15 March 2010
"And, of course, you mus'n't think it's so very long ago because I knew the son of a slave.... Paul Robeson, he came to London in 1958, gave him tea at the House of Commons with my dad.
He'd had his passport taken away because he was supporting the colonial freedom movement. So it's living issue, it's not just the past and I think that's worth remembering."
The V&A recently invited Tony Benn to speak as part of their Friday Night Lates series. Billed to speak on the Abolition of Slavery, Benn showed how the subject links to the history of colonialism, socialism, working class struggle and immigration politics today.
Tony Benn. Courtesy of Peter Marshall's My London Diary
We reproduce a slightly edited text of his talk at the bottom of this page. We also include two short introductory talks by V&A staff.
The V&A celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2007, and curator David Anderson talked briefly about its history. Aimed at bringing culture to all, it was a remarkably open minded institution in a period when the British Museum was issuing its staff with guns to see off a feared invasion by working people.
The Wedgewood Medallion. Courtesy of the V&A
The museum holds a now rare example of a Wedgewood Medallion. Today, many find the emblem problematic, with its image of an enslaved man kneeling for freedom - seeming to overlook how slave revolts contributed to the end of the trade.
But as curator Hilary Young describes, it was at the time widely worn as an emblem of liberal values, an early precursor of the 'Make Poverty History' bangles of today.