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Simon Schama

Historian. Writer and presenter of A History of Britain, BBC TV Series (2000, 2001, 2002) and Rough Crossings : Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (2006).

Two hundred years ago a group of ardent, indefatigable reformers brought about a moral revolution of stunning and imperishable significance. They successfully challenged the legitimacy of property rights - hitherto sacrosanct - that equated humans with negotiable things. The great work accomplished - above all by Thomas Clarkson - with the help of writings by Olaudah Equiano - and Ottobah Cugoano, and with the parliamentary fortitude of William Wilberforce was practical as well as ethical for it rejected as unworkably repugnant an empire that owed prosperity to the slave trade. The moral engines which would doom the atrocity of slavery were irreversibly set in motion in March 1807.

Those same campaigners could hardly have imagined that two centuries later, the traffic in coerced humans would still flourish. But the shaming acknowledgement of that unconscionable evil should only serve to remind us that against the odds, against indifference, there are moments in history when an educated humanity can prevail. It is a matter of the most desperate urgency that another such moment is brought about.

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