Professor John Oldfield
Professor of Slavery and Emancipation
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
In this blog, Professor Oldfield talks about the collaboration he was involved with between the Wilberforce Institute and the British Library.
In August 2020, I was approached by Katie Adams at the British Library [BL] to write an essay for the BL website. I would be lying if I said I did not hesitate for a moment. The brief was ambitious: a short 2000-word piece, tentatively entitled ‘The Abolition of the Slave Trade and Slavery in Britain, c. 1787–1838’, that would provide readers fourteen years of age and above with an accessible, up-to-date and academically rigorous introduction to the BL’s anti-slavery collections.
Having accepted the commission, I began to sketch out a plan. In conversations with Katie, we agreed that what was needed was an ‘integrated’ history of British anti-slavery, one that not only highlighted the achievements of William Wilberforce and his supporters but also took account of black resistance, whether in the Caribbean or here in the United Kingdom [UK], as well as the involvement of women in the abolitionist campaigns of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Furthermore, we wanted to make space for international perspectives and – if the word limit permitted – to say something about the legacies of emancipation (1833/1838) and the UK’s reckoning with slavery.
In early November, I submitted a first draft, which remarkably came in at just over 2,000 words. It soon became apparent, however, that we needed more space, not just to plug some of the obvious gaps but to tweak the argument and – in places – to make it more accessible. This was not all. The essay also had to fit within a suite of BL web pages, which inevitably meant that some degree of cross-referencing was necessary. As a result, the original draft began to expand, so much so that we set ourselves a new target of 3,000 words, including further reading and footnotes.
Late in December, I submitted a final draft, which Katie then built into web pages, complete with the relevant links. If you are interested in seeing the results, you can access the pages here:
Abolition of the slave trade and slavery in Britain – The British Library (bl.uk)
Commissions of this kind are never easy or straightforward. They inevitably involve making decisions about what to include (and what to leave out), about tone and about register. They also involve understanding your client’s needs, which is why dialogue is so important. To a large extent, the whole process is about testing ideas, while at the same time being aware of the obvious constraints. None of us likes word limits but they can also be a way of focusing the mind, demanding a different kind of discipline that can be strangely liberating.
While my name appears as the author of ‘Abolition of the Slave Trade and Slavery in Britain’, the article should properly be regarded as the result of a collaboration between the Wilberforce Institute and the BL, and one that, for me, proved immensely rewarding. I am very grateful to Katie Adams for her expertise, support and encouragement, as I am to her colleagues at the BL. The essay is all the better for their input.