Professor John Oldfield
Professor of Slavery and Emancipation
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
Dr Mary Wills
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
The tumultuous nature of 2020 has impacted many fields of scholarship and research, not least slavery studies. This year has witnessed a re-evaluation of the place of transatlantic slavery in Britain’s history and public memory. For centuries, Britain benefitted enormously from the highly lucrative network of global commerce that existed between the United Kingdom [UK], West Africa, slave-holding British colonies in North America, and British territories in the Caribbean. At its heart was the exploitation of enslaved people of African descent. While much work has been done to examine the uncomfortable truths of Britain’s involvement in transatlantic slavery, this difficult part of our history is often omitted or forgotten in public discussions of the nation’s past.
Recent events associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, and the intense media spotlight subsequently focused on who should and should not be celebrated in Britain’s public history, has led to calls for national institutions to review and reinterpret statues, heritage collections and paintings in the public realm. The Mayor of London announced a commission to review diversity in London’s public landmarks and a recent audit commissioned by the First Minister of Wales identified over 200 public memorials in Wales associated with transatlantic slavery. Wealth associated with colonialism and the business of slavery subsequently invested in some of Britain’s grand houses is investigated in a report by the National Trust, and an audit commissioned by Historic England reviews the research undertaken in this field in relation to the built environment. There are renewed calls for more representative accounts of Black history – and particularly Black British history – in the national curriculum.
This level of scrutiny into the representation of this contested aspect of British history is not unprecedented. If 2020 represents a pivotal moment in Britain’s engagement with its slaving past, our new article examines the impact of a similarly decisive moment: 2007, the year of much commemorative activity and public discussion marking the bicentenary of the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act.
With governmental backing and the availability of finance through the Heritage Lottery Fund and other funding bodies, a huge number of institutions, heritage organisations, schools, theatres, youth and community groups mounted projects and exhibitions in 2007 that explored local and national connections to the history of transatlantic slavery and its abolition. Nearly 350 of these commemorative projects have been archived in the Remembering 1807 digital archive produced by researchers at the Wilberforce Institute, part of the Antislavery Usable Past, a collaborative Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project. Remembering 1807 gives access to hundreds of resources emerging from the excellent research carried out in that year. In part, this archive is itself a work of preservation and commemoration. More to the point, however, it also provides us with a ready-made opportunity to evaluate what really happened in 2007, particularly at the local level, and to correct some lingering misconceptions about the nature of the bicentenary.
As we reveal in our article, while much of what occurred in 2007 in relation to the bicentenary was legitimately criticised as a ‘Wilberfest’ (with an over-concentration on William Wilberforce and other abolitionists), the array and scope of projects that took place around the country also revealed how far representations of the nation’s contribution to the business of transatlantic slavery were revised and contested in 2007, part of a movement to acknowledge and interpret this history for a wider public audience. New permanent spaces, such as the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool and the ‘London, Sugar and Slavery’ galleryat the Museum of London Docklands, reflected on all aspects of British involvement, and the many forms of African resistance to slavery. Detailed associations with transatlantic slavery were also made in locales beyond the ports of London, Liverpool and Bristol, as local archives and collections were investigated for links to abolitionists but also to slave traders and plantation owners, to local trade and industry, to country houses, and to stories of Black British history. In large part, community activism lay at the heart of 2007’s bicentenary commemorations, as many projects sought to examine the contemporary relevance of 1807 and the transatlantic slave trade to the UK’s diverse communities.
Why is examining commemorative activity that took place more than a decade ago important? 2020 has shown that discussion and debate about how as a nation the UK remembers and memorialises its slaving past is more pertinent than ever. It also reminds us how much of this history and its legacies remains uncovered. Learning lessons from what was absent during the bicentenary can help to (re)orientate future memory work around Britain’s role in transatlantic slavery. Understanding what has been done (or not done) in the past provides signposts for fruitful new avenues of examination and analysis.
New scholarship and research projects since 2007 relating to the historical archive of Britain’s investments in slavery provide much stimulus for examining this history. For example, Slave Voyages facilitates searches on thousands of slave voyages between 1514 and 1866, including those sailing from British ports. The Legacies of British Slave-ownership provides data about the individuals and businesses who claimed compensation for loss of their enslaved workers when slavery was abolished in the British Caribbean in 1834, and who invested the profits from the business of slavery in a variety of different ways.
Looking forward, there are other anniversaries relating to transatlantic slavery to come, including the bicentenary in 2033 of the Emancipation Act of 1833 and in 2038, the bicentenary of the 1838 Act to abolish the apprenticeship clause (considered by many to represent the true ‘end’ of slavery in the Caribbean). Past commemorative efforts can inform future ones, providing tools and knowledge to affect public discussions about slavery, not least through engagement with local communities and new audiences. It is key, therefore, for historians, heritage bodies, and local and community specialists to keep identifying, recontextualising and diversifying the narrative around the history of Britain’s slavery past.