A Renewed Impetus for Reflection on our Colonial Legacies in 2020

Professor 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

Conference proceedings

Dr Elizabeth A. Faulkner

Lecturer in Contemporary Slavery

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

e.a.faulkner@hull.ac.uk

In this blog Dr Elizabeth Faulkner returns to the conference she organized with Dr Laura Lammasniemi just over a year ago.

One Year On: Critical Perspectives on ‘Modern Slavery’: Law, Policy and Society, 30 October, 2019

On 30 October 2019, we welcomed speakers and attendees to the Wilberforce Institute conference ‘Critical Perspectives on “Modern Slavery”: Law, Policy and Society’. Organised collaboratively with Dr Laura Lammasniemi (University of Warwick), our one-day interdisciplinary conference aimed to explore the issue of ‘modern slavery’ through providing a platform to critique related legal, ideological, political and policy responses.

As a term ‘modern slavery’ serves as a powerful tool that invokes an extensive appeal to altruistic feeling, while simultaneously providing an expansive umbrella-like term for a range of exploitative practices.  The issues of human trafficking and ‘modern slavery’ have become one of great contemporary importance and in the past decades there has been a flurry of legal and policy responses to the issues at international and national level. Simultaneously, there has been vast amounts of scholarship on the topic, much of it critical of those responses, fiercely contesting the use of the term ‘slavery’ in this context. The conference generated an unprecedented amount of interest, and we were overwhelmed by the number of excellent abstract submissions. The conference featured five panels. Panel 1 critiqued the false virtue of ‘modern slavery’ law and policy, panel 2 addressed creative and alternative methodologies to the study of ‘modern slavery’, panel 3 incorporated historical and contemporary legal analysis of ‘modern slavery’, panel 4 looked at the institutional and corporate responses to ‘modern slavery’ and the final panel examined colonial and theoretical perspectives on ‘modern slavery’. We were happy to be able to deliver our vision of an interdisciplinary conference.

We were honoured to welcome Professor Julia O’Connell Davidson (University of Bristol), whose research has spearheaded the critical analysis of contemporary approaches to modern slavery and human trafficking, as one of our keynote speakers. Entitled ‘Learning from Histories of Marronage and Fugitivity’, within which she interrogated the mainstreaming of ‘modern slavery’ she advocated switching the point of comparison to histories of enslaved peoples’ efforts to extricate themselves from slavery and move closer to freedom. She highlighted the perspective of Douglass that the rights of locomotion/freedom of movement is a cornerstone of the human condition and essential to reform and progress. The second keynote was provided by Professor Jean Allain (Monash University & Wilberforce Institute) whose intricate analysis of the international laws of slavery shaped my own interest in the legal history of slavery.

The success of the conference was down to the great working relationship of the organisers, and made possible through support from the former Director of the Institute Professor John Oldfield who agreed to host the event,  and through securing external funding from the Modern Law Review and the Society of Legal Scholars. Moreover, I am indebted to my colleagues and our doctoral students who helped in the run up to and on the day of the conference. Thank you.

So what happens next? The point of this post is to look back and reflect upon the conference and provide an update of the project as it has moved on since the conclusion of the conference in 2019. I am in the process of collating an edited collection, which features some of the conference papers and incorporates chapters from invited academics, with the aim of creating an edited volume that addresses modern slavery through an interdisciplinary lens, grounded in contextualised studies from around the globe. The contributors are in the process of writing their draft chapters, and I am hopeful that the produced collection will surpass my expectations in a way that mirrors the success of the conference.