by Martin Perschler, Editor
This year marks the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. Preparations for celebrating this milestone began as early as 1996, when the Commonwealth of Virginia's General Assembly established the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation as that state's lead agency responsible for planning the quadricentenary. A number of archeological discoveries at the historic Jamestown site on the James River over the past few years have generated excitement and contributed to the celebratory atmosphere of the commemoration, which began officially in May 2006 and will conclude this fall. Queen Elizabeth II's visit to Jamestown—reprising her first visit to the United States as Queen for the 350th anniversary— in the days leading up to the anniversary weekend (May 11-13, 2007) added gravity to the occasion.
Jamestown 2007—the foundation arm directly responsible for the commemoration—has seized the moment to remind Americans and the world that "the very essence of modern America took root on the banks of the James River in 1607, at Jamestown, Virginia…13 years before the pilgrims founded Plymouth in Massachusetts." Boosterism aside, Jamestown 2007 has also sought to capture the "spirit, imagination, and diversity of Americans" and to honor the English, Indian, and African cultures that converged on that remote site on the James a distant four centuries ago.
For its part, the U.S. Mint launched a Jamestown 400th anniversary commemorative coin program, and the U.S. Postal Service issued a new first-class stamp depicting the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery—the three English ships that arrived at Jamestown in 1607 that also appear on the Virginia state quarter from the Mint's 50 State Quarters® Program. A replica of the Godspeed sailed on a goodwill tour along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States in 2006, and all three ship replicas figured prominently in the anniversary weekend. They will participate in other quadricentenary events through the fall of 2007.
This year also marks the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. Passed by the British Parliament on March 25, 1807, the act made it illegal for British ships to be involved in the transatlantic trafficking of human beings. The British act followed by 23 days U.S. President Thomas Jefferson's signature of a bill abolishing the importation of slaves from outside the United States. At the initiative of the government of Jamaica, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution in November 2006 commemorating the 200th anniversary and urging member states to develop programs to "educate and inculcate in future generations an understanding of the lessons, history, and consequences of slavery and the slave trade."
In the United Kingdom, the commemoration includes a number of national, regional, and local events through 2007, and the Royal Mail and the Royal Mint have produced commemorative stamps and coins. The British have also joined with groups on the other side of the Atlantic to mark the bicentenary.
One such collaboration deserves special mention here. On June 21, 2007, the Freedom Schooner Amistad (a replica of the 19th-century Spanish ship commandeered in 1839 by its African captives) departed New Haven, Connecticut, for an 18-month voyage to retrace the Middle Passage of the transatlantic slave trade with stops in Canada, England, Portugal, and the west coast of Africa. Dubbed the 2007-2008 Atlantic Freedom Tour, the schooner and a crew of British and American college students will arrive in Liverpool to mark the opening of the International Slavery Museum. The opening—August 23rd—is UNESCO's International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and Its Abolition and the anniversary of the 1791 slave uprising on the Caribbean island of Santo Domingo (today, Haiti and the Dominican Republic) that resulted in the establishment of Haiti as the first free black republic in the world.
The parallels between these two commemorations are astounding. Both involve, for instance, sailing ships conjuring up myriad images and emotions tied to transport (both voluntary and involuntary) on the high seas. Both connect continents and cultures across the Atlantic Ocean. Both mark a moment in time when the world turned towards change. Both serve as reminders that, in the course of human history, courageous decisions and actions abide by few—if any—boundaries, neither political nor geographical.
In commemoration of the anniversary of the British Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, the Canada Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, hosted a panel on the African American experience in Canada. From that panel emerged an appeal for an "Historians Without Borders" or similar mechanism for reaching a more profound understanding and appreciation of the shared stories, historical experiences, and differences between and among nations and cultures—stories that do not necessarily begin or end at borders. If the Jamestown and Abolition of the Slave Trade commemorations are any indication, then the heritage community is already taking bold steps in that direction.