Examining the place of transatlantic slavery in Britain’s public memory

Professor John Oldfield

Professor of Slavery and Emancipation

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

john.oldfield@hull.ac.uk

Dr Mary Wills

Honorary Fellow

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

marycwills@live.co.uk

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-ownership provides 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.

Courtesy of Hackney Museum. Abolition 07 emphasised the involvement of Hackney’s residents in the abolition movement.

Ethical considerations in child migration and exploitation research

Jasmine Holding Brown

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

j.holding-brown-2019@hull.ac.uk

Saphia Fleury

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

s.fleury-2019@hull.ac.uk

James Baker

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

j.baker-2019@hull.ac.uk

As we begin our second year, and prepare to dive into the primary sources for our research, we take a step back together to consider the ethical issues raised by our research on child migration and exploitation.

Saphia

My research involves interviewing adults who were evacuated to England following volcanic eruptions on Montserrat in the 1990s. These former child evacuees may have faced deeply traumatic experiences, including the destruction of their homes and communities and the deaths of people close to them. Moreover, relocation itself can be a traumatic process, so the semi-structured interviews that I plan to undertake may raise very sensitive issues, which can lead to re-traumatisation.

With this in mind, I wanted to equip myself with the tools to support my participants in case the interview process raised difficult memories. I did this in two ways.

Firstly, I undertook training from ECPAT UK on interviewing child migrants. Although my participants are no longer children, the training focused on conducting interviews with refugees and asylum-seekers and covering traumatic subject-matter, so contained useful pointers on how to prepare the interview space, address power imbalances between the interviewer and participant, and generally make the interviewee feel at ease. It introduced the Cognitive Interview Method, which allows the interviewee to hold images in their mind for long enough to recount a full and accurate history to the interviewer, while avoiding re-traumatisation. The training is available for free online.

My second strategy for supporting my participants was to produce a list of mental health support services, most of which are free to access. The NHS website contains a list of all the helplines and support services available. I chose the ones likely to be of most relevance to my participants and attached it to my Informed Consent Form.

Of course, interviewees have the right to withdraw from the study at any time and their experiences will be pseudonymised to avoid them being identified from my research. While I cannot exclude all possibility that my participants may find the interview process difficult, these methods should lessen that risk to an acceptable level.

Jasmine

My research involves accessing archive materials relating to the welfare of children sent from Britain to live in Canada on Vancouver Island, and Indigenous children forced to attend residential schools on the same island between 1920 and 1960.

Using child welfare records as ‘historical’ sources, particularly when they relate to living persons, raises significant data protection concerns. As a result there are legal restrictions under which such records are held, and, access granted. In addition, the use of pseudonyms and removal of all identifying details will ensure that these individuals remain anonymous and their formative experiences confidential.

Historically, research concerning Indigenous peoples has often hurt more than it has helped Indigenous communities. Consequently, it is important to reflect upon the positioning of the research and the researcher. As a non-Indigenous person, who did not grow up in Canada, it is crucial that I consider this ‘outsider’ perspective. The Canadian Tri-Council Policy on ‘Research Involving the First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples’ is an important guide. In addition, there are numerous useful resources created by Indigenous groups, scholars and activists that can help inform more ethically sound practices. This ‘Indigenous Perspectives Guide’, produced for educational purposes is a good starting point for those unfamiliar with Indigenous history.

Western academics, and perhaps anthropologists in particular, continue to reckon with the racist, colonial elements of their heritage: the violence committed in the name of research; the enduring relevance of racism; and the ‘scientific racism’ that was extremely prominent in the context of this study. Records of one of Vancouver Island’s residential schools suggest that children were underfed, given illegal and untested food supplements and denied dental treatment as the subjects of government malnutrition experiments. It is critical then, that this research engages with the origins and legacies of these practices and the philosophies that informed them, research that was not just unethical but inhumane.

James

My research topic concerns the forced emigration of British children to Australia during the mid-twentieth century. I am currently investigating how the education, heritage and museum sectors have preserved the memory of the child migrant experience, while focusing on how child migrants themselves have defined this narrative and the extent to which these migrations are viewed as being a part of British history.

Many British children who were raised on farm schools were subject to abuse and exploitation throughout their childhoods. They grew up in unfamiliar surroundings thousands of miles from home, and it wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that the British public became aware of the suffering that was inflicted upon former child migrants. While it is my duty as a researcher to offer these former child migrants a voice and to galvanise the reconciliation process, any research must be undertaken with caution.

During my research, I intend to offer former child migrants and those who have championed the child migrant cause the chance to be interviewed about their experiences. It is not my intention to rigorously investigate the experience of growing up in Australian farm schools, but instead to look at whether the voices of former child migrants have been fully listened to in the years that have followed and the challenges that lie ahead in ongoing justice campaigns. While I do not seek to create emotional discomfort, this subject matter can prove traumatic for interviewees.

Research protocols for interviews must be strictly adhered to. Interviewees must be provided with consent documentation which includes the right to withdraw participation, to have interviews paused or terminated altogether, and to understand how any data will be used. As the principal investigator, I need to complete a full risk assessment and obtain ethical approval before conducting interviews, as well as to carefully consider the questions I intend to ask. This will not necessarily guarantee the emotional wellbeing of research participants, but it will ensure that the emotional wellbeing of my participants is the top priority of my primary research.

As we move into the next stages of our research, we must continually reflect on the practical application of our ethical values, ensuring that the wellbeing of our subjects, whether our research addresses them directly or indirectly, always takes precedence.

Image source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/anonymous-person-with-binoculars-looking-through-stacked-books-3769697/