Frederick Bricknell and Lance Parker
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
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On 25 and 26 November 2021, we attended a two-day virtual seminar on slavery and servitude across a range of chronological and geographic contexts, as part of a collaboration between the Wilberforce Institute, Leiden University Slavery Studies Association, and the Bonn University Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies. The seminar was organised and coordinated by Professor Damian Pargas, who was originally to host the participants at the University of Leiden. Sadly, the Netherlands entered a Covid-19 lockdown the week before the seminar was due to commence and the event was moved online. While we were disappointed not to be able to meet the other participants face-to-face, the seminar was nevertheless a highly successful and engaging experience which showcased the diversity and vitality of slavery studies as a discipline.
Leiden’s historic Pieterskerk, where the Puritan founders of the Plymouth Colony worshipped for more than a decade before departing for the New World in 1620. (Image: https://www.visitleiden.nl/en/locations/2974987658/pieterskerk)
The seminar was divided into five panels, each chaired by leading scholars such as Jeff Fynn-Paul, Oran Kennedy, Karwan Fatah-Black, Remco Breuker and the Wilberforce Institute’s own Trevor Burnard. Contributions from PhD candidates discussed patterns of enslavement and dependency in spatial and temporal contexts as diverse as early modern Moldavia and present-day Qatar, medieval Korea and nineteenth-century north Germany. On the first day of the seminar, as part of a panel on the complex relationship between slavery and freedom during the age of Atlantic revolutions, Lance presented some of his research on the Jamaican Maroons of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. His research explores cultural identities within Maroon communities and their relationship with the enslaved and the British within colonial Jamaica. The Maroons at first were runaways, fleeing plantation life, burning plantations and even capturing and freeing some of the enslaved. In response to the growing Maroon populations in Jamaica, the British went to war with them. However, the British were unable to put them down, so instead they made peace with them in 1739, on the condition that the Maroons put down slave rebellions and return runaways. Using both primary records from British officials and oral histories from the Maroons, Lance gets into the voices of the Maroons in order to understand how they saw themselves differently from the enslaved populations in Jamaica.
This image was created in 1834 and is a depiction of the Anglo-Maroon war that concluded with the peace treaty of 1739. (Image: Illustration by Universal History Achieve, Getty Images, National Geographic.)
On the second morning of the seminar, Fred presented some of his research on the cultural and material roles of water in nineteenth-century Guyanese plantation slavery. Part of a joint project between the Wilberforce Institute and the new Centre for Water Cultures at the University of Hull’s Energy and Environment Institute, Fred’s PhD explores how the natural and man-made hydrology of South America’s Guiana coast influenced the development of slavery in the area and was in turn influenced by the planters’ desire to bend the environment to their own extractive ends. Using a cache of judicial records from the first few decades of the nineteenth century Fred sought to show how enslaved people negotiated their existence in this watery world, adapting to life in constant proximity to rivers, canals, and the Caribbean Sea in surprising and under-studied ways. Case studies included the desire of enslaved watermen on Guyana’s rivers to assert their position of relative privilege wherever they could; a free sailor’s struggle to regain his freedom after being deceived and enslaved; and the secret, dangerous rituals performed to secure the intercession of a powerful water-spirit.
A nineteenth-century map revealing the extent of hydrological infrastructure in the British colony of Demerara on the northern coast of South America. A contemporary observer described each plantation as ‘a complete island within itself, and dammed on all sides’ (Image: Detail from Alexander Gordon, ‘Plan of the Government Lands in the Colony of Demerara’, 1823, The National Archives, MR 1/941)
In spite of the broad range of topics discussed at the conference, spanning the entire globe and over six hundred years of history, several major themes emerged. These included a more complicated relationship between the concepts of ‘freedom’ and ‘slavery’ than the simple binary to which they are often reduced, with an array of subtle distinctions, hierarchies, and sub-categories instead suggesting a continuum of constant negotiation between the two. In addition, consistent areas of focus between the papers included the ‘veil’ cast over the legacy of slavery in superficially non-slaveholding polities like eighteenth-century Hamburg and Bremen, and the role of water in both micro- and macrohistorical perspective as both a conduit for symbolic/religious meanings and the basis of vast continental empires.
We are both extremely grateful for the opportunity to present and receive feedback on our work in such a collegiate environment, and would like to extend our thanks to Damian Pargas for organising the seminar as well as to all of the other participants and panel chairs for enabling such productive discussions.