A Renewed Impetus for Reflection on our Colonial Legacies in 2020

John Oldfield

Professor of Slavery and Emancipation

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull


Dr Cristina Clopot

Postdoctoral Research Fellow (2018-2020), ECHOES Project

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull


Since 2018, members of the Wilberforce Institute have been leading the work on a Horizon 2020 research project named ECHOES: European Colonial Heritage Modalities in Entangled Cities. The consortium is  made up of a number of European institutions (Aarhus University, University of Amsterdam, University of Warsaw, University of Coimbra, University of Rennes 2), partners from outside Europe (UNIRIO (Brasil), University of Cape Town (South Africa), Department of Cultural Heritage and Museology, Fudan University (China)), as well as a set of non-academic partners. By embracing a decolonial approach, the researchers on the ECHOES project hope to address the lacunae in the interpretation and representation of our colonial heritage, both inside and outside Europe.

As part of the ECHOES project, researchers at the Wilberforce Institute have produced a series of deliverables, including materials for non-academic audiences. The last of these outputs is a policy brief for European policy makers interested in heritage diplomacy and international cultural relations. The point of departure for the brief was the realisation that 2020, with its intense challenges provided by the experience of living through a pandemic and the tragic death of African American George Floyd in May 2020, has exposed pervasive racist patterns and helped communities across the world problematise colonial legacies in a new way.

We were also mindful, when writing this brief, of how the social and economic inequalities that were amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as unequal access to healthcare, for instance (discussed here also), have exposed  old colonial (Eurocentric) approaches to international relations that continue to disempower the Global South.

Moreover, the tragic and important moment of George Floyd’s death has brought a renewed urgency to the Black Lives Matter debate and provided the impetus for countries across Europe to reconsider the representation of colonial memory in public spaces. A wave of protests and debates focused on monuments, especially those of historic figures connected to slavery and colonialism (such as the much-discussed case of Bristol’s Edward Colston), have subsequently enveloped Europe, creating in their wake contentious culture wars. 

These major events we have related to one of our long-standing concern within ECHOES, namely the production, representation and circulation of knowledge. The policy brief thus argues for a wider recognition of different types of knowledges in international projects, including what we define as ‘community knowledge’; the type of knowledge that cannot be classified based on a neat westernised scientific approach, e.g.  folklore, storytelling, myths and narratives – some of them traumatic — transmitted orally across generations.

We are mindful that across Europe there is a severe deficit in engaging with colonialism that is not present in the case of other major historic events, such as the Holocaust or the memories of the two world wars. At this time of reflection, it is important to continue the work to identify power imbalances in institutions of different types and reconsider the ways in which we interact with marginalised groups.

Although models for international cultural relations or heritage diplomacy are commonly represented by interactions between states (and state agents), we argue that there is a need for a more complex approach that includes a wider range of actors, including non-state ones. As research in ECHOES has shown, actors working on the ground (e.g. museum curators, artists and citizen groups) often create projects and develop activities that involve a deeper engagement with colonial legacies in their communities.  There is a great opportunity to further this agenda, we believe, by supporting and encouraging the work of such grassroots actors.  

We also highlight in this document the importance of meaningful inter-cultural dialogue unhindered by unequal power relations in such activities. Accordingly, we argue for the importance of adequate training of EU officials and other actors involved in international projects to ensure they approach cultural differences with sensitivity. We believe that such intercultural encounters are key to continuing to generate new interpretations of shared experiences of colonialism across Europe and address the deficit mentioned at the beginning of this blog.

Our key recommendations can be summarised as follows:

  • There is an urgent need for EU policymakers at all levels to confront the legacies of colonialism.
  • While there are significant barriers to the creation of a shared European narrative on our colonial past, some of them political or related to different interpretations of the colonial past across member states, we need to arrive at a more equitable representation of colonial legacies in different narratives of shared heritages across Europe.
  • While top-down approaches have their merits, grassroots movements and independent cultural actors (including museum curators and artists) are vitally important in advancing our understanding of colonial legacies and in addressing these legacies sensitively.
  • Such independent cultural actors bring with them a wealth of local knowledge, sometimes indigenous knowledge, that needs to be incorporated into heritage diplomacy efforts on equal grounds with other forms of knowledge (e.g. scientific knowledge).
  • Active listening and the ability to foster genuine intercultural dialogue are skills that policymakers and EU professionals at all levels need to exercise routinely. This includes an openness towards integrating a wider range of actors in diplomatic activities and involving them in policy development processes.
  • European institutions, representatives and policymakers should go further in advocating the acceptance of a multicultural Europe as a precondition for thinking in terms of intercultural relations. This includes addressing inconsistencies in the treatment of heritage across different areas of policy interventions (e.g. integration, development, etc).
  • Whether labelled as heritage diplomacy or ICR, international collaboration projects and initiatives that address the colonial past need to be based on a foundation of trust and mitigate against unequal power relations between partners. This should include actions or any reparations needed to account for the past.
  • Rather than being ignored, or addressed solely by grassroots efforts, colonial heritage needs to be mainstreamed at European level and should be included as a fundamental topic in existing heritage and arts and cultures initiatives.

Read the full policy brief here: http://projectechoes.eu/wp-content/uploads/ECHOES_heritage-diplomacy-policy-brief_3_final.pdf

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Summary of author’s recent publications

Professor Trevor Burnard

Director of the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull


Today Trevor Burnard, Director of the Wilberforce Institute, provides a summary of two of his recent publications.

Britain in the Wider World, 1603-1800 (London: Routledge, 2020)

2020, it now seems clear, is a decisive year in British history, however it ends. It is a year that has seen the disaster of a major pandemic, will probably see Britain’s withdrawal from Europe and possibly even herald the breakdown of the United Kingdom itself. Just potentially, 2020 will see the final end of a process that began as long ago as 1603, when England/Wales and Scotland were joined together through a common monarch, coming together properly in 1707 and being enlarged by the addition of the kingdom/colony of Ireland into a new polity in 1801 called the United Kingdom. 1603 preceded by a couple of years the founding of the East India Company, giving England and then Britain a toehold in India, which became much bigger after Britain’s victory in the Seven Years War in 1763. It was followed by the tentative start of a British Empire in the Americas, begun in a chaotic and disastrous fashion in England’s first settlement in North America, in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. By 1800, that empire, despite the political loss of the 13 colonies and the creation of the USA, was extremely large and world-spanning. My book on how England and then Britain went through this dramatic transformation between 1603 and 1800, one that might be on the verge of finally collapsing, is a British history as written by an historian of the Atlantic world. It explores how the British nation was made in this period and how England/Wales moved from being the pariah of Europe – insular nations devoted to Protestantism and the killing of monarchs – to near global dominance, with a powerful empire and an even more flourishing economy. Britain by 1800 had become a mighty world power and through the Industrial Revolution the richest country in the world, overturning in a few decades China’s millennium-long presence at the top of wealthy nations. I pay particular attention in my book to three things: imperialism, economic growth and changes in gender relations.

Within these three topics, slavery is important, though it is only one of many themes that I cover in this survey of a lengthy period in British history. I deal with slavery here less than I do in other works but I take for consideration Barbara Solow’s famous statement that `it was slavery that made the empty lands of the western hemisphere valuable … [and] what moved in the Atlantic … was predominantly slaves, the output of slaves, the inputs of slave societies and the goods and services purchased with the earnings of slave products.’ America was valuable to Britain because it had plantations and it had plantations due to the work of enslaved Africans. Britain became the most important slavery nation in the eighteenth century. That this was the case makes us pause when thinking about imperialism and the development of settler societies in North America and Australasia. Britain’s movement into the wider world was immensely successful for Britain itself, not least for its poorest inhabitants, who got goods that they wanted from the colonies and could improve their standard of living by moving out of Britain. It came, however, at great cost, including the immiseration of thousands of enslaved people, living miserable lives as coerced workers. The gap between British prosperity and the misery Britain caused its non-white imperial subjects was something that increasingly bothered thinking Britons, not least of whom was a young Hull-born politician and evangelical, William Wilberforce. Born in the triumphal year of 1759, when Britain acquired Canada, Senegal and Bengal, he lived his life in a time when Britain and its empire were important in the world in ways never seen before.


‘Terror, Horror and the British Atlantic Slave Trade in the Eighteenth Century’ in Robert Anthony, Stuart Carroll and Caroline Dodds Pennock, eds, The Cambridge World History of Violence vol. III 1500-1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 17-35

The Cambridge World History of Violence is a path-breaking four volume series, edited by Australian scholars Joy Damousi and Philip Dwyer, which argues that violence was a key driver of history from ancient to modern times. My chapter on violence in the Atlantic slave trade is in the early modern volume, running from 1500 to 1850. It contributes to an intensive, profoundly meaningful and often disturbing conversation about how violence speaks to critical issues such as the problem of civility in society, the nature of political sovereignty and the state, the legitimacy of conquest and subjugation, the possibilities of popular resistance, and the manifestations of ethnic and racial unrest. I start with J.M.W. Turner’s 1840 masterpiece, Slavers Overthrowing the Dead and Dying and connect to a notorious incident in the history of the Atlantic slave trade, from 1781. That incident was the murder of 122 African captives on the Zong, becalmed off south-west Jamaica, in order to make an insurance claim. I use this and other cases of violence in the Atlantic slave trade to argue that one of the effects of that slave trade was the evocation in slaves of the emotion of terror – the apprehension of worse things happening if one did not obey commands. To show how this worked, I analyze James Field Stanfield’s The Guinea Voyage to explore the workings of terror and horror (a related but different emotion to terror) through violence as it operated in the Atlantic slave trade. I conclude with a consideration of how the terror that was involved in the British Atlantic slave trade inspired abolitionists, not least William Wilberforce, though I concentrate in this chapter on Thomas Clarkson and John Newton, to protest against the slave ship as a place of radical disorder, an essentially lawless place presided over by cruel tyrants. Without the revulsion that was aroused in metropolitan Europeans and Americans about the terror that resulted from the multiple acts of violence that characterized the Atlantic slave trade, abolitionism and humanitarianism would have taken a different shape – and possible been less immediately successful.