, resistance and abolition is not important when presented by an African face. When the BBC attempted to resurrect the career of the disgraced anti-African football commentator, Ron Atkinson, it broadcast its redundant and reputation salvaging "What Ron Said" programme on BBC One during prime time.

So why, rather than choosing to educate the British public about the history of one of the nation’s 'favourite sons' this Friday at 9pm on BBC One, has the BBC chosen to instead announce the 'Fame Academy winner'?

We find it hard to believe that a programme about the Shoah would be scheduled against comic relief for fear of losing an opportunity to educate those ignorant about the horrors of holocaust. So why mock the African community by scheduling this informative documentary at a time which guarantees that most of Britain’s ethnic majority audience, who are most in need of understanding the history of Wilberforce and the Maafa will instead be tuned into programming that offers laughter and entertainment to elicit pity for impoverished people in Africa.

Ironically, by ensuring that this programme is scheduled for a time when a large percentage of its audience will be tuned into Comic Relief, they have effectively guaranteed justification for claiming that programmes of this calibre simply do not draw in the viewers. If the BBC is truly sincere about ensuring this documentary gets the attention it deserves, it will rectify this problem by repeating the programme within the coming weeks on BBC One and scheduled at a time likely to reach most viewers.

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