The Changing Relevance of Empire

Professor Trevor Burnard

Director of the Wilberforce Institute

T.G.Burnard@hull.ac.uk

Website: http://trevorburnard.com

Today we reproduce Professor Trevor Burnard’s blog for the Institute of Historical Research, written as he stands down from his position as editor of the Empire to 1783 section of the Bibliography of British and Irish History.

It might be thought that the British Empire and imperialism as a topic of historical inquiry have always been subjects of great fascination for scholars and students of British history. Britain was an imperial nation from the early seventeenth century, with settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. By the eighteenth-century, as Britain embarked upon a series of generally successful wars against France about who controlled the New World and South Asia (the American Revolution being the major exception to continued British imperial success), matters imperial were discussed in virtually every issue of the newspapers that proliferated in the nation and imperial plans were central to the geopolitics of Britain’s quest to become powerful in the world. In the nineteenth century, of course, British global power was signified by the many places of the map that were marked `red’ as belonging to the British nation. Imperialism continued into the twentieth century with both world wars being, as Richard Overy argues for World War II, imperial conflicts.

Nevertheless, the practice of imperial history by professional historians has ebbed and flowed in importance and significance over time, according to fashion and to contemporary politics. As little as a generation ago, imperial history was decidedly out of fashion. Indeed, as Pat Griffin, a leading historian of the American Revolution, noted in an appreciation of the most important mid-twentieth century imperial historian of early America, Lawrence Henry Gipson (1880-1971), whose magnum opus was a massive fifteen-volume history of the British Empire in the Americas before the American Revolution, imperialism was effectively a left-behind approach to history when Gipson finished writing imperial history in the 1960s. When Gipson died in 1971, his approach, marked by an indifference to history from below, an incessant and occasionally grating Anglophilia at odds with a more diverse America, and his deliberately pedestrian prose (chosen out of distaste for the florid over-romanticism of a generation of amateur historians writing at the turn of the twentieth century) was out of step with a Vietnam-era world of decolonization and anti-imperialism. Ironically, perhaps, Griffin wrote this review of Gipson and the end of imperial history in 2003, the year that I began as editor for the Empire and the Commonwealth before 1783 section of the Bibliography of British and Irish History [BBIH].

The same derision towards imperialism was less apparent in British historiography of the 1970s and 1980s but it was still there. It was Europe that was the thing to concentrate upon, after Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1974. The New Zealand historian, J.G.A. Pocock, lamented how `within very recent memory, the English have been increasingly willing to declare that neither empire nor commonwealth ever meant much in their consciousness, and that they were at heart Europeans all the time.’ (J.G.A. Pocock, ‘British History: A Plea for a New Subject,’ Journal of Modern History, 47 (1975), 601-21).

Pocock’s former colleague in New Zealand, D.K. Fieldhouse, then at Cambridge, was even more despondent about the future of imperial history at this time. He expressed despair over the fragmented state of the field, imploring, ‘can the fragments of the old history be put together again into new patterns which are intellectually respectable?’ He feared that imperial history might be ‘condemned to share the midden of discredited academic subjects with, say, astrology or phrenology.’ (D.K. Fieldhouse, ‘Can Humpty-Dumpty be put together again: imperial history in the 1980s,’ Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 12 (1984), 9-23.)

We can start to see changes developing in an article by Fieldhouse’s successor at Cambridge, A.G. Hopkins, in 1999. Hopkins thought that imperial history had a future and that it was all that more important as discourses of globalization were taking hold. He proclaimed that ‘what is needed is a fundamental reappraisal of world history to bring out the extent to which, in recent centuries, it has been shaped by the interaction of several types of empire at various stages of development and decay.’ (A.G. Hopkins, ‘Back to the Future: From National History to Imperial History,’ S&A 164 (1999), 198-243). The most significant historiographical event which transformed the study of imperialism was the five-volume survey of British imperialism in the Oxford History of the British Empire, published in the late 1990s. The OHBE was a watershed moment, providing an agenda for historical investigation into empire, even if its defiantly anti-postcolonialist stance was off-putting to those more sympathetic to postcolonialism and to a ‘new imperial history’ based around explorations of difference.

What united traditional imperial historians and ‘new’ imperial historians was a belief that imperialism was so wide-ranging as to encompass the whole of eighteenth-century British and British American history. It was about culture as much as power. As Eric Hinderaker wrote in 1996, ‘empire is a cultural artifact as well as a geopolitical entity; it belongs to a geography of the mind as well as a geography of power.’ (Eric Hinderaker, ‘The “Four Indian Kings” and the Imaginative Construction of the British Empire,’ WMQ 53 (1996), 486).

And as Kathleen Wilson argues, ‘the eighteenth-century British empire presents us with interconnected and interdependent sites of historical importance, territorial and imaginative, that can disrupt oppositions between metropole and colony and allow us to rethink the genealogies and historiographies of national belonging and exclusion.’ (Kathleen Wilson, ‘Introduction; histories, empires, modernities,’ in idem, A New Imperial History: Culture, Identity and Modernity in Britain and the Empire 1660-1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 3).

Studies of empire have abounded since the 2000s because they meet significant parts of the twenty-first century zeitgeist, at least that zeitgeist which existed before the rise of populist nationalism in China, America and much of Europe after 2015. Historical imperialism is an interesting topic in an age of transnational globalization when the borders separating countries and economies seemed porous (a reality that in the Covid era has rapidly disappeared). Imperial history also answered questions about the past which bore on the present – notably the cultural history questions of identity and difference – in ways that histories of nation-states were less able to do. Krishan Kumar explains that ‘empires, for all their faults, show us another way, a way of managing diversity and differences that are now the inescapable fate of practically all so-called nation-states.’ ‘That by itself,’ he argues, ‘seems sufficient grounds for continuing to study them, and to reflect on what they might be able to teach us.’ The study of empires engages current beliefs in multiculturalism, diasporas, migrations and multinationalism and can be a prism through which the ‘pressing problems of the contemporary world and even the birth pangs of a new world order’ can be addressed. (Krishan Kumar, Visions of Empire: How Five Imperial Regimes Shaped the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 3, 475).

The BBIH has many works that contribute to this renewed sense that imperialism is important. There are 46,856 entries on empire and the commonwealth, about 16,000 or so which deal with the period when British North America was part of a British Empire. Works on the West Indies, on British India, and on Africa are less abundant but are increasing in numbers. Reading the most recent entries confirms that there has indeed been an ‘imperial turn’ in British historiography with empire considered vital to understanding the British past as much as its present, and perhaps its future. The study of imperialism and its legacies in the period before 1783 is in rude good health as I give up being section editor for this period in 2022, in considerable contrast to where it was when I started as section editor in 2003.

REF 2021: WE GOT A 4*!

After a longer than usual wait, the results of the Research Exercise Framework 2021, otherwise known as REF 2021, have finally been made public, and we at the Wilberforce Institute are very proud of our success. We got a 4* rating, the highest level possible, for our impact case study, ‘The Wilberforce Legacy: Using historical and contemporary research to meet the challenge of Modern Slavery’.

For those of you who don’t know, the purposes of REF 2021 were threefold:

  • To provide accountability for public investment in research and produce evidence of the benefits of this investment.
  • To provide benchmarking information and establish reputational yardsticks, for use within the HE sector and for public information.
  • To inform the selective allocation of funding for research. 

In short, the government uses the REF exercise to determine how much research funding each higher education institution will receive each year: the four UK higher education funding bodies use it to inform the allocation of circa £2 billion in public funding invested in research annually. The key facts about the REF are available here.

As a format the REF was last used to assess the quality of research in higher education institutions in 2014, so it’s been seven years since any assessment of this kind has been undertaken.  The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), a similar exercise which the REF replaced, had from its inception in 1986, taken place approximately once every five years. It had been introduced that year by Margaret Thatcher’s government to determine the amount of funding that was to be allocated to individual UK Universities at a time of tight budgetary restrictions.  A number of changes to the way in which research is assessed have been made over the years. This included the introduction in 2008 of a four-point quality rating scale, rising from 1* for ‘Quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour’, to the much sought after 4*: ‘Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour’.

The REF involved a process of expert review, carried out by expert panels for 34 subject-based units of assessment (UOAs), under the guidance of four main panels. These expert panels consisted of senior academics, international members, and research users

Assessors had to review research from three distinct perspectives:

  • the quality of the outputs (e.g. publications, performances, and exhibitions)
  • their impact beyond academia, and
  • the quality of the environment that is provided to support research. 

Significantly, the REF was the first exercise to assess the impact of research outside the higher education sector itself. Impact was defined as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’. This idea has rightly continued to gain traction: following on from a review of the effectiveness of REF 2014, more emphasis was placed in the 2021 round on the importance of impact. There was also a call for interdisciplinary collaborations to be more widely rewarded.

Both of these metrics play to the strengths of the Wilberforce Institute. First we are by design an interdisciplinary research institute, bringing together history, social science, heritage and law, as we seek to use an understanding of the past to inform our approach to the present. We also employ practitioners who work on issues around social auditing, on raising awareness of modern slavery, and on taking action to prevent it. This means that our interdisciplinary research can have a direct impact.

Despite our small team of people, the 4* rating of our impact case study revealed just how successful our efforts had been in the period covered by the REF exercise, 2014-2020. The study focused on two particular areas of success. The first concerned the quantification of slavery. The Institute had taken a key role in developing the metrics for the Global Slavery Index (GSI), which provided the first comprehensive and accessible measure of the extent of modern slavery in 167 countries around the world.

Aimed at informing practitioners and policymakers, the GSI was disseminated around the world, and has been used by governments, researchers, NGOs and charities to support the liberation of slaves and their reintegration into society. In addition, Professor Kevin Bales, lead author of the 2014 GSI, built on its success to develop (in collaboration with the Chief Scientific Officer at the Home Office) a new methodology for calculating modern slavery in the Britain. The Multiple Systems Estimation (MSE) framework resulted in a radical reassessment by the UK Government of the number of people enslaved in Britain. That number – of between 10,000 and 13,000 men, women and children – was roughly four times the figure produced by the National Crime Agency’s Human Trafficking Centre in 2013. Taken together, the GSI and the MSE transformed our understanding of the prevalence of modern slavery in the UK. In doing so, it provided the impetus for a new British Government Modern Slavery Strategy and Bill, and paved the way for the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act in 2015.

The second area of success concerned anti-slavery opinion building. Professor John Oldfield,  now Associate and Emeritus Professor of the Wilberforce Institute, was instrumental in developing the concept of an antislavery ‘usable past’ that demonstrated a continuous link between the past and the present, through what can be described as an active ‘protest memory’. He used these ideas to develop two Arts and Humanities Research Council funded projects, the web resource Stolen Lives and The Antislavery Usable Past. Together, the Institute’s interdisciplinary team developed new methods of presenting and disseminating information by juxtaposing the experiences of enslaved people from the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries in an easy to access format.  Between 2015 and 2021, the Stolen Lives website had 34,000 pageviews and 8,185 views of the ‘Repairing Broken Lives’ video resources.

Alongside Stolen Lives (2015) and the Antislavery Usable Past project (2019), the Institute designed and delivered a number of public campaigns to raise awareness of historical and modern slavery, using music, film, teaching aids, exhibitions and web resources.  These included the #HiddenInPlainSight campaign (launched in November 2016, which placed ‘human packaging’ at high-footfall locations), and the #BreakTheChain campaign (launched in London in 2018, using a ‘human vending machine’), which drew attention to the 25 million people trapped in forced labour around the world.

These opinion-building initiatives have been adopted by many key stakeholders and have directly informed national public broadcasting campaigns. Stolen Lives, for example, has raised awareness of slavery at over 60 different public events and its educational materials have been used in schools across the UK. This resource has also had international impact, most notably in Sierra Leone, West Africa, where it proved the inspiration for an exhibition on modern slavery at the National Museum of Sierra Leone in 2017, the first of its kind. Subsequently, the British Council in Sierra Leone, working in collaboration with the Institute, arranged for the translation of songs from Stolen Lives into local languages and used them as resources in its ‘Connecting Classrooms’ programme. To date this has reached over 30,000 students and helped to raise awareness of modern slavery in Sierra Leone. Finally, and importantly, the work of the Institute was shared with local schools and communities in the Humber region. Performances from Stolen Lives have also been held at Hull’s Freedom Festival which attracts audiences of over 130,000.

Academic research is always of its time, and the numbers estimated in the GSI and MSE were very soon out of date. Some of these numbers were included in the Stolen Lives project, so that here too, there is information that is no longer current. But other elements of Stolen Lives continue to have relevance. Reflecting recently on the impact of Stolen Lives seven years on, Professor Oldfield noted that although he would do some things differently now, much of the content in the collection remains as impactful as it did at its creation. You can of course judge for yourselves by visiting the website.

Professor Oldfield reflecting on the impact of Stolen Lives during the recent workshop, ‘Strategies for encouraging children and young people to engage with human rights’, held at the Wilberforce Institute on Thursday May 12, 2022.

Receiving a 4* rating for our impact case study ‘The Wilberforce Legacy: Using historical and contemporary research to meet the challenge of Modern Slavery’, is hugely satisfying, not least because it reveals to us that we can make a difference. But it also reminds us that there is always more to understand about the nature of slavery and exploitation, in the past and the present. Our success in REF 2021 will help us to continue that research. 

The Time Travel Adventures of Ara: Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad

Channon Oyeniran

Vice President, Ontario Black History Society

and former postgraduate student of the University of Hull

channonc425@gmail.com

Four years…..that’s how long it took from the original idea of The Time Travel Adventures of Ara (TTAOA) being conceived, to it finally being released to the public. It was March 2018, and at the time I was working for one of the largest organizations in Canada, committed to enhancing the awareness of Canada’s history and citizenship. I was having a conversation with a former co-worker and friend, who said she could see me writing a children’s book. “A children’s book I thought to myself?” “Really” I said to my friend.

But as we continued talking, my mind started to race with ideas and immediately the concept of TTAOA came to mind. Not only did this current book come to mind, but a whole series of books dedicated to time travel, where my then two-year-old son would star as the protagonist of the series and where he would go back in time and meet iconic Black historical figures in different time periods. Not only would Ara learn more about Black history in Canada, but he would learn about Black history around the world!

After this conversation with my friend and former colleague, I immediately started a Google doc and got all the ideas that were racing through my mind written down. I remember the excitement I felt as I documented my ideas and thought to myself, “Could I really do this? Would people (especially children) like the concept of the book?” It’s not that I was new to the process of writing; in fact, my husband and I co-wrote and released a book titled, Live Love Learn Grow: A Collection of Quotes With Modern Day Paradigms For Appropriating Godly Values Into Our Lives And Businesses in April 2016. I also wrote a chapter in Transforming Lives One Story at a Time: Powerful Stories of Success & Inspiration that was released in September 2017. Also, I had watched my husband spend months writing and releasing his latest book, The Power of Vision: Principles and Practices to Help You Become Extraordinary. So indeed, I was not new to the writing and self-publishing process, but this was still a major project, and one that would rely solely on my expertise and knowledge in the subject of Black history.

With my ideas down on paper, and in my opinion, an amazing concept for book one of the series, I tried to set out some time to start writing. However, for me this process was not so easy! I had my two-year-old son, just started a new job, found out I was pregnant with my second son and had many other projects on the go. In the early part of 2019, I had recorded the first chapter of my manuscript but did not have the time to write down what I recorded.  So finally in September 2019, I enlisted the help of a close friend of my husband, who is an editor and publisher in Nigeria, and asked him to help me transcribe what I had recorded. He did this and honestly it was the push I needed to continue to write my manuscript despite the busyness of life. Fast forward to 2021 when I finally thought that I would be able to release my book that year. However, this was not to be. After a few setbacks on this book writing journey, I realized that it would finally be 2022 before book one of The Time Travel Adventures of Ara would be released.

It is a humbling experience to write a book. Throughout this process, I’ve been purposeful in making sure I am honouring and celebrating those whose lives I am writing about (e.g., Harriet Tubman). This journey has also been so fun and rewarding to watch my two sons Ara and Korede be excited about “mommy’s new book” and watch them get excited when looking at the illustrations within the book of themselves and mommy and daddy. That’s always been my main goal from the conception of this book, until now (and it will continue to be): to create stories and content for Black children and Black people to see themselves and to read about their history and read about who their ancestors were and the sacrifices they made.

Being a historian of Caribbean history, Black history in Canada and the history of Black enslavement (thanks to the Wilberforce Institute at the University of Hull!), it has always been important to me to share all the amazing stories about people of African descent that I learned about on my undergraduate and graduate journey with others, specifically the next generation. There is a gap in learning about all histories in the Canadian education system and I want to ensure that I am doing my part (whether it’s through this book series or my podcast; BlacktoCanada) to teach children about Black history not only in Canada, but around the world. I believe that if children have the opportunity to learn about different cultures and histories when they are young, then there will be more understanding and empathy and less racism and ignorance.

The Time Travel Adventures of Ara: Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad can be purchased on:

  1. OyES: https://oyeseducation.org/shop/
  2. Amazon (worldwide)

We don’t know enough to effectively protect those who experience criminal exploitation

Dr Alicia Kidd

Lecturer in Modern Slavery

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

A.Kidd@hull.ac.uk

In this blog, produced for the Modern Slavery Policy and Evidence Centre [PEC], Dr Kidd looks at the defence for those who face criminal liability as a result of modern slavery under Section 45 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

What do we know about how we protect those who experience criminal exploitation from further harm? People forced into criminal exploitation by their traffickers should be protected from the further harm of being charged for crimes they had no choice but to commit. The UK Modern Slavery Act offers protection for such cases, however, we don’t know if it’s doing its job effectively.

Criminal exploitation is a growing problem. In the UK in 2021, 6,100 people were identified as potential victims of criminal exploitation, 4,155 of whom had experienced only this form of exploitation (figures are collated from the data tables accessible via the End of Year Summary). This accounts for 48% of all potential cases of modern slavery identified in that year.

People who experience criminal exploitation inhabit an unusual position of being both a victim of modern slavery and a perpetrator of the crimes they were made to commit. This means that there can be confusion amongst professionals around how to best respond to such situations.

Section 45 of the Modern Slavery Act offers a statutory defence for those who face criminal liability for a criminal act that they committed as a consequence of their modern slavery or human trafficking experience. It was designed to reassure people that they could give evidence without fear of being convicted for offences they had committed as part of their exploitation.

For people aged 18 or over, the Act states that a person is not guilty of an offence if they were compelled to commit it, if that compulsion is attributable to their exploitative situation, and if a reasonable person in the same situation with relevant characteristics would have no realistic alternative to committing it. Children are not guilty if the criminal act was a direct consequence of their exploitation and a reasonable person in the same situation with relevant characteristics would have also committed the act.

However, even seven years after the implementation of Section 45 with the Modern Slavery Act of 2015, it is difficult to gather an accurate picture of how the defence is understood and used in practice. The Modern Slavery PEC and the Wilberforce Institute are publishing a review of how this defence has been used so far

Our review has shown that, to date, there is very limited information available on the use of Section 45. There have been two independent reviews of the Modern Slavery Act which make reference to Section 45, and one report from the Office of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner which was based on a call for evidence about Section 45 specifically. However, there is a lack of information regarding the commissioning process and methodologies of these reports.

Further, no quantitative data is collected on the use of Section 45, academic involvement in the reviews has been limited, and no one with lived experience was consulted for the reviews. These factors combined mean that producing accurate insights and robust generalisations about how Section 45 is used is impossible. We can’t currently generate a true picture of who is using the defence, what crimes they are using it for, or identify and rectify any barriers to success.

There is also a lack of legal clarity regarding how closely the offence should be connected to the modern slavery experience for the defence to be justified, with no clear definition offered within the Modern Slavery Act. Case law continues to develop and challenge how the defence should be implemented in practice. However, without adequate and consistent training for professionals, those who experience criminal exploitation could have truly differing experiences of using the defence, based entirely on the levels of knowledge that the lawyers and judges associated with their cases have on modern slavery and Section 45.

If used suitably, the statutory defence holds real potential to be able to support victims of modern slavery without punishing them for crimes they had no choice but to commit. However, much remains to be done to make sure that becomes a reality.

Based on available evidence, in order to improve both the use and understanding of Section 45 of the Modern Slavery Act, reviews of the legislation should offer clarity regarding the commissioning process and methodologies used, so that the reviews can accurately be recreated for future comparisons. They should also incorporate insights from academics working in relevant fields, and always seek the input of people with lived experience.

We need more data to be able to make informed decisions about improving Section 45. As a priority, the Government needs to collect quantitative data on the use and outcomes of the defence in order to understand the types of cases in which it is used, barriers to success, and how it might be vulnerable to misuse.

Finally, it’s clear that adequate training for police, lawyers and the judiciary is fundamental if Section 45 is to be used in the way it was intended: to serve the best interests of victims of modern slavery. This training should include insights into potential bias based on notions of the ‘ideal’ victim, so that people who were forced to commit crimes as a result of slavery or trafficking can be fully protected from further harm.

ACTion to Combat Modern Slavery: Justice Hub Our First Six Months

Andrew Smith

Manager of the Justice Hub and Coordinator of the Humber Modern Slavery Partnership

A.Smith9@hull.ac.uk

Introduction

The ACTion to Combat Modern Slavery Justice Hub is a Wilberforce Institute and University of Hull Alumni funded project that seeks to combat modern slavery by using research and knowledge exchange to engage and empower people to create a culture of change for good. Launched in October 2021 with my appointment as project manager Its mission is to use knowledge exchange, education and research to raise awareness of, and compliance with, the Modern Slavery Act 2015, ensuring it is better understood and enforced by those who have a statutory, legal or moral duty under its provisions. On Monday 28th March we published a special edition of the Wilberforce Institute Modern Slavery Newsletter to mark the anniversary of the Modern Slavery Act which became law on 26th March 2015. You can view the newsletter online here: https://universityofhullec.newsweaver.com/eo4xlasxr1/16j2gri0ubh

Our first six months

Initial work started immediately on formulating a plan to develop our online e-learning CPD modules on key provisions of the Act that will be available to a range of statutory and non-statutory stakeholders. Working with Lampada we have made good progress in putting together a template of the first three modules which comprise an introductory module, a legal enforcement module and a transparency in supply chains module. We have applied for £50,000 HEIF funding to pay for these first three modules and associated costs. Content for these modules has been written and we are commencing the build stage with a view for the first module to be ready by June to showcase at our next big event in Birmingham on 30th June 2022, and will offer a deeper insight into slavery and trafficking responses for law professionals and social care staff. The event will include a plenary session on victimology, a CPD session with guest DC Colin Ward from the Manchester Police, Op Challenger task force, then finish with an expert panel that will discuss with our audience how we connect stakeholders to improve responses and how victims navigate the criminal justice system.

On the 16th of October we held our very first A21 walk for freedom in partnership with the Freedom Festival in Hull. The A21 walk for freedom is a global movement of peaceful campaign walks to highlight slavery and engage the public. We used this event as a public launch of the Justice Hub in Hull. The event was well attended by over 30 staff, students and members of the public who walked a pre-planned route around famous Hull landmarks talking to the public about the issue of slavery today (www.A21.org).

A21 Walk for Freedom October 2021. Pictured in Queen’s Gardens, Hull

Our second opportunity to launch the Justice Hub came internally at the University’s knowledge exchange conference in November. Here we used the stage to introduce the Hub to our colleagues and discuss the importance of using knowledge exchange to improve responses to modern slavery and the application of the law that empowers and supports victims. We also used this opportunity to highlight the benefits of connectedness and people power in fighting for social justice. From this conference we have made multiple valuable connections within the University which has resulted in us being able to deliver a significant amount of training to many disciplines.

In our first six months we have delivered sessions on the Modern Slavery Act, globalisation and ethical trading, criminal exploitation, and social justice to

• Child nursing students

• Mental health nursing students

• Business and law students

• English students

• Education students

External to the University we have been working closely with Hull City Council on implementing a new pathway and policy for their housing department and specific training on the Act, how it applies in practice, and how to refer potential victims into the National Referral Mechanism [NRM]. Staying with Hull City Council, we are an integral part of their response to child criminal exploitation and a key panel member of their NRM child devolved decision-making panel as an expert advisor and decision maker. As part of this work, we have delivered dedicated training to child social care workers, youth justice workers and health care workers on referring and supporting child victims. Since October we have collaborated to train over 300 Hull City Council professionals. The current child devolved NRM decision-making pilot in Hull has been extended for another 12 months by the Home Office which is welcome news for professionals working to safeguard young people. As part of this extension Hull City Council has been given a budget for further training and we have been approached to help deliver this. Finally, as well as Hull City Council and University students, we have delivered a wide array of training and workshops to community groups, faith groups, youth justice and Crown Prosecution Services staff, and taken part in a national safeguarding week to deliver sessions to members of the public.

Aside from our direct training and CPD efforts we are also keen to utilise different methods of media to communicate modern slavery knowledge and grow/diversify our audiences. As such we have just aired the first of a new 7-part podcast series that takes a look at key provisions of the Modern Slavery Act. This first podcast introduces the Wilberforce Institute and the Justice Hub, gives an overview of the Act and an outline of the provisions we will be covering in subsequent episodes. You can listen to our first podcast here: https://youtu.be/wJ8Rlue6ck4

In May we will be recording a very special podcast interview on tackling difficult subjects with children with Wilberforce MA alumnus Channon Oyeniran, author of The Time Travel Adventures of Ara. In this her debut book, Channon brings Black History to life in a magical way. What starts as a simple journey turns into an extraordinary one through a series of mysterious events that finds Ara transported over a century back in time. What follows is a thrilling adventure and a mission to set enslaved people free (https://adventuresofara.com/).

In addition, we have recently become a member of the UK Modern Slavery Training and Development Group. This national group comprises leading anti-slavery sector organisations who come together to work on identifying national gaps in training and brings specialist knowledge together to deliver solutions. I believe this to be a positive move for the Justice Hub that will allow us to influence UK training needs and the use of specialist knowledge to impact practice through legislation and policy.

To conclude

Finally, I am extremely pleased to be able to say that in our first 6 months of operation we have trained a total of 682 people internal and external to the University. I hope you will agree this is a fantastic way to kick off this wonderful project. It reinforces the appetite we know exists among audiences and stakeholders to improve their knowledge so they may provide better services and create lasting social change.

Victims of Modern Slavery in the UK 2021

Sophie Blanchard

MA student, Criminology and Crime Control 

Department of Criminology, University of Hull

s.l.blanchard-2017@hull.ac.uk

Sophie Blanchard is an MA student on the Criminal Justice and Crime Control course at the University of Hull. Her research focuses on the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) and her MA dissertation project looks at the effectiveness of the NRM in identifying and protecting potential victims of modern slavery.  In this blog she summarises the 2021 Home Office Report on the NRM.

New statistics have been released, summarising information on people who have been identified as potential victims of modern slavery in the UK in 2021. The statistical bulletin provides a breakdown of the number of potential victims that were referred into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) or via the Duty to Notify process. It breaks down the data in a number of ways, including via the ages of the potential victims, as well as their nationalities, gender, and type of exploitation they experienced.

The NRM, which was set up in 2009, is the governmental framework used in the UK to identify and support potential victims of modern slavery who have been identified by a set list of First Responders. The Duty to Notify process collects data on adults who do not consent to be referred to the NRM (children are not required to give consent). Combined, these figures give an estimate of the picture of modern slavery in the UK.

The term ‘potential victims’ is used to denote that these are the figures relating to individuals referred into the NRM, or via the Duty to Notify process. These figures are likely to be significantly lower once individuals have been through the NRM’s two-tier decision making process to determine that, on the balance of probabilities, a competent authority believes them to meet the definition of being victims of modern slavery.

How many people have been identified?

In 2021, 12,727 potential victims of modern slavery in the UK were referred to the Home Office, which represents a 20% increase compared to the 10,601 potential victims referred in 2020. The number of potential victims of modern slavery in the UK has been increasing each year since 2014, apart from a slight decrease in 2020, commonly noted to be a result of the national lockdowns in response to the Covid-19 pandemic:

YearNumber of Referrals
20142,340
20153,266
20163,805
20175,145
20186,993
201910,627
202010,601
202112,727

The number of referrals received in 2021 has been the highest since the NRM began in 2009. However, the increase in referrals does not necessarily correlate with there being more victims, but could indicate that First Responders are improving at identifying potential victims. Reports via the Duty to Notify process alone have increased by 47% from 2020 with 3,190 reports of potential victims, which indicates a better awareness of this system amongst professionals.

Are the victims adults or children?

Of the potential victims identified, 848 (7%) were of unknown age, 6,411 (50%) were adults, which has increased from 48% in 2020, and 5,468 (43%) were children (minors, under the age of 18). After October 2019, when criminal exploitation was set as its own category of exploitation (where previously it was counted within labour exploitation) which made it easier to identify different types of exploitation that potential victims were being subjected to, referrals indicated that labour exploitation was the most common form of exploitation suffered by adults, while minors (under 18) were more likely to be victims of criminal exploitation. This year’s statistics continue this trend, with these still being the most common forms of exploitation for adult and child victims of modern slavery. In 2021, labour exploitation was the most reported form of exploitation amongst adult potential victims at 33%; 2,141 victims. The most referred exploitation for child potential victims was criminal exploitation at 49%; 2,689 cases.

What gender are the victims?

Of those 12,727 identified in 2021, 9,790 (77%) were male and 2,923 (23%) were female. The remaining 14 are categorised under ‘Not specified or unknown’ or ‘Other’. The statistics of genders of victims are similar to the previous years, but male potential victims have been increasing in referrals over the years. In 2021, 75% of adult potential victims (4,812) and 79% of child potential victims (4,314) were male, whilst 25% of adult potential victims (1,594) and 21% of child potential victims (1,145) were female. The majority of female potential victims, both adults and children, were victims of sexual exploitation.

What are the nationalities of the victims?

The most common nationalities of potential victims identified in the UK in 2021 were UK, Albanian and Vietnamese nationals respectively. UK nationals accounted for 3,952 (31%) of potential victims which decreased slightly from the previous year of 34% in 2020. Albanian nationals were the second most referred nationality with 2,511 (20%) which increased from 15% in 2020, and the third was Vietnamese with 991 (8%). Eritrean also had a notable increase in referrals in 2021, which increased from 395 (3%) in 2020, to 712 (6%) in 2021.

What types of exploitation have the victims experienced?

The data tables which provide the breakdown of information on referrals include a summary of the types of exploitation suffered by those identified as potential victims. These include criminal exploitation, labour exploitation, sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and organ harvesting. The data summarises the number of referrals for each category of exploitation, including where multiple forms of exploitation were experienced. Looking at cases where only one form of exploitation was experienced, the most common form of exploitation identified in 2021 was criminal exploitation with 4,155 referrals. This has increased since becoming classed as a separate form of exploitation in October 2019, before which it was categorised within labour exploitation, making it harder to identify as a distinct form of exploitation. Labour exploitation made up 3,127 of the referrals in 2021 and sexual exploitation made up 1,266 referrals. However, a concerningly large number of referrals, 1,046 cases, were referred under ‘unknown or not specified’ exploitation which raises concerns over the level of detail provided within the referral forms.

The findings of the 2021 report make for difficult reading. If you have any questions, please contact Sophie at the email address above.

The Professor Surya Subedi Global Essay Prize

Professor Surya Subedi QC, OBE, DCL, DPhil (Oxford), Barrister

Professor of International Law at the University of Leeds

On 22 February, 2022, the University of Hull and the Wilberforce Institute launched the Professor Surya Subedi Global Essay Prize on Modern Slavery or the Protection of Human Dignity. This prize of £500 will be awarded annually by the Wilberforce Institute for the best original essay in English on the abolition of any form of modern slavery or the protection of human dignity anywhere in the world. The Prize will be awarded for the first time in March 2023. 

“Professor Subedi is a world-renowned scholar and a champion of human rights. Through his work as a barrister, and numerous high-level positions in governments and national and international organisations, he works incredibly hard to make a difference to the real life of the people around the world. We are extremely proud to present this prize in Professor Subedi’s honour, to raise awareness of modern slavery at a critical time.”

Professor Trevor Burnard, Director of the Wilberforce Institute.

Professor Subedi has published widely on a raft of issues related to human rights and international law, and he has managed to combine this with more practical work in public international law throughout his career. From 2009 to 2015 he was the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia and from 2010 to 2015 he served as a member of a high-level Advisory Group on Human Rights to the British Foreign Secretary. He was a government nominee for appointment to the position of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2014. He was elected to the Institut de Droit International at its Session in Rhodes in 2011 and made a Membre Titulaire in 2015. IN 2017 he was appointed Queen’s Counsel honoris causa for his contribution to the development of international law and to the advancement of human rights.

There can be very few alumni of the University of Hull who have touched the lives of so many people in such a profound way. Over a long career in the field of International Human Rights Law, Professor Surya Subedi has worked tirelessly to encourage and assist governments to work towards establishing independent judiciaries. He has secured the release of journalists from prisons, facilitated the safe return of exiled opposition leaders, improved prison conditions and modified land concessions to mitigate human rights abuses in Cambodia.

Asked if he felt the weight of Hull’s connection to causes of human rights, liberty and emancipation while he was studying here, Professor Subedi admitted he did, and that he was inspired by the Wilberforce Museum in particular. His gift to the University will ensure that his name is connected in perpetuity with the advancement of study into the causes for which he has worked so passionately.

This Prize has been made possible by a generous donation from Professor Surya P. Subedi, who graduated in law from the University of Hull in 1988 and is currently Professor of International Law at the University of Leeds. Born in Nepal, where he first studied law, and where his interest in international law began, Professor Subedi won a British Council Scholarship (now known as Chevening Scholarship) to study for an LLM in International Law in 1986, and chose Hull because it had a good reputation in international law, and was known to have a ‘beautiful small compact campus and friendly staff’. Interviewed in 2017, Professor Subedi revealed that he had been advised to choose a ‘smaller nice university like Hull’ because there ‘your professors will get to know you better and you will receive the support and guidance that you will need to do well in your studies’.  He certainly made the most of his studies at Hull, gaining a distinction in his LLM, and has never looked back. After a brief return to Nepal, Professor Subedi enrolled in a doctoral programme in Oxford, after which he entered academia.

The competition is open to any graduate in law and social sciences or humanities from around the world regardless of their nationality. The award will focus on enhancing the employability and profile of early-career academics and will therefore be restricted to candidates below the age of 40 at the time of submission. It must be a single-authored essay and the author must state in the submission that they are the sole author, and they own the copyright in the essay. The essay submitted should have a title which is both concise and descriptive and must be accompanied by an abstract of no more than 150 words in 10-point Times New Roman. It must be an academic piece of work with proper citations and must not have already been published. The length of the essay must be between 3000 and 5000 words, including footnotes following any standard format of referencing such as OSCOLA or Harvard style. The submission must be accompanied by a copy of the CV of the candidate.

The essay must be submitted electronically either in Microsoft Word or in PDF format to the following email address: Wilberforceinstitute@hull.ac.uk The deadline for the first round of essays is 31 December 2022 and the prize of £500 will be awarded in March 2023.

The award will be made to the author of the essay that makes the most exciting original contribution to the relevant field of scholarship and is best-crafted in terms of organisation, style and presentation. By submitting the essay, the candidates agree that if their essay is awarded the Prize, they grant the Wilberforce Institute a non-exclusive licence to publish it online or in any other format that it sees fit. The winning essay will be published on the website of the Wilberforce Institute at the University of Hull, and the Institute may, at its discretion, choose to submit the essay for publication in a physical or online journal or as part of a collated series of prize-winning essays connected to the award.

Wilberforce Institute Webinar: Indigenous Slavery in the Atlantic World

Thursday March 31, 2022

4PM-5.30PM BST

On Thursday March 31 we will welcome four speakers to talk about Indigenous slavery in the Atlantic world. The presenters are Sandi Brewster-Walker, Executive Director and Government Affairs Officer for the Montaukett Indian Nation; Linford D. Fisher, Associate Professor at Brown University; Rebecca Goetz, Associate Professor at New York University; and Brooke Newman, Associate Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. The webinar will consider a number of aspects of Indigenous enslavement in the Atlantic world, from a digital database project known as the North Fork People of Color, 1641-1827, to Indigenous freedom suits, to the unfree labor of Indigenous children, and the case of ‘Polly Indian’, who attempted to obtain freedom for both herself and her enslaved daughters on the basis of Native maternal ancestry.

To register for this event, please click here: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/5346536240171086349 After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

The issue of Indigenous slavery was overshadowed in Atlantic scholarship for many years by its African counterpart. But such slavery was ubiquitous in the Americas and in the Atlantic World. For native people, the risk of enslavement was constant, and all the major European colonial powers played a role in this enslavement.  And while Indigenous slavery varied in terms of its forms and its impact, it not only shaped the colonial world, but continues to affect people in the present.

Our speakers have provided a title and abstract below, but a brief introduction to them, their individual interests, and the theme of their talk is given here.  Sandi Brewster-Walker, a descendant of the Montaukett Indians, as well as their Executive Director and Government Affairs Officer, has been writing poetry, fiction, and non-fiction works since her teenage years; she published her first book in 2007.  She will talk about a digital database project known as the North Fork People of Color, 1641-1827, that brings together datasets relating to the first workforce of the East End of Long Island.

Professor Linford D. Fisher’s research and teaching relate primarily to the cultural and religious history of colonial America and the Atlantic world, including Native Americans, religion, material culture, and Indian and African slavery and servitude. In this talk he will present a series of Indigenous freedom suits in British Honduras Belize, in the 1810s and 1820s.

Professor Rebecca Goetz’s areas of interest include the histories of religion, race and slavery, and colonialism and empire in the Atlantic World and Indigenous North America. In this webinar she offers another view of enslaved Native People in the archive, focusing down on Indigenous testimonies from the 1570s.

Finally Professor Brooke Newman is a historian of early modern Britain and the British Atlantic, with special interests in the history of slavery, the abolition movement, and the British royal family. She will consider issues of gender, slavery, and kinship in the British Caribbean as revealed in a series of colonial commissions designed to gather information on the administration of justice in Britain’s West Indian territories, and increase Crown oversight of colonial law.

Titles and abstracts

Presenter: Sandi Brewster-Walker, Executive Director and Government Affairs Officer, Montaukett Indian Nation montaukett.executive.director@gmail.com

  • Title: Unfree Labor of Indigenous Children on Long Island
  • Abstract: North Fork People of Color, 1641-1827 is a digital database project bringing together datasets, which humanize the enslaved, indentured, freed, and free people that became the first workforce of the East End of Long Island. This presentation will discuss the journey and case of the eight-year-old indigenous girl Sarah, the daughter of Dorkas, both born free. Sarah was sold in 1689 by James Pearsall of Southold to John Parker, of Southampton to become his property for life.  In 1711, Sarah petitioned the Colonial Governor of New York, Robert Hunter.

Presenter: Linford D. Fisher, Associate Professor, Brown University
Linford_Fisher@brown.edu
 

  • Title: Resisting Race Shifting in Indigenous Freedom Suits
  • Abstract: All too often in colonial archives, colonists and administrators minimized or obscured the identity of Indigenous people in an effort to justify their enslavement. Indigenous people, when they were aware of it, resisted this race shifting. This presentation will draw on a few examples, including especially a series of Indigenous freedom suits in British Honduras Belize, in the 1810s and 1820s. 

Presenter: Rebecca Goetz, Associate Professor, New York University rag11@nyu.edu

  • Title: Enslaved Native People in the Archive
  • Abstract: The Archivo General de Indias, Spain’s archive of its colonial activities, was formed ostensibly to refute the “Black Legend” of Spanish cruelty towards Indigenous people. Yet contained within it are the testimonies of enslaved Native people, which often describe in excruciating detail the violence of Spanish slaving and slaveholding. This short discussion of Indigenous testimonies from the 1570s examines possible methodological approaches to slavery and this archive.

Presenter: Brooke Newman, Associate Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University bnewman@vcu.edu

  • Title: ‘My Mother was an Indian’: Gender, Slavery, and Kinship in the British Caribbean
  • Abstract: Beginning in the 1820s, the British imperial government launched a series of colonial commissions of inquiry to gather information on the administration of justice in Britain’s West Indian territories and to increase Crown oversight over colonial law. The commissioners also rendered judgement on the contested legal status of imperial subjects—including enslaved people. This brief discussion focuses on the case of an enslaved woman in Tobago named Polly, also known as “Polly Indian,” who attempted to obtain freedom for both herself and her enslaved daughters on the basis of Native maternal ancestry. Polly’s case offers insight not only into the tactics adopted by enslaved men and women to negotiate for freedom during an era of imperial intervention in the legislative process of self-governing slave colonies but also the extent to which enslavers profited from the confusion surrounding Indian identity.
American Indian Slave Halter. Eighteenth Century, Great Lakes Region. Colonial Williamsburg Collection, 1996-816. Courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. At https://uncpressblog.com/2012/07/25/excerpt-bonds-of-alliance-by-brett-rushforth/ds1999-49/

Enjoying a month as a virtual Folger Fellow

Dr Judith Spicksley

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

judith.spicksley@hull.ac.uk

In January 2022 I finally managed to take up a virtual Folger Fellowship, and enjoy a month long virtual ‘visit’ to the Folger Library in Washington DC. My original plan had been to hold the fellowship in August 2021, but I contracted Covid-19 at the end of July, and had to take a month’s sick leave to recuperate. The Folger were happy to reschedule, as long as I could arrange it within the 2021-22 fellowship year. Given work commitments, and Institute events, I decided to reschedule for January 2022, when I would have the time to explore their collections.

Folger Library, Washington DC. Image at https://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/DC-01-CH15

The Folger Library Fellowships are a well-established and much sought after part of the academic ‘scene’, and are usually held onsite at the home of the Folger Library on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Library was established ‘as a gift to the American people’ in 1932 by the industrialist Henry Folger and his wife Emily, with the original design for the building being drawn by the architect Paul Philippe Cret, the French born industrial designer from Philadelphia. Numbering 82, the Library’s collection of Shakespeare’s First Folio is the world’s largest: published in 1623, the Folio included plays that up until that point had never appeared in print, including As You Like ItJulius CaesarMacbeth, and The Tempest.

The Folger Shakespeare Folio. Image at: https://www.folger.edu/shakespeare/first-folio

The Library is dedicated to the study of Shakespeare, his works, and the society he lived in. The founding collection consisted of rare books and manuscripts as well as more recent writings, art, and ephemera related to Shakespeare and the English drama of his age. It included prints, photographs, playbills, promptbooks, paintings, and reference books of many kinds.

But from the start, Henry and Emily Folger understood that neither Shakespeare nor the English drama of his age could be studied in isolation. The Library’s holdings were augmented to include numerous items bearing on Renaissance English culture and civilization as well as materials from continental Europe that influenced or reflected English thought and values. Over the years the field of acquisition has broadened further, to include materials on English culture into the first quarter of the eighteenth century.

Fellowships have been offered to support research and writing at the Library since 1935. Usually held onsite, the initiation of a major building renovation project in 2020 – to expand public space, improve accessibility, and enhance the experience for all visitors – encouraged the Library to consider offering virtual fellowships for research and writing whilst the Reading Room was closed for renovation.

Folger Library Reading Room. Image by David Reeve at https://www.folger.edu/reading-room-tour

Included in the Library’s collections are a number of electronic resources, some of which are freely available. This includes the Folger Shakespeare, where you can explore all Shakespeare’s plays, poems and sonnets online, read plot synopses and brief textual histories, and see selected images from the Library’s impressive collection. Usefully there is a concordance for searching across all Shakespeare’s works for specific words, names or places for example, or any other term you might be interested in. I, for example, was keen to examine all the contexts in which the terms ‘slave’ and/or ‘slavery’ appeared.

Additional electronic resources are available by subscription to registered users of the Folger. These are normally only accessible onsite at the Library, but a big part of the attraction of the virtual fellowship was the opportunity to access all these resources from my desktop here in the UK. I enjoyed four lovely weeks of largely uninterrupted research mining data related to my topic: the language of slavery in early modern England, and more especially as it appeared in the works of Shakespeare.

Folger Fellows usually get to spend a month in Washington where they can explore the Library (and the capital!) and meet and talk with other Folger Fellows. This year there are nearly forty, and the breadth of their interests is quite staggering. As things turned out, the global impact of Covid-19 would have made travel to Washington difficult at best, so on balance I got a great deal – a month away from Institute duties, access to all the Library’s digital resources, individual online support from the Folger librarian, and an introduction to a new community of scholars, coordinated by the fellowship programme assistant via Slack, the virtual communication platform.

Aside from the missed opportunities associated with a visit to one of America’s leading cultural gems, my only disappointment was not having enough time to explore the vast amount of material in the Folger collections. A month flew by in no time! However, I can recommend the experience without hesitation. I would like to thank everyone at the Folger for their help and support, and I am hugely grateful to them for giving me this opportunity. If your research is in this area, and you are interested, why don’t you think about applying for a fellowship? This year’s competition (again for virtual fellowships) closed in mid-January, but the Folger has big plans in the works for their fellowships when the Folger reopens. You can subscribe to their Research Bulletin if you would like to keep informed.

Recovering enslaved lives in nineteenth-century British Guiana: reading sources ‘below the waterline’

Frederick Bricknell

PhD Student, Water Cultures Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull                                                        

f.j.bricknell-2021@hull.ac.uk

@fjbricknell

My PhD research focuses on the relationship between plantation slavery, indentured labour and water – both salt and fresh – in nineteenth-century British Guiana. It is a joint project between the Wilberforce Institute and the Centre for Water Cultures at the University of Hull’s Energy and Environment Institute, a new doctoral programme which seeks to shed light on the vital relationships between human communities and water both throughout history and in the present day.

Since embarking on my research in September 2021, I have found that water permeates many different kinds of historical source but rarely becomes their central subject. Its trace must often be found in the margins of records outwardly concerned with something different, and it frequently acts as a kind of foundation that conditions the actions and relationships of the people whose lives I am studying. There are two reasons why nineteenth-century British Guiana offers such a fertile ground for this sort of analysis: its great abundance of water, and its unusually rich set of archival records. Central to this documentation is the cache of records from the Office of the Fiscal, an institution founded by the initial Dutch colonists which persisted under British rule after the three colonies which comprised British Guiana – Demerara, Berbice and Essequibo – were captured in 1796.

Detail from A Map of Part of Dutch Guyana; Containing the Colonies of Essequebo, Demerary & Berbice, in which are Described all the Lands Granted under the Batavian Government. Surveyed in 1798, and 1802, by Major von Bouchenroeder, with Additions (London: William Faden, 1804). The Atlantic Ocean lies at the top edge of the image, with the River Berbice winding down from the coast in the centre. New Amsterdam, the capital of Berbice where the Fiscal was based, is indicated by a square. Prospect and Vrouw Johanna plantations are respectively indicated by a triangle and a circle.

The Fiscal was the second-ranking official in the colony after the lieutenant-governor, and heard the complaints free and enslaved inhabitants of the colony brought against one another in a court convened for the purpose in the capital. A few complaints of serious crimes like robbery or murder were brought by white planters and managers, but the overwhelming majority were civil complaints brought by the enslaved against their owners and overseers. These records are not unmediated: the speech of the enslaved was clearly edited by the clerk who transcribed it, in order to fit a preconceived template of appropriate register for the courtroom setting. Many cases involved slaves who primarily communicated using Dutch Creole, in which case a court-appointed translator further influenced the import of their words. Such manipulations of oral evidence were conducted in real time and most changes appear aimed at increasing legibility. Some entries seem hurried, with grammatical inconsistencies suggesting that the clerk was struggling to keep up with the pace of the exchange taking place before him. Meaning was doubtless somewhat altered by such refraction, but the intended message of the enslaved speaker still shines through in most cases. Most importantly for the nature of my research, these records are filled with incidental information about the lives of complainants and witnesses which allow us access to aspects of everyday life in nineteenth-century British Guiana which were not deemed consequential enough to record elsewhere.

An especially revealing example of this can be found through reading two Fiscal cases from Berbice in the autumn of 1824. Guyana, which became independent from Britain in 1966, experiences a second dry season in between its two annual wet seasons (the first stretching from May to August and the second from December to January), and in October and November 1824 the lack of rainfall brought on a drought. The labour regime imposed by managers and drivers upon the enslaved was backbreaking and violent in ideal climatic conditions, and the additional burden required to shepherd the sugar canes through the drought fell entirely upon the shoulders of the enslaved. Managers would brook no excuse for a reduction in output, as their usually distant absentee employers were not shy of replacing overseers they felt were not maximising the ‘efficiency’ of their estates. In turn, enslaved drivers who were responsible for maintaining the punishing pace of work risked losing their positions if the manager felt that they were no longer extracting the maximum value of labour from other enslaved people. This incentivised an intensification of the already brutal workload and system of punishments.

On 20 October 1824, a deputation of ten enslaved people from Prospect plantation, whose names were Vaness, Arance, Rodger, Secunda, Cook, Tambour, Titus, Frederick, Joe and Martin, showed the Fiscal’s investigators around the estate and complained of the harsh new workload imposed over the preceding few weeks. Their main grievance was that, in addition to novel tasks imposed by the estate’s new owners to combat the drought such as deepening irrigation trenches to draw in more water and spending more time watering the young cane due to be harvested in the spring, they were still expected to work until nearly midnight carrying timber from the canalside to the engine house to feed the furnaces. The estate manager, one J. Paterson, responded by claiming that the complainants were particularly resentful because ‘some are punt men and others fire men’, meaning slaves with respective responsibility for plying the rivers and canals in barges or maintaining the furnaces for which the timber was destined. In an all-too-common outcome the Fiscal sided with the testimony of the manager and declared sanctimoniously that the new tasks were a ‘necessity … without which the manufactory of sugar cannot be effected’; evidently he gave no thought at all to the fact that the material welfare of the enslaved people forced to cultivate the sugar may also be important to the process (The National Archives, CO 116/140, ii, ff. 16-29).

Just over two weeks later, on Friday, 5 November 1824 Piet, an enslaved carpenter on Vrouw Johanna coffee plantation, appeared before the Fiscal in New Amsterdam to protest an unfair flogging for allegedly having incompetently repaired the water mill on the estate. The mill would not grind the recently-harvested coffee, and Piet was punished for this in spite of his protestations that the trenches for feeding water toward the mill were completely dry. When questioned about this, the ‘part proprietor’ of the plantation, C. Favre, claimed that there was plentiful water, and that Piet was lying. Backed up by the driver who depended on him for his continued higher status, Favre did not have to try very hard to convince the Fiscal of his version of events (The National Archives, CO 116/140, ii, ff. 31-33).

This wrought-iron Christianburg Waterwheel in Linden, Guyana, was constructed in 1855 to power a sawmill. The waterwheel which powered the coffee mill on Vrouw Johanna plantation would have been smaller and almost certainly constructed from wood (image source: https://tourismguyana.gy/christianburg-waterwheel/)

As is often the case with complaints brought before British Guiana’s fiscals, both matters were dismissed out of hand. While the Fiscal’s relationship with the plantocracy was sometimes tense – any planter whose slave complained was automatically fined, and until 1816 the Fiscal was entitled to keep a proportion – the Fiscal was nonetheless a central part of the white supremacist regime. Like many of his forerunners and successors Berbice’s incumbent fiscal since 1819, M.S. Bennett, owned several estates and shared the prejudices of his peers. Complaints were declared to be spurious far more often than they were upheld, and the Fiscal regularly sentenced complainants to further brutal punishments. The man identified by the Prospect manager as the ringleader, Vaness, received 45 lashes for insubordination, while Piet the carpenter was sentenced to 37.

The examples I have described reveal the ways in which ecological disturbance of the plantation regime could exacerbate existing tensions. After all, unfair punishment and overwork, along with insufficient food, are some of the most frequent subjects of court proceedings in the colony and drought, combined with the vicious incentive structures created by the plantation economy, meant that the lives of the enslaved materially worsened in all three areas. The drought is not explicitly mentioned in either of these cases, and only passingly alluded to in a third which mentions ‘the great scarcity of grass owing to the heavy dry season’ (The National Archives, CO 116/140, ii, f. 51). Instead, it is submerged out of sight. It is only by reading these sources ‘below the waterline’ that the power of water to motivate  so many diverse aspects of life in nineteenth-century British Guiana becomes clear.