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:
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.
Insurance Covered! offers a series of podcasts on all matters relating to insurance, created and compered by Peter Mansfield, a partner with the law firm RPC (Reynolds Porter Chamberlain). As part of this series Professor Trevor Burnard was invited to discuss the most notorious insurance case in history, Gregson v Gilbert (1783), commonly known as the Zong Massacre. In the podcast Professor Burnard places this case in its Jamaican historical context, explains why the case came about and notes its importance in the burgeoning British abolitionist movement. A summary of the podcast is provided below.
The Zong massacre, long recognised as a notorious event in insurance history, involved the despicable murder of enslaved people in an attempt to claim back losses in insurance. During November and December 1781, the crew of the ship named the Zong threw more than 120 enslaved captives overboard in order to claim insurance on these ‘losses’. This took place only a month after Britain had lost the American Revolution with the Battle of Yorktown. French ships were at that stage just moving in towards the Caribbean, and it looked like Jamaica would be conquered by the French fleet. At that point, Jamaica, which was Britain’s most valuable and important colony, was in a terrible state. The great majority of Britons were invested in the slave trade and Britain was the greatest slave trading nation in the world.
The Zong was a ship captured in Ghana by the Gregson family, Liverpool slave traders, who used this captured ship to transport a very large number of captives to the West Indies, ideally to Kingston, but with only a very small crew. The ship encountered trouble en route, found itself off course and running low on supplies. With not enough water to go round the crew had three choices. The first and the most obvious was to wait for water to arrive, in other words, rain, or another ship, and to sail for Montego Bay as quickly as possible. The second was to batten down the hatches so the slaves could not escape, accept that some would die from dehydration and disease and then to try and sell as many as they could for whatever price they could get when they got to Montego Bay; that’s what normally happened on slave ships in this sort of situation. The third, and the one they chose to take, was to throw 54 women and children overboard in order, they claimed later on, to stop an insurrection; this took place on 29th November 1781. A further 42 individuals, all men, were thrown over on 1st December and sometime after 6th December the crew threw over another 26; 10 Africans threw themselves overboard. This equates to the abhorrent murder of 122 captives and a total of 132 deaths.
The Gregsons then put in an insurance claim, citing the action taken to be lawful to prevent insurrection and rebellion, which at the time was a common claim to make. The underwriter however refused to pay out on the claim. This is thought to have been because the actions of the crew made him doubt that this was a legitimate claim – it looked more like a scheme to maximise profits and make up for the poor return on the voyage. The decision was then left to the courts to decide. Initially the decision went in favour of the slave traders, but on appeal, Lord Mansfield reversed the decision. There were two key reasons for this: the manner in which a number of captives had thrown themselves off the ship; and the claim that a lack of water had been the reason for insurrection, when in fact there had been heavy rain before, during and after the massacre. Despite Mansfield’s ruling the story has an unsavoury ending: the Gregsons may not have won their claim but they ultimately got away with 122 murders. The case of the Zong was nevertheless of key importance in helping to kickstart the abolitionist movement.
In today’s blog Trevor Burnard, Director of the Wilberforce Institute, provides a summary of the last of his publications in 2020.
The Atlantic in World History (London: Bloomsbury, 2020)
Atlantic history as a way of envisioning the making of the early modern world is a historiography that arose in the 1970s, became more fully developed in the 1990s and 2000s, and has by 2020 become an established field of historical inquiry. My synthesis of Atlantic history, based on being a practitioner of such history for nearly thirty years, provides a quick introduction for students and the general reader to this interesting field. It is a field that at bottom is an exploration of movement across the ocean and between the four continents of Africa, the Americas, and Europe – that movement being the movement of people, things and ideas. It starts with European involvement in Africa in the mid-fifteenth century and Columbus’ epoch-making voyages to the Caribbean from 1492. It ends in the mid-nineteenth century, with the abolition of slavery in most New World societies. The book explores how the peoples and the environments of Atlantic places were linked together, in ways that were both good and bad, but always historically interesting. I show how the Atlantic has been more than just an ocean – it has been an important site of circulation and transmission, allowing exchanges and interchanges between various peoples in ways that have profoundly shaped the development of the world beyond, as well as within, the Atlantic.
As the Atlantic world was about more than slavery, so slavery forms only part of a book in which gender, religion and trades are extensively discussed. Nevertheless, slavery is a vital part of the Atlantic world and indispensable to its workings. I explore its Iberian origins, its African dimensions and its apogee in the eighteenth-century Caribbean and North America before examining how the institution most central to Atlantic history, outside empire and the monarchy, was abolished in a very quick time. From the late eighteenth century abolition was built on two foundations: the establishment of an abolition movement by a determined and small number of evangelical Britons led by William Wilberforce, and the resistance of the enslaved in the Americas. The most important slave resistance to planter power was in Haiti between 1791 and 1804, an event that has a prominent role in my chapter on the age of revolutions.
I end my account by recalling the quintessential American song `Oh! Susanna’ written by Stephen Foster in 1847. It is a very African and Atlantic song as well as an American song – a `negro melody,’ as Foster called it. It is a comic, indeed tragicomic, retelling of the story of an enslaved person left behind in the many breakups that characterized African American slavery in the nineteenth century. It is a song written by a person of European heritage using the voice of a descendant of Africans wanting to leave a place which had once been Native American land. Thus, it unites through culture the ways in which peoples of the Atlantic were brought, often unwillingly, together. These many connections point to the continuing relevance of Atlantic history today.
‘Atlantic Slave-Systems and Violence,’ in Erica Charters, Marie Houllemare and Peter H. Wilson, eds, Violence in the Early Modern Period (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020)
In this chapter on violence in the Atlantic slave trade, I start by noting how we have to be careful when talking about violence and slavery. There are good reasons not to luxuriate in the details of violence and thus re-inscribe the problems of violence as experienced by enslaved people. Brutal language hardens rather than softens the reader to the violence of slavery, especially when acts of brutality are catalogued at repeated length, making it hard to engage fully with a more important subject – what did violence mean and how did violence operate to strengthen or weaken the institution of enslavement. I argue here that brutality, violence and death were not mere by-products of the extremely lucrative early modern plantation system but were the sine qua non of the plantation world.
In this article, I ask the following questions. First, was violence central or incidental to the ideology of enslavement and to the workings of the Atlantic slave trade, in particular? I argue it was central. I also ask about the effectiveness of violence in maintaining planter power. I argue again that violence produced generally efficacious results for slave owners in keeping control over enslaved people. It was less effective in convincing rulers in Europe that planters’ authority over their slaves was legitimate.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to suggest that acts of violent resistance by enslaved people were ineffective and pointless, even though such acts seldom met with any success. When enslaved people were violent, it demonstrated three things. First, it showed fellow enslaved people that some of their compatriots were prepared to reject their place in the system. Second, it showed to opponents of slavery that slave masters’ propaganda about slaves being happy with their place in society was just that – slavery was not a benevolent institution but one upheld by coercion and through punishment. Finally, violence by slaves was often interpreted by abolitionists through a Christian lens, in which the iconography of Christ’s martyrdom was equated with suffering slaves.
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-ownershipprovides 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.
Itinerant anti-slavery speakers were key to the mobilisation of public opinion in Britain in the early nineteenth century, but they could not have spent so much time on the road without the support of others. Here we introduce excerpts from two letters written by one of those speakers, George Thompson, to his wife during his travels. We thank the Special Collections Manager at John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, for permission to do this.
George Donisthorpe (‘Tim’) Thompson was born in Liverpool on 18 June 1804. Described by Morgan in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as an ‘orator, slavery abolitionist, and political reformer’, he is recognised as being ‘the most effective British anti-slavery lecturer since Thomas Clarkson’ in the run up to the abolition of slavery in 1833. Thompson first came to prominence in 1831, when the then Lord Chancellor, Henry Brougham, recommended him as a traveling speaker to the London Anti-Slavery Society. It was also in that year that he married Anne Erskine Lorraine (‘Jenny’) Spry, daughter of Richard, a minister in the Methodist Connexion of the Countess of Huntingdon. They had five surviving children, three girls and two boys, the first of whom, born in 1836, they named William Lloyd Garrison, after the charismatic American abolitionist.
In the first letter, Thompson was writing to his wife from the Lincolnshire market town of Brigg at midnight on Thursday 19 April 1832. He was clearly tired. It was his fourth lecture that week and there was to be another one, plus five more the following week – two in Barton upon Humber and three in Hull. But though ‘quite weary and exhausted’ he was keen to let his new wife know that this did not dampen his ardour. ‘Yet have many and many a time risen from the sofa when I could hardly hold my pen, or guide it, and have written a long letter to my Jenny’. He was therefore disgruntled to find that she had not taken the time to write to him.
Does your Tim with all his faults forget his wife Or his friends? – Do multiplied engagements Cause him to forget his Jenny? – Do over-Whelming bodily exertions cause him to forget his Jenny? . . . tell me I conjure you why you cannot find time to assure me at the appointed time the while I am caring for you – thinking of you – wishing for you, and labouring ever to prostration for you, you are also caring for and wishing for and thinking upon your Tim.
After complaining about the ‘want of attention on the part of my wife’ he continued with his self-pitying attack:
Why did I leave the Sofa and the security of the kindest friends to go ½ a mile to the post office? – because I expected a letter from my Jenny. Why did I refuse to let a servant go – though entreated gain & again because I expected a letter from my Jenny and it was too grateful a task to be to any one.
He graciously agrees to let her failure to write to him pass, and, after a small pang of conscience, instructs her to send a letter to the local Post Office in Barton. He also reminds her that she carries the full weight of responsibility for his happiness.
I forgive you – must forgive you. perhaps you Did write and the letter mis carried . . . Write me by return to the Post Office Barton – Lincolnshire. Study well your responsibility – Believe O Jenny believe what I have so often said & written, that your conduct – rules my destiny as far as a human being can govern the fate of another – Love me – devote yourself to me – live for me and all is well. (Raymond English Anti-Slavery Collection [REAS]/2/1/22 University of Manchester Library Special Collections, Letters of George Thompson to his wife, April 19, 1832)
The letter finishes with a declaration of love, and a claim that he had intended no censure. Thompson’s modus operandi was well-known in abolitionist circles. An analysis of his correspondence shows that while he was both ‘charming and charismatic, he could also be vain, brittle, and self-absorbed.’ Described as ‘tall, handsome and articulate, with a penchant for biting sarcasm’, he travelled to America with his family in 1834 to preach the abolitionist message, but so fierce was the opposition he aroused, particularly among anti-abolitionist mobs, that he had to be smuggled out of the country in October 1835, for fear of his life. Anne and the children, meanwhile, were left to make their own way home, which, in the circumstances, may well have been a diversionary tactic.
By 1838, the year of the second letter, the Thompson family had settled in Edinburgh, and though his declarations of love had disappeared the sharp tone remains. Writing to Anne from London in February, after seven years of marriage, Thompson’s demands were sartorial rather than epistolary.
I find I need not have a court dress to go to the Queen and therefore, Let me have two new Shirts – my silk stockings, a pair of dress Shoes (perhaps Mr Gregory will make me a pair). Put into a parcel and sent early to Mr Wilson[?], who will carefully pack them, with some Clothes, and send them to me. Oblige me by attending to these things.
He requested that she write to the Post Office in Hull to confirm his demands had been met: ‘Remember, every thing I ask for Is wanted by the 14th!’ (REAS/2/1/43, Letters, February 38, 1838.)
The strains of itinerant lecturing made an early impact on the Thompsons’ marriage. He was often away for considerable periods of time, and she had to deal with the fact that the money he brought in was often barely enough to support the family. William Lloyd Garrison Thompson, who died in September 1851 at the age of 15, was buried in a pauper’s grave in the Dissenters’ section of Brompton Cemetery in London. Though Thompson appealed to female audiences and helped to establish many women’s abolitionist societies, garnering considerable support for the abolitionist cause, as these extracts reveal, he could be petty and demanding. A self-professed radical, Thompson’s youthful insistence that his wife should ‘devote’ herself to him jars with his professions of equality, which ranged from abolition to free trade, parliamentary reform, disestablishment and religious rights.
Times change, as does the seemingly endless tide of social and humanitarian injustice that weighs on some of the most vulnerable members of our communities. Brought to the forefront of the public consciousness once again and increasingly apparent this last decade is the global epidemic of modern slavery and human trafficking. Here in Hull the focus and determination to fight is as stout as it has always been.
Hull has long played a leading role in campaigning to abolish slavery, from the work of William Wilberforce who was the leading parliamentary spokesperson in the movement to abolish the slave trade (c.1759-1833), to Christian preacher and antislavery advocate Salim Charles Wilson (c.1859-1946). Our efforts in Hull have always been focused on one aim, a safer community.
But where are we today? In a somewhat fitting homage to the original Hull Anti-Slavery Committee, our efforts are channelled and coordinated in part by the Humber Modern Slavery Partnership currently based at the Wilberforce Institute next to Wilberforce House Museum on High Street in our historic old town. Today’s efforts are much more of a whole partnership response across statutory, third sector and business organisations. We still focus on the ideas of freedom, equality and social justice as our forebears did but in an updated and more contemporary way.
I have had the enormous pleasure to work in the social sector for the last ten years in my role as founder of a small local homeless charity after my own experience of losing everything. Our approach is holistic at its core, with the aim of – you guessed it – creating safer communities. Over this time, I have seen our collective approach towards at-risk adults and children change, mostly for the better, but I know you will agree that our task is harder than ever before.
It feels to me that poverty, destitution, homelessness, conflict, our fragile global economy, our unquenchable consumer greed and strained public services are making it almost effortless for organised crime groups to exploit our most vulnerable. Be it through forced or bonded labour, sexual exploitation or sex trafficking, county lines, domestic servitude or forced criminality, the trade in human misery is lucrative with often seemingly minimal risks for the perpetrators. The world has shrunk there is no doubt, and in many ways our now close-knit global community is more susceptible to crisis and abuse than ever before. It is often easy to feel like we live in a tiny Tupperware microclimate of injustice and some unseen power is holding the lid down so we can’t breathe. The time has come for us get together and punch some air holes in the side, or even lift the lid.
So, what can we do? I am certain we can use the positives of our condensed world to our advantage, much like exploiters and the countless menacing organised crime groups do. Using instant methods of communication, data sharing, awareness, training, campaigning and positive social action we can strengthen our net to protect victims and make sure the trade in human suffering is no longer an attractive prospect for these criminals. In Humberside we are working closely in partnership across the whole region better than ever, certainly in my professional life, to bring together everyone who can make a difference. Local authorities, the NHS, criminal justice organisations, charities, businesses, the University of Hull, the Wilberforce Institute, places of learning and worship and local support services share a vision of keeping people safe from abuse and making the area around the Humber a hostile environment for would-be exploiters.
Looking honestly at the factors that make people vulnerable to slavery will help us understand the steps we all need to take to make our communities more resilient. If we can prevent homelessness in more cases, empower children to say no to criminal gangs, or help people understand their healthcare entitlements for example, we will stop more people being in a situation of impending risk. Many young people and vulnerable groups on the fringes of our communities are not always aware of what support mechanisms we have in place to prevent crisis; they are, simply put, slipping through the net.
Over the next few years we will continue to make unwavering strides to identify and plug these gaps in provision with meaningful and substantive solutions that will afford everyone equal access to the full range of services that keep us all safe. A community is as good as the people in it, and I believe wholeheartedly that there is no place in Humberside for this woeful and rancid crime. I know that by learning from our past, and adding a spoonful of innovation and lashings of passion, we have a recipe that will transform our region into a safe space for everyone regardless of social or economic status.