A Renewed Impetus for Reflection on our Colonial Legacies in 2020

John Oldfield

Professor of Slavery and Emancipation

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

john.oldfield@hull.ac.uk

Dr Cristina Clopot

Postdoctoral Research Fellow (2018-2020), ECHOES Project

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

c.e.clopot@hull.ac.uk

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

The ECHOES Project logo

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.