The Abolition of the Slave Trade and Slavery in Britain

Professor John Oldfield

Professor of Slavery and Emancipation

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

john.oldfield@hull.ac.uk

In this blog, Professor Oldfield talks about the collaboration he was involved with between the Wilberforce Institute and the British Library.

In August 2020, I was approached by Katie Adams at the British Library [BL] to write an essay for the BL website. I would be lying if I said I did not hesitate for a moment. The brief was ambitious: a short 2000-word piece, tentatively entitled ‘The Abolition of the Slave Trade and Slavery in Britain, c. 1787–1838’, that would provide readers fourteen years of age and above with an accessible, up-to-date and academically rigorous introduction to the BL’s anti-slavery collections.

Having accepted the commission, I began to sketch out a plan. In conversations with Katie, we agreed that what was needed was an ‘integrated’ history of British anti-slavery, one that not only highlighted the achievements of William Wilberforce and his supporters but also took account of black resistance, whether in the Caribbean or here in the United Kingdom [UK], as well as the involvement of women in the abolitionist campaigns of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Furthermore, we wanted to make space for international perspectives and – if the word limit permitted – to say something about the legacies of emancipation (1833/1838) and the UK’s reckoning with slavery.

In early November, I submitted a first draft, which remarkably came in at just over 2,000 words. It soon became apparent, however, that we needed more space, not just to plug some of the obvious gaps but to tweak the argument and – in places – to make it more accessible. This was not all. The essay also had to fit within a suite of BL web pages, which inevitably meant that some degree of cross-referencing was necessary. As a result, the original draft began to expand, so much so that we set ourselves a new target of 3,000 words, including further reading and footnotes.

Late in December, I submitted a final draft, which Katie then built into web pages, complete with the relevant links. If you are interested in seeing the results, you can access the pages here:

Abolition of the slave trade and slavery in Britain – The British Library (bl.uk)

Commissions of this kind are never easy or straightforward. They inevitably involve making decisions about what to include (and what to leave out), about tone and about register. They also involve understanding your client’s needs, which is why dialogue is so important. To a large extent, the whole process is about testing ideas, while at the same time being aware of the obvious constraints. None of us likes word limits but they can also be a way of focusing the mind, demanding a different kind of discipline that can be strangely liberating.

While my name appears as the author of ‘Abolition of the Slave Trade and Slavery in Britain’, the article should properly be regarded as the result of a collaboration between the Wilberforce Institute and the BL, and one that, for me, proved immensely rewarding. I am very grateful to Katie Adams for her expertise, support and encouragement, as I am to her colleagues at the BL. The essay is all the better for their input.

Africans in Yorkshire

Gifty Burrows

Educator and Project Lead

Honorary Fellow at the Wilberforce Institute

g.burrows@hull.ac.uk

To mark her appointment as Honorary Fellow at the Wilberforce Institute, Gifty Burrows, Project Lead, talks about the African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire Project.

The history of Black presence in Britain is evident in the sensational rediscovery of human remains among Anglo-Saxon and prehistoric burial sites. However, given that Britain had an empire with subjects in colonies around the world, it is puzzling that many people still have some difficulty in understanding the longevity of Black presence in British society. This is not surprising however, given the paucity of historical research to show that people of African descent have lived, worked and visited Britain for hundreds of years. Instead, there is a persistent myth that Black presence began in the 1950s with the call for workers from its territories, heralded by the arrival of the Empire Windrush ship. Indeed, it is ironic that although Black people are hypervisible as a minority group in society, they are rendered invisible in terms of their narratives and their achievements too are diminished.

There is very little representation of Black people as individuals in fiction or nonfiction. Stories of their direct experience in historical narratives are rare and when they appear, they are often written by a second hand who has the power to edit their truth. It is also the case that despite Black people being the global majority, any aspect of history about them is consigned to a label of ‘Black history’, separating them from the main discourse and preventing them from influencing a long-established view of traditional beliefs. This can leave voids where context is omitted, and what is left is a truncated and incomplete picture. In 2015, African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire was created to rebalance this absence at a local level and bring the hidden stories of remarkable everyday lives to the fore as a reflection of an honest and inclusive view of British social history.

The project

The strength of African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire was that this type of study had not been done before. It gained support from the Heritage Lottery Fund with a remit of looking at the presence and contributions of people of African descent from the Wilberforce era of 1750 up until 2007.  It was bold and challenging to look at a region that has never been demographically diverse.

Stories were difficult to unearth. A disheartening parallel between the past and the present (that quickly became apparent) is that race is often only deemed important in criminality. Therefore, for the majority of ordinary people for whom that was not relevant, careful survey and meticulous research of local and national archives was needed to yield results. The emergence of themes such as maritime, religion, education, service members, judiciary, occupations, sports, activism and the arts demonstrated a broad Black presence in Hull and East Yorkshire. The outcome was helped by the project’s design, inspiring energy and contributions from a broad sweep of people from various backgrounds.

The project was further bolstered by a number of families who directly asked for their histories to be included as a celebration and acknowledgement of their presence in this region. This, together with the Contemporary Voices oral history series, represented over two hundred stories, providing an archive on the website that remains in the public domain.

Legacy

The African Stories project has been hugely successful. The unearthed material had the potential to expand further by the end of the funded period, and the level of interest has remained very high. To maintain the integrity of the project, requests to expand its scope were rejected as well as stories with insufficient proof of presence. That said, for people who wish to research the stories further, accurate references and signposts have been included in all entries so there is a factual base to work from.

The reception of the project outcomes has engaged and surprised many. It has fed into media broadcasts, online articles and six exhibitions, as well as inspiring similar research by other local historians and academics. This demonstrates an appetite for an inclusive history that would be more reflective of modern society and address an absence in national education.

The continued interest in the African Stories archive shows that the passion for local history does not stay local. Rather, it feeds into the social history of the nation itself. The stories provide an insight into historic and contemporary life experiences with aspects that will resonate. Indeed, if it is the case that the value of research is in its relevance and impact on society, then it can be said that African Stories has been successful by having started a much needed conversation about Black presence – particularly in light of the current discourse about Black lives and as we continue halfway into the UN International Decade for People of African Descent

For the African Stories website go to: https://www.africansinyorkshireproject.com/

For a virtual library focusing on Africa and the African diaspora go to: https://www.theafricanist.co.uk/

Exhibiting the African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire

Racial Precedents to COVID-19

Jasmine Holding Brown

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

j.holding-brown-2019@hull.ac.uk, #FallingThroughTheNet

As part of the ‘Falling Through the Net’ cluster my work examines children and childhoods that are exposed to exploitation. In the first six months of my PhD the focus of my research has shifted, more than once. Currently my interests lie in exploring ideas relating to rescue: the rescuers and the rescued.

The two central topics of my comparative study, British child migration and Indigenous Canadian child removal (between 1850 and 1970) were, on the surface at least, supposed to ‘save’ children from something: poverty; sin; poor parenting; limited social and economic opportunities; indigeneity. Frequently these ‘rescued’ children were placed in highly exploitative and harmful situations.

To stretch the initial analogy further though, there are children that these particular ‘nets’, however poorly designed, were never designed to catch. I suggest that by looking closely at the particular characteristics of the ‘rescued’, including the ‘non-rescued’ and the ‘rescuers’, we can attain a clearer understanding of the social dynamics at play. The intersections of class, gender and race in the development of policies drastically altered the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, and left many in mass unmarked graves. I intend to explore the underexamined role that ‘white womanhood’ played in the formulation of these child-focused social movements, and their relation to broader settler-colonial projects.

Ultimately, I am interested in the relevance that these issues have to contemporary practices and the protection of ‘vulnerable’ children and young people, dilemmas regarding the ethics of intervention, the distribution of resources and how ‘best interests’ are conceptualised.

The current global health crisis has brought some of these vulnerabilities into stark relief, exposing the rampant social and health inequalities that exist within societies. Despite children being one of the least affected groups in relation to the virus itself, the wider implications of the COVID-19 disease pandemic will undoubtedly impact some young people more than others. This includes the inability to access outdoor spaces and the internet;  reduced contact with support services; and the increased pressures of lockdown on family dynamics for the estimated 2.3 million children in England considered to be at significant risk, but not currently receiving support from social services.

In addition to class distinctions, racial disparities in relation to COVID-19 are now being discussed openly. Analysis conducted by The Guardian called for the recognition of race, and racial inequalities as risk factors for COVID-19. Afua Hirsch, writing in the same newspaper has been highlighting these concerns since early April, when the emerging data appeared to corroborate what many suspected, that individuals from black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) groups are dying in significantly greater numbers relative to their representation in the population as a whole: in the UK this means a 27% higher rate than would be expected. An official inquiry into the issue was recently announced.

The statistics for black American deaths are even more telling; in Chicago black people constitute a third of the population but accounted for 72% of deaths at the beginning of April. It will be some time before we fully understand the correlation between BAME individuals and COVID-19, although it’s likely that socioeconomics, housing, high-risk occupations and higher levels of co-morbidities will be factors. It suggests that the tragic consequences of COVID-19 will also be felt disproportionately by the children of racial minority groups.

The social determinants of health are perhaps even more apparent, when looking at the potential impact COVID-19 could have for Indigenous communities. In Canada, especially areas without access to clean running water, frequent hand washing is not always feasible. Social distancing and isolation are not viable choices in overcrowded living arrangements, and where there are chronic shortages of adequate housing. A significantly higher proportion of the population have underlying health conditions, and there is a very high prevalence of respiratory illnesses. Inuit children, for example, suffer from tuberculosis at 300 times the rate of non-Indigenous Canadians, and, experience the highest rates of chronic respiratory disease in the world. These issues are compounded by limited access to healthcare services, with some remote areas only accessible by air, and others having no resident medical personnel. For these communities the impact of COVID-19 could be devastating.

The legacies of colonialist and racist mentalities have been exposed, in some quarters, in the ways in which the current pandemic has been articulated. Historically, Indigenous children were used as guinea-pigs for experimental and often brutal treatments. An idea invoked recently by a French doctor suggested a potential vaccine could be trialled in Africa. The Bacillus Calmette-Guérin vaccine, commonly known as the BCG, which is currently being examined for its potential use against COVID-19, was tested on Indigenous children in the 1930s to counter ‘Indian tuberculosis’, an example of racialised and pathologizing language that echoes the current American President’s use of the term ‘Chinese virus’.

Brandon Sanitorium for Indians, Brandon, Manitobe, Canada. November 1947.
Racially segregated hospitals originally operated to contain ‘Indian tuberculosis’.
Library and Archives Canada: Available here

From a personal perspective the pandemic has, to some degree, limited my ability to access resources. It has made connections with others more difficult to achieve, and it means events have been cancelled or postponed. They are difficulties though that seem largely trivial, given the struggles many people are facing to access even basic sanitation in order to protect themselves.

Researching Forced British Child Emigration

James Baker

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

j.baker-2019@hull.ac.uk, #FallingThroughTheNet

I am one of three funded PhD researchers within the Wilberforce Institute’s ‘Falling Through the Net’ research cluster concerning child migration. My particular area of interest is the forced emigration of British children from the United Kingdom to Australia during the twentieth century. Many of these child migrants had previously been raised within the British care system and were coerced to migrate abroad with the promise of a better quality of life. However, many child migrants were treated poorly, and have shared their experiences of abuse and exploitation while in care overseas.

My dual affiliation with the University of Hull’s Department of History and the Wilberforce Institute has granted me a unique vantage point from which to analyse this topic. Not only have I been able to research the testimony and experiences of former child migrants, but I have also been able to explore how this movement fits into broader issues of slavery and exploitation around the world, both in historic and contemporary societies. This interdisciplinary framework has also helped me to understand that in this case and many others, forced emigration, poverty and exploitation are all one singular human rights issue. This is particularly true in the case of children where discussions surrounding their protection and rights is a relatively recent development in international law.

Events this year, and in particular following the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19, have brought many new challenges into my research process. As a student in my first year of research, this was the academic year for me to begin to present tentative ideas at conferences and create networks with researchers in similar fields to mine. However, the cancellation of academic conferences across the board, coupled with travel restrictions both domestically and overseas, have meant that many of these plans are on hold. Fortunately, conferencing apps such as Skype and Zoom, in addition to social media networks including Twitter, have enabled me to remain in contact with my fellow researchers at the Wilberforce Institute as well as to discover any new opportunities to discuss research in online academic forums.

This global disease pandemic has also witnessed the rapid digitisation of archival material by the National Archives and other such repositories, in addition to books and journal articles being made available online to a wider audience. There are however still a number of limitations that are still present in my current methodology. Digitising archival material is a gradual process and much of what I will need to not currently online, and a number of relevant museum exhibitions that were due to open this academic year have been postponed indefinitely. This includes Departures – 400 Years of Emigration from Britain, an exhibition concerning British immigration worldwide due to be held at the Migration Museum in Lewisham, London. It is also impossible to know how long certain restrictions will last and the extent to which this will impact any field work I decide to conduct in my second year of research. These are all factors that I will need to find ways to remedy in the coming months.

Arguably the most profound impact of COVID-19 has had in relation to this topic has been in the process of reuniting former child migrants with their families. In March 2020, the Child Migrants Trust announced that all prospective travel linked to the Family Restoration fund would be halted with immediate effect. The trust, alongside the national governments of Australia and the United Kingdom, have done excellent work in reuniting former child migrants with their long lost families in recent years. This process can already be a difficult one for many former child migrants as some were long unaware that they had living relatives, and sadly the Family Restoration Fund came too late for others whose parents and siblings passed away before they had the chance to reunite.

The emotional toll of bringing families together has been exacerbated by the uncertainly surrounding COVID-19 and the restrictions that have been put in relation to overseas travel. Given the advanced age of many of these former migrants, these restrictions are understandable and have been put in place with their best health interests at heart. Safety is of course the first priority in these difficult and unprecedented times. Let’s just hope that in the technological era that we live in, former Home Children will be able to find new ways to connect with their families and that their voices to continue to be heard in the ongoing process of reconciliation.

A local memorial dedicated to child migration in South Australia.