On the day the UN sets aside for observance of the International Abolition of Slavery, Professor Trevor Burnard, Director of the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull, talks about the history of abolition, the numbers of people currently in forced labour, and the need to continue to combat slavery in the UK and around the globe.
The 2nd of December is an auspicious date for it commemorates an important evolution in human history, the acknowledgement that everywhere in the world slavery is illegal. Making slavery illegal globally came very late. Until the late eighteenth century, hardly anyone questioned that slavery was an important, if occasionally distasteful, institution that generally brought important people wealth and influence and often, as in the eighteenth century British and French empires, was a source of national prosperity.
France was the first nation to abolish slavery, in 1794, at the height of the French and Haitian Revolutions and then reintroduced it under Napoleon in 1802, meaning that its final abolition was only in 1848. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, a hard-fought battle led by both White abolitionists like William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson and Black freedom fighters, such as Olaudah Equiano.
It was a matter of great pride for Britons then and often still that Britain led the way in abolishing the slave trade but it took another generation, until 1838, until slavery was formally abolished in the British Empire and even then slavery continued to exist in British possessions in Africa, South Asia and New Zealand. Nevertheless, as has become clear from protests, especially in the Caribbean, surrounding royal visits and around the relationship of Caribbean nations with Britain, the triumph of emancipation in 1838 obscures the fact that Britain did not give any compensation to emancipated ex-slaves while providing considerable financial help to the people who had owned enslaved people continues to rankle. Demands for reparation for the harm done to people during slavery are increasingly frequent and are enhanced by growing knowledge of just how much British wealth was based upon the labour of African-descended enslaved people, growing sugar and other tropical crops in atrocious conditions.
The reparations movement, gaining momentum in the Caribbean, Africa and elsewhere, and which connects to increasing claims about considering colonialism and the damages of climate change and how they affect the Global South, makes one realise that the historical legacies of slavery remain an important social and political concern. And these political controversies connect us to the reality that slavery, however we define it, whether as coerced labour or human trafficking or sexual exploitation continues to be a growing modern problem.
The number of people in forms of forced labour that amount to slavery is greater now than the numbers who were in slavery when European and American nations abolished slavery in the nineteenth century. It is more also than when nations in Africa and the Middle East formally abolished slavery in the last third of the twentieth century. Fortunately, the number of slaves in the world population of 2022, at around 0.7 percent, is lower than at the height of slavery, around 1800, when perhaps 5 percent of the world population was enslaved. But the numbers of people in forms of enslavement today remain huge and are increasing.
Britain and a few other places have instituted a Modern Slavery Act to try and combat this scourge, with 12,717 potential victims of modern slavery identified in Britain in 2021. The largest number of people identified as subject to slavery in Britain are British nationals, showing that as in the eighteenth century, slavery is not something happening elsewhere but is happening here as well. On this day of commemoration of something that was a signal advance in human history – the abolition of slavery and its transformation into being everywhere a crime – we need to remember just how much work we need to do to make slavery not just illegal but truly a thing of the past.
A significant amount of historiographic attention has been devoted to the ways in which European imperialism and colonialism fundamentally and irrevocably transformed the global environment. The suite of ideas and practices which typified colonial attitudes toward physical landscape, flora, fauna, and ecological processes continue to influence our behaviour in the twenty-first century. This reality has led ecofeminist scholars Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing to propose a qualification for the increasingly widespread concept of an ‘Anthropocene epoch’ defined by the radical changes which human societies have wrought on the natural world. They posit instead that we are currently living in the ‘Plantationocene epoch’: an era defined by the consequences of an economic system which transported plants, microbes, animals and people all around the globe and transformed to unrecognisability entire ecosystems throughout the Americas, Asia and Africa.
It remains the case, though, that there have so far been few academic inquiries into the environmental history of the most infamous sites of plantation agriculture: the slave societies of the Caribbean and mainland North and South America between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Two landmark works published earlier this year seek to redress the lack of overarching studies on the environmental history of plantation slavery and the regions where it flourished. David Silkenat’s Scars on the Land: An Environmental History of Slavery in the American South (Oxford, 2022) describes how ‘slavery more than nature’ created the Southern United States as a discrete ecological zone through the transformations wrought by flood, deforestation and a host of other environmental catastrophes. In Sea and Land: An Environmental History of the Caribbean(Oxford, 2022), Philip D. Morgan, J.R. McNeill, Matthew Mulcahy and Stuart B. Schwartz synthesise decades of research to create a holistic overview of the Caribbean environment before, during and after slavery. We can only hope that these will be looked back upon as the first of many works which represent an environmental turn in the history of Atlantic slavery.
Water sits at the root of almost all environmental processes, and has therefore been a key factor in historical development, though it is often difficult to disentangle and isolate its impact in historical sources. However, despite the often-unacknowledged role of water in histories detailing the development of the transatlantic slave trade, the prevalence and importance of water in the establishment and maintenance of the trade, and its direct impact on those both willingly and forcibly involved in the trade, cannot be overstated. Water not only ensured survival (through its consumption), but facilitated the triangular trade and economic prosperity for its benefactors. Water played a fundamental role in all aspects of enslaved people’s lives, and in the transatlantic slave trade as a whole. From the unwilling conveyance of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas, known as the Middle Passage, to the success of plantation societies, where water was crucial for crops such as sugar, to the transportation of goods from the Americas to Europe, water facilitated the economic growth and success of maritime ports on both sides of the Atlantic.
Alexander Gordon, ‘Plan of the Government Lands in the Colony of Demerara’, 1823 (The National Archives, Kew, MR 1/941)
From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century West Africa was known as the ‘White Man’s Grave’ due to high mortality rates amongst Europeans. Swampy, marshland areas in West Africa provided ideal conditions for both the mosquito Aedes aegypti and the protozoan parasite Plasmodium falciparum – twin vectors of yellow fever and malaria, two of the largest culprits of European fatalities in the transatlantic slave trade – to thrive. This fear of disease motivated Europeans to establish plantations in the Americas, and to transport enslaved Africans across the Atlantic to work on these plantations. Africans’ seeming ability to withstand diseases which proved fatal to Europeans – due to previous infection during childhood, thus granting resistance, in the case of malaria, and life-long immunity from yellow fever, unbeknownst to Europeans at the time – was used as a justification for their enslavement.
Drought and rates of rainfall in Africa could exert a huge influence on the number of Africans enslaved and transported across the Atlantic. Drought often led to greater interethnic conflict and violence, contributing to higher rates of African enslavement and increased numbers of slaves being exported. Furthermore, drought, rainfall and crop success in Atlantic Africa were key factors in the timing of slaving voyages and could affect the mortality rate of captives transported across the ocean.
Simultaneously, water performed a crucial role on land by dictating the location of plantations and the colonies in which they existed, their prosperity or failure, and the health of those kept in bondage within them. Sugarcane, the premier crop of the British Caribbean, requires vast quantities of water to ensure its survival and the presence of so much water on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean provided an ideal environment for disease vectors like mosquitoes (carriers of malaria and yellow fever), as well as waterborne pathogens such as dysentery.
Not only did water facilitate the transatlantic slave trade, and impact on the daily lives and lived experiences of those in the trade, it also shaped the development of green-blue areas (land lying within 100km of the coast) on both sides of the Atlantic. From the ports where slaves were departed from, to maritime cities such as Liverpool and Bristol water allowed a number of actors to benefit from the commerce in goods and people through jobs, investment, profit and the consumption of goods produced in the trade. The impact is visible on the landscapes of these places from barracoons where slaves were held, to hospital stations or lazarettos where enslaved people were treated, to the infrastructure and architecture of port cities in Britain where the wealth and prosperity gained from the trade was spent.
Advertisment in the South Carolina Gazette, 16 August 1773 (courtesy of Charleston County Public Library)
Laura’s research focuses upon the prevalence, and impact, of disease in the transatlantic slave trade. From the inception of that trade, disease threatened the health and well-being of everyone involved, resulting in high mortality rates amongst enslaved Africans and Europeans alike, during both the legal and illegal periods of the trade. Laura’s work explores the transmission of disease in green-blue spaces such as barracoons, slave factories and lazarettos, and emphasizes the significance of water in the transmission of diseases such as yellow fever, malaria and dysentery. Additionally, her work explores how the spread of disease was prevented, or curtailed, through methods such as the white-washing of vessels, and through the utilization of maritime quarantines. Her work will also explore the lived experience of disease, particularly of the enslaved, and how disease was treated by medical practitioners, focusing on green-blue spaces such as ports areas, and on the slave voyages of the Middle Passage. Her research hopes to add to the existing historiography on the production and dissemination of medical knowledge as a result of the transatlantic slave trade. She seeks to shed new light on how Indigenous and enslaved Africans’ botanical and medicinal knowledge contributed to developments in European medical understanding in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Fred’s research explores the environmental history of slavery and its legacies in one part of the plantation Americas: the colony of British Guiana (present-day Guyana). His work emphasises the role played by both fresh and salt water in the creation of a plantation society, the transformation of the natural environment, and the survival and resistance of enslaved people and indentured labour migrants in the nineteenth century. Standing apart from Britain’s other Caribbean colonies geographically, culturally and ecologically, British Guiana represents an important and under-studied place. His research hopes to reveal how water influenced almost every facet of life in British Guiana, and was a space and substance contested by the people kept in bondage there, both before and after the formal abolition of slavery. A plantation system novel in the history of the British Empire shaped, and was shaped by, the volatile natural hydrology of the region, and the watery environment conditioned a particularly brutal labour regime even by the standards of the nineteenth-century Caribbean. Fred shows how enslaved people and their descendants found themselves at the sharp end of ecological crises from drought (which sharply increased the burden of labour without any form of concession or increased provision from white colonists) to flood (to which enslaved and free African-Guianese communities were always at most acute risk). Enslaved people of African descent and indentured labourers from all over the world frequently found themselves living at the margins of survival, but a few were able to deploy their skill as aquatic labourers to find ways of subverting the plantation system or escaping it altogether.
Laura and Fred will both be presenting their research as part of the inaugural Centre for Water Cultures Conference on 7 December 2022. Held on the University of Hull campus, the conference, which is open to the public, will include a range of papers from different disciplinary backgrounds demonstrating the myriad ways in which water has influenced human societies and cultures from the earliest times to the present day.
In this blog, commissioned by the Folger Shakespeare Library earlier this year, and reworked for this platform, Dr Judith Spicksley argues that Shakespeare’s use of the term ‘slavery’ can tell us a great deal about what the term meant at the turn of the seventeenth century, and what we can take from it today.
During my virtual fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library last year, I examined the growth of the language of slavery in early modern England, and more specifically, the use of that language in the works of William Shakespeare. The research forms part of my broader reassessment of the use of the terms ‘slave’ and ‘slavery’ by modern historians to describe institutions of subjection in the past. In searching through a concordance of Shakespeare’s plays and poems I found 163 references to ‘slave’ and 3 to ‘bondslave’, but there were only 5 occasions in all of his works in which he used the term ‘slavery’, even though four of his plays were set in Ancient Rome.
Much of this can be explained by the fact that ‘slavery’ was a relatively new term. Derived from the medieval Latin term sclavus, the English term ‘slave’ has been around since the end of the thirteenth century, when it was used to describe a captive in the absolute power of his or her captor. Already by then it was associated with the misuse or abuse of power. But the first examples of the term ‘slavery’ are not found until much later – they only emerge in the sixteenth century. The earliest example I have found so far is not a literal usage either, but a figurative one, dating to 1542 in a pamphlet by the Protestant reformer, Thomas Becon (A comfortable epistle too Goddes faythfull people in Englande). There is no sense at this point that he is talking about the institution of slavery as currently understood. In extending the root ‘slave’ by adding the ‘ery’ suffix Becon was creating a term that referred to the condition in which the ‘slave’ existed, not his status as chattel, and this condition was clearly ignominious. Becon’s aim was to demonstrate the absolute power of the Lord, who could transform the various negative conditions of people’s lives into their positive counterparts – sorrow into joy, darkness into light, death into life, and ‘slavery’ into honour.
In his 1551 translation of Thomas More’s Utopia (A fruteful and pleasant worke of the beste state of a publyque weale and of the newe yle called Utopia) Ralphe Robinson drew on the same portrayal of ‘slavery’ as a base condition, linking it in this case to menial forms of labour. For Robinson, ‘slavery’ represented a type of noxious and miserable work – ‘all vyle seruice all slauerie and drudgerye, with all laboursome toyle and busines’ – fit only for those at the lowest social level.
But the term ‘slavery’ really came into its own as a critique of abusive or illegitimate forms of power. Europe underwent a major fracturing of religious and political authority in the early modern period, so it’s perhaps not surprising to find that the language of slavery provided the perfect vehicle for the airing of religious and political grievances, sometimes brought together in one text. If we look, for example, at Robert Crowley’s The Way to Wealth Wherein is Plainly Taught a most Present Remedy for Sedicion (1550), we can see that the author turned to ‘slavery’ to criticise the actions of rack-renting landlords who were oppressing their tenants. But as a good Puritan, the connection between ‘slavery’ and popery was never far from his mind. He argued strenuously that by not addressing this issue of tyrannical landlords at home English men would risk being ‘brought to the lyke slauery that the french men are in’.
If we now turn to the five contexts in which ‘slavery’ appears in Shakespeare’s works, we can see that the Bard also introduced the term when he was intent on providing a critique of power.
We perhaps get closest to the understanding of slavery as we imagine it in Othello, in which the eponymous hero is taken captive by the ‘insolent foe’ and sold into ‘slavery’ (Othello I. iii). As the sale of people as commodities was condemned in the Old and New Testaments, I take this use of ‘insolent’ to indicate that the foe was contemptuous of rightful authority, making the seizure arbitrary and unjust (Amos 3:6; Revelation 18:13). Moreover, the context draws on a major element in the semantic framing of the ‘slave’ in the early modern period – as a commodity that was to be bought and sold. John Hawkins is on record as having seized Africans for no other reason than to sell them for profit in the Americas, and by this time details of his activities were already available in print.
A second case of ‘slavery’ that also has biblical signposts appears in TheTempest. Here it is the absolute power wielded by the sorcerer Prospero that is under discussion. The shipwrecked Ferdinand, ordered by Prospero to pile up logs, describes the task as his ‘wooden slavery’, a classic reference to the fate of the Gibeonites, whose punishment involved performing the lowliest of tasks as ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ in perpetuity (Tempest, III. i; Joshua 9).
The other three uses are all figurative examples, reflecting the huge conceptual power that ‘slavery’ had come to wield. In Henry VI Part II, Jack Cade uses the metaphor of ‘slavery’ to highlight the oppression of peasants living under the tyranny of a self-serving nobility (Henry VI, Part II, IV. Viii). The term also appears in Henry VIII – thought to have been a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher – in Act II, scene 2 (a section believed to have been written by Shakespeare). Here the author employed the metaphor, in one of its very popular manifestations, in relation to subjection to a Catholic ruler – the Duke of Suffolk hopes to be freed from his ‘slavery’ to the French king. The final appearance of the term is in Sonnet 133, where the themes are those of a painful and tortuous relationship, in which the speaker is berating the actions of a cruel lover. It is love itself that is here the absolute and arbitrary master of the lover’s fate.
So why is understanding Shakespeare’s use of the term ‘slavery’ important? First it means we have to think again about the development of language – terms have their own histories that change over time. In Shakespeare’s day ‘slavery’ was a social condition rather than a social status; it was only later that the term came to represent the institution of chattelhood we recognise today.
Nevertheless the elements that have become embedded in the institution following abolition – coercion, absolute subjection and arbitrary power – were all prefigured in Shakespeare’s use of the term. What this suggests is something fundamental for the historiography of the institution of slavery as we know it – it has not been around for thousands of years. ‘Slavery’, emerging in the sixteenth century as a condition of drudgery, and a measure of absolute and arbitrary power, is less than five hundred years old.
On Thursday March 31 we will welcome four speakers to talk about Indigenous slavery in the Atlantic world. The presenters are Sandi Brewster-Walker, Executive Director and Government Affairs Officer for the Montaukett Indian Nation; Linford D. Fisher, Associate Professor at Brown University; Rebecca Goetz, Associate Professor at New York University; and Brooke Newman, Associate Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. The webinar will consider a number of aspects of Indigenous enslavement in the Atlantic world, from a digital database project known as the North Fork People of Color, 1641-1827, to Indigenous freedom suits, to the unfree labor of Indigenous children, and the case of ‘Polly Indian’, who attempted to obtain freedom for both herself and her enslaved daughters on the basis of Native maternal ancestry.
The issue of Indigenous slavery was overshadowed in Atlantic scholarship for many years by its African counterpart. But such slavery was ubiquitous in the Americas and in the Atlantic World. For native people, the risk of enslavement was constant, and all the major European colonial powers played a role in this enslavement. And while Indigenous slavery varied in terms of its forms and its impact, it not only shaped the colonial world, but continues to affect people in the present.
Our speakers have provided a title and abstract below, but a brief introduction to them, their individual interests, and the theme of their talk is given here. Sandi Brewster-Walker, a descendant of the Montaukett Indians, as well as their Executive Director and Government Affairs Officer, has been writing poetry, fiction, and non-fiction works since her teenage years; she published her first book in 2007. She will talk about a digital database project known as the North Fork People of Color, 1641-1827, that brings together datasets relating to the first workforce of the East End of Long Island.
Professor Linford D. Fisher’s research and teaching relate primarily to the cultural and religious history of colonial America and the Atlantic world, including Native Americans, religion, material culture, and Indian and African slavery and servitude. In this talk he will present a series of Indigenous freedom suits in British Honduras Belize, in the 1810s and 1820s.
Professor Rebecca Goetz’s areas of interest include the histories of religion, race and slavery, and colonialism and empire in the Atlantic World and Indigenous North America. In this webinar she offers another view of enslaved Native People in the archive, focusing down on Indigenous testimonies from the 1570s.
Finally Professor Brooke Newman is a historian of early modern Britain and the British Atlantic, with special interests in the history of slavery, the abolition movement, and the British royal family. She will consider issues of gender, slavery, and kinship in the British Caribbean as revealed in a series of colonial commissions designed to gather information on the administration of justice in Britain’s West Indian territories, and increase Crown oversight of colonial law.
Title: Unfree Labor of Indigenous Children on Long Island
Abstract: North Fork People of Color, 1641-1827 is a digital database project bringing together datasets, which humanize the enslaved, indentured, freed, and free people that became the first workforce of the East End of Long Island. This presentation will discuss the journey and case of the eight-year-old indigenous girl Sarah, the daughter of Dorkas, both born free. Sarah was sold in 1689 by James Pearsall of Southold to John Parker, of Southampton to become his property for life. In 1711, Sarah petitioned the Colonial Governor of New York, Robert Hunter.
Title: Resisting Race Shifting in Indigenous Freedom Suits
Abstract: All too often in colonial archives, colonists and administrators minimized or obscured the identity of Indigenous people in an effort to justify their enslavement. Indigenous people, when they were aware of it, resisted this race shifting. This presentation will draw on a few examples, including especially a series of Indigenous freedom suits in British Honduras Belize, in the 1810s and 1820s.
Presenter: Rebecca Goetz, Associate Professor, New York Universityrag11@nyu.edu
Title: Enslaved Native People in the Archive
Abstract: The Archivo General de Indias, Spain’s archive of its colonial activities, was formed ostensibly to refute the “Black Legend” of Spanish cruelty towards Indigenous people. Yet contained within it are the testimonies of enslaved Native people, which often describe in excruciating detail the violence of Spanish slaving and slaveholding. This short discussion of Indigenous testimonies from the 1570s examines possible methodological approaches to slavery and this archive.
Presenter: Brooke Newman, Associate Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University email@example.com
Title: ‘My Mother was an Indian’: Gender, Slavery, and Kinship in the British Caribbean
Abstract: Beginning in the 1820s, the British imperial government launched a series of colonial commissions of inquiry to gather information on the administration of justice in Britain’s West Indian territories and to increase Crown oversight over colonial law. The commissioners also rendered judgement on the contested legal status of imperial subjects—including enslaved people. This brief discussion focuses on the case of an enslaved woman in Tobago named Polly, also known as “Polly Indian,” who attempted to obtain freedom for both herself and her enslaved daughters on the basis of Native maternal ancestry. Polly’s case offers insight not only into the tactics adopted by enslaved men and women to negotiate for freedom during an era of imperial intervention in the legislative process of self-governing slave colonies but also the extent to which enslavers profited from the confusion surrounding Indian identity.
My PhD research focuses on the relationship between plantation slavery, indentured labour and water – both salt and fresh – in nineteenth-century British Guiana. It is a joint project between the Wilberforce Institute and the Centre for Water Cultures at the University of Hull’s Energy and Environment Institute, a new doctoral programme which seeks to shed light on the vital relationships between human communities and water both throughout history and in the present day.
Since embarking on my research in September 2021, I have found that water permeates many different kinds of historical source but rarely becomes their central subject. Its trace must often be found in the margins of records outwardly concerned with something different, and it frequently acts as a kind of foundation that conditions the actions and relationships of the people whose lives I am studying. There are two reasons why nineteenth-century British Guiana offers such a fertile ground for this sort of analysis: its great abundance of water, and its unusually rich set of archival records. Central to this documentation is the cache of records from the Office of the Fiscal, an institution founded by the initial Dutch colonists which persisted under British rule after the three colonies which comprised British Guiana – Demerara, Berbice and Essequibo – were captured in 1796.
The Fiscal was the second-ranking official in the colony after the lieutenant-governor, and heard the complaints free and enslaved inhabitants of the colony brought against one another in a court convened for the purpose in the capital. A few complaints of serious crimes like robbery or murder were brought by white planters and managers, but the overwhelming majority were civil complaints brought by the enslaved against their owners and overseers. These records are not unmediated: the speech of the enslaved was clearly edited by the clerk who transcribed it, in order to fit a preconceived template of appropriate register for the courtroom setting. Many cases involved slaves who primarily communicated using Dutch Creole, in which case a court-appointed translator further influenced the import of their words. Such manipulations of oral evidence were conducted in real time and most changes appear aimed at increasing legibility. Some entries seem hurried, with grammatical inconsistencies suggesting that the clerk was struggling to keep up with the pace of the exchange taking place before him. Meaning was doubtless somewhat altered by such refraction, but the intended message of the enslaved speaker still shines through in most cases. Most importantly for the nature of my research, these records are filled with incidental information about the lives of complainants and witnesses which allow us access to aspects of everyday life in nineteenth-century British Guiana which were not deemed consequential enough to record elsewhere.
An especially revealing example of this can be found through reading two Fiscal cases from Berbice in the autumn of 1824. Guyana, which became independent from Britain in 1966, experiences a second dry season in between its two annual wet seasons (the first stretching from May to August and the second from December to January), and in October and November 1824 the lack of rainfall brought on a drought. The labour regime imposed by managers and drivers upon the enslaved was backbreaking and violent in ideal climatic conditions, and the additional burden required to shepherd the sugar canes through the drought fell entirely upon the shoulders of the enslaved. Managers would brook no excuse for a reduction in output, as their usually distant absentee employers were not shy of replacing overseers they felt were not maximising the ‘efficiency’ of their estates. In turn, enslaved drivers who were responsible for maintaining the punishing pace of work risked losing their positions if the manager felt that they were no longer extracting the maximum value of labour from other enslaved people. This incentivised an intensification of the already brutal workload and system of punishments.
On 20 October 1824, a deputation of ten enslaved people from Prospect plantation, whose names were Vaness, Arance, Rodger, Secunda, Cook, Tambour, Titus, Frederick, Joe and Martin, showed the Fiscal’s investigators around the estate and complained of the harsh new workload imposed over the preceding few weeks. Their main grievance was that, in addition to novel tasks imposed by the estate’s new owners to combat the drought such as deepening irrigation trenches to draw in more water and spending more time watering the young cane due to be harvested in the spring, they were still expected to work until nearly midnight carrying timber from the canalside to the engine house to feed the furnaces. The estate manager, one J. Paterson, responded by claiming that the complainants were particularly resentful because ‘some are punt men and others fire men’, meaning slaves with respective responsibility for plying the rivers and canals in barges or maintaining the furnaces for which the timber was destined. In an all-too-common outcome the Fiscal sided with the testimony of the manager and declared sanctimoniously that the new tasks were a ‘necessity … without which the manufactory of sugar cannot be effected’; evidently he gave no thought at all to the fact that the material welfare of the enslaved people forced to cultivate the sugar may also be important to the process (The National Archives, CO 116/140, ii, ff. 16-29).
Just over two weeks later, on Friday, 5 November 1824 Piet, an enslaved carpenter on Vrouw Johanna coffee plantation, appeared before the Fiscal in New Amsterdam to protest an unfair flogging for allegedly having incompetently repaired the water mill on the estate. The mill would not grind the recently-harvested coffee, and Piet was punished for this in spite of his protestations that the trenches for feeding water toward the mill were completely dry. When questioned about this, the ‘part proprietor’ of the plantation, C. Favre, claimed that there was plentiful water, and that Piet was lying. Backed up by the driver who depended on him for his continued higher status, Favre did not have to try very hard to convince the Fiscal of his version of events (The National Archives, CO 116/140, ii, ff. 31-33).
As is often the case with complaints brought before British Guiana’s fiscals, both matters were dismissed out of hand. While the Fiscal’s relationship with the plantocracy was sometimes tense – any planter whose slave complained was automatically fined, and until 1816 the Fiscal was entitled to keep a proportion – the Fiscal was nonetheless a central part of the white supremacist regime. Like many of his forerunners and successors Berbice’s incumbent fiscal since 1819, M.S. Bennett, owned several estates and shared the prejudices of his peers. Complaints were declared to be spurious far more often than they were upheld, and the Fiscal regularly sentenced complainants to further brutal punishments. The man identified by the Prospect manager as the ringleader, Vaness, received 45 lashes for insubordination, while Piet the carpenter was sentenced to 37.
The examples I have described reveal the ways in which ecological disturbance of the plantation regime could exacerbate existing tensions. After all, unfair punishment and overwork, along with insufficient food, are some of the most frequent subjects of court proceedings in the colony and drought, combined with the vicious incentive structures created by the plantation economy, meant that the lives of the enslaved materially worsened in all three areas. The drought is not explicitly mentioned in either of these cases, and only passingly alluded to in a third which mentions ‘the great scarcity of grass owing to the heavy dry season’ (The National Archives, CO 116/140, ii, f. 51). Instead, it is submerged out of sight. It is only by reading these sources ‘below the waterline’ that the power of water to motivate so many diverse aspects of life in nineteenth-century British Guiana becomes clear.
As his new book Principles and Agents: The British Slave Trade and Its Abolition is published, Professor David Richardson considers the power of ordinary people to effect social change.
In an essay published in 1946, the anti-imperialist George Orwell explained why he wrote. Orwell recognised egoism – the need ‘to be talked about’ or even ‘to be remembered after death’ – as a motivator of writing. He also claimed to have ‘a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts’, going on to point to historical impulse and political purpose as driving his literary endeavours. The impulse included a desire to uncover ‘true facts and store them up for the use of posterity’; the purpose, an ambition ‘to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after’ (George Orwell, Animal Farm and Selected Essays (Wordsworth Classics, Ware, Hertfordshire, 2021), 203, 205-6).
Published a year after Animal Farm, his masterful attack on the wartime British ally Stalin who he saw as betraying the Russian Revolution, Orwell’s essay provided a philosophical rationale for other of his works, notably Nineteen Eighty-Four, published a year before his death in 1950 and which constituted a satire on the evils of totalitarianism and unrestrained power. But his 1946 essay is relevant to writings on other historical questions concerning the use and abuse of such power, including British imperialism, to which Orwell often alluded, and, more specifically, the story of British abolitionism and transatlantic slavery, about which he appears to have written very little, if anything, yet from which his ancestors seemingly profited (Wikipedia.org). Interestingly, re-interpretations of abolitionism from Marxist or pseudo-Marxist perspectives began to appear at the time that Orwell was writing. They identified abolitionist impulses with wider revolutionary events in America, Britain, France, and Haiti, portraying them as appropriated or betrayed by motives other than the humanitarianism that informed earlier assessments of British slave trade abolition in 1807. In such reformulations, policy decisions relating to British slaving and ultimately Caribbean slavery were driven by calculation of British economic self-interest, not morality, as the nation industrialised. Put another way, British antislavery was integral to a capitalist-driven ideological shift from mercantilism to laisser-faire during the Industrial Revolution.
Political interventions to end the slave trade and slavery were, however, not costless. In the British case, as I show in my book Principles and Agents: The British Slave Trade and its Abolition (Yale University Press, New Haven CT, 2022), the campaign against the slave trade occurred as British slaving was at its height and when its domination of the Atlantic slave trade was at its peak. The campaign lasted twenty years from 1787 to 1807. Driven primarily by moral values, it was resisted by powerful and well represented pro-slavery interests in Parliament that highlighted slavery’s net contribution to the British economy. Such claims find validation in some recent historical research (Klas Ronnback, ‘On the Economic Importance of the Slave Plantation Complex to the British Economy in the Eighteenth Century: A Value-Added Approach’, Journal of Global History, 13, no 3 (2018), 309-27; Ronnback, ‘Governance, Value-Added and Rents in Plantation Slavery-Based Value-Chains’, Slavery & Abolition, 42, no 1 (2021), 130-50). Unsurprisingly, dire economic consequences were predicted for Britain and its slave colonies should the longstanding and legally sanctioned trade in enslaved Africans be abolished. In the end it was not economics but national security issues in the middle of a titanic power struggle with Napoleonic France, and that included the security of the West Indian slave colonies following the slave-led Haitian revolution of 1791-1804, that accounted for the passage of the slave trade abolition act of 1807. The timing of that act owed more to the geopolitics of war and to fears of slave rebellion than the advancement of capitalist interests.
As my book shows, the humanitarian concerns that first motivated British abolitionism from the 1780s had long roots, developing in parallel with growth of British slaving activity from the 1640s onward. They became enmeshed, in turn, in continuing debates about the nature and political ramifications of Britain’s emerging American empire. The issues were aired in scientific, religious, and philosophical writings of the later seventeenth century. And they evolved in intellectual content, as well as in social reach and intensity, in the century before the age of revolutions that began with the War of American Independence in 1776-1783. The process embodied for some a profound disquiet, even anger, at the nation’s involvement in enslaving Africans as fellow humans in pursuit of imperial goals. For a nation imbued with a sense of its own people’s personal freedom as well as emergent notions of empathy or benevolence, trafficking enslaved Africans for economic gain became an unpleasant, and for increasing numbers, unacceptable, facet of British empire building. Such ideas surfaced in both imaginative literature and the press as well as in religious tracts and philosophical treatises, some of which professed incompatibilities between human trafficking and slavery and notions of human progress and civilised society. Underneath the rising scale of British slaving activity therefore there existed simmering ideological tensions at home over it. These have been largely neglected or, when mentioned, usually seen as of marginal importance before the 1780s.
Those tensions, however, became politicised in the 1770s during the deepening crisis between Britain and its mainland North American colonies. They prompted David Hartley, MP for Kingston upon Hull, to propose a motion in the House of Commons in 1776 condemning the slave trade on grounds of its inhumanity. That was thirteen years before the Hull-born William Wilberforce, MP for Yorkshire and designated parliamentary leader of the formal anti-slave trade campaign, addressed the House on the issue in May 1789. Wilberforce’s speech, eulogised by Melvyn Bragg (Twelve Books that Changed the World (Sceptre, 2007)), coincided with a huge eruption of extra-parliamentary outrage against the trade in 1787-1792 that forced Parliament first seriously to address and then ultimately to resolve the domestic ideological conflict surrounding it. If, as noted, security issues dictated the timing of the 1807 abolition act, it was publicly articulated humanitarian concerns over British slaving that inspired, underwrote and drove the anti-slave trade campaign that provoked parliamentary action.
As a writer and journalist, George Orwell would doubtless have admired the many contributions of eighteenth-century British imaginative literature and newspapers that encouraged people to campaign openly for ‘progressive’ social change such as slave trade abolition in early industrialising Britain. That campaign was a prime example of an emergent mass politics in Britain during the early years of industrialisation and the rapid urbanisation of British society to which it gave rise. It involved a mobilisation of public opinion on an unprecedented scale and one unmatched by any other anti-slave trade movement in history. The movement continued beyond 1807 in looking to suppress slaving activities by other nations. Support for both came from towns and the countryside; it transcended class, gender, religious affiliation, and race. And, while leadership of the movement in Parliament was ultimately critical in delivering formal abolition in 1807, it was the nationwide scale of petitioning against the trade in 1787-1792 and the maintenance of that public support for abolition thereafter that put outlawing the slave trade on the national political agenda and ensured that it remained there even as Britain became embroiled in war with revolutionary and later Napoleonic France in 1793-1815. That support was acknowledged a month before the abolition bill passed in March 1807 when a Jamaican sugar planter resident in Ayrshire, Scotland, observed that ‘the voice of the Country was very much in favour of this Prohibition’ (Alex Renton, Blood Legacy, Canongate Books Inc., Edinburgh, 2021, p. 208).
Public support for abolition extended far beyond the campaign’s political leaders that most historical studies focus on. It included hundreds of thousands of people, the mobilisation of whose feelings played a decisive part in defeating the Western world’s largest and most resilient slave trafficking regime in its prime. It was a truly remarkable and historic movement, underscoring the power of ordinary people to effect social change. As an advocate of democratic socialism, George Orwell would probably have rejoiced in that. Within it, perhaps, may also be found inspiration, even lessons, for those concerned by and committed to overcoming today’s unpleasant facts of life such as contemporary slavery, racial injustice, and the climate emergency.
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.
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.
The University of Hull is in a unique position to consider the effects of climate change as a driver of modern slavery, having two institutes dedicated to the study of these distinct but interconnected topics. On 11 October 2021 the Wilberforce Institute hosted a virtual conference to formulate an holistic approach to understanding this nexus. The event was supported by Anti-Slavery International and co-organised by Chris O’Connell of Dublin City University. Professor Trevor Burnard, the Wilberforce Institute’s director, welcomed the conference as ‘the start of several conversations about climate change and modern slavery’. Hull’s Energy and Environment Institute, a world-leader in researching sustainable solutions to climate change, was also represented at the event by its director, Dan Parsons. Professor Parsons noted how the UK in particular has a ‘moral responsibility to act’, given that as a country it has the fourth largest total historical cumulative CO2 emissions, and that much of the nation’s wealth has been built on a combination of slavery and high-emitting industrial practices.
Throughout the day, academics, practitioners and people with lived experiences of environmental change and slavery came together to share their research, practical solutions, and hopes for the future. Key-note speaker, the Bolivian Indigenous rights leader Wilma Mendoza Miro, described how various exploitative and ecologically damaging practices are encroaching on Indigenous lands. She concluded that a new approach to policy-making is urgently needed – one which puts human life, not wealth-creation, at the centre of decision-making.
Jasmine O’Connor OBE, the CEO of Anti-Slavery International, described how her organisation recognises the potential of climate change ‘to drive slavery on an unimaginable scale’. Anti-Slavery International is pushing for a just and fair transition to a carbon neutral world, which puts decent jobs at the heart of the transition.
Other participants described various exploitative labour contexts around the world, from highly polluting brick kilns in South Asia, to fishing off the coast of Ghana, to deforestation in Brazil. The theme of climate-induced migration and its risks came up numerous times. While slavery is often considered a problem of the past, and climate change a threat in the future, both issues are converging in the present day to create an ecological and human disaster.
The conference concluded with participants signing up to a letter directed at the President Delegate of the COP26 climate change meeting in Glasgow, highlighting the relationship between contemporary slavery, environmental destruction and climate change, and calling for a just transition.
The full report of the conference, including summaries of all the presentations and further discussion of the issues at stake, is now available as a free PDF here
On 31st March 2013, the BBC broadcasted a documentary entitled ‘Blues Britannia: Can Blue Men Play the Whites?’, outlining the rise of blues music in late 1950s and early 1960s Britain. Featuring interviews with the likes of the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, Jack Bruce from Cream and Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, the programme provided several reasons as to why the genre became so popular. Britain already had a well-established jazz culture prior to this era and so when the blues was beginning to reach the peak of its popularity, the BBC began to give the genre more airtime. London music shops helped too by stocking blues records in far higher quantities. However, an important factor that this documentary and many other histories of British blues music often overlook is the role of African-American GIs in introducing many Britons to the genre during and after the Second World War.
The reception of the wider British population towards African-American GIs was on the whole rather more welcoming and facilitated a number of important cultural exchanges. This included many Britons being introduced to blues music for the first time during the 1940s and 1950s, a phenomenon that would help change the course of British music for the coming decades. As a means of endearing themselves to their hosts, the GIs gave away large numbers of records to local children and would perform the blues to British military personnel while stationed at their bases. Many Britons during the war could listen to blues records and blues-themed programmes via the American Forces Network. This station proved to be an important forum for the genre even after the Second World War had ended, allowing many who were not situated in the vicinity of army bases to become familiarised with this style of music.
Although there is a rich scholarship concerning the impact of the blues on British rock and pop music, the influence of African Americans and in particular GIs is all too often missing from these narratives. The 1950s and 1960s would undoubtedly see Blues music become drastically more popular in Britain, but the earlier cultural exchanges that occurred in Britain during the Second World War sowed the seeds for this later musical trend. At a time when African Americans faced extreme discrimination both at home and abroad, African-American GIs based in Britain can be credited with performing and distributing the music describing their ongoing oppression, as well as influencing countless bands and musicians who remain household names to this very day.
Getting down on one knee has been anything but a threatening gesture. For some examples, it’s used to pay one’s respect, to devote oneself to the Lord in prayer, and to love another human being by asking for their hand in marriage. However, Colin Kaepernick’s and Eric Reid’s decision to Take the Knee on September 1st, 2016, during the American national anthem, was seen as an act of defiance and disrespect, at least that’s how it looked to some of the white population of the United States. For Kaepernick and Reid, this was their way of demonstrating that enough was enough. Why should they stand and salute the flag when it represented a country that continually treated black communities and other minorities as unequal? Since then, a growing variety of sports have become the stage for Black Lives Matter protests involving Taking a Knee, as both have a long history with the struggle for equality and the fight against oppression.
Is Taking a Knee a new way to protest?
The short answer to the above question is no. The Wilberforce Institute has been researching the idea behind Taking a Knee, and what it has uncovered is that while Taking a Knee has been firmly established by 2021 as a way to challenge racism and oppression through George Floyd protests, black individuals have been making the gesture for centuries. Its earliest depiction was in 1787 on a Wedgewood medallion for the abolition cause with the famous words ‘Am I Not A Man and A Brother’. However, this popular abolitionist image is controversial because it was created for a white audience. It shows a supplicant slave in chains with minimal clothing and sanitised of the brutality of slavery, asking white society for the right to be human (Marcus Wood, The Horrible Gift of Freedom, 2010). It was the civil rights era that saw a reclamation of the gesture by black communities as black men and women took a knee in prayer protests and civil disobedience for equality. In the twenty-first century, it is through sports that people of all backgrounds associate Taking a Knee with protesting racism.
Sport as a platform
Since 2016 the question ‘why sports?’ has made its appearance now and then regarding protests taking place in sports settings. The answer to that question can be broken down into several factors. The most obvious one is that sports games congregate the population of the surrounding areas into one spot which means the protest will be seen by a substantial amount of people. Bigger arenas such as the 2020 Olympics are filmed too, and will therefore have the bonus of reaching an even greater audience over a larger radius. Secondly, like any other profession, playing sport is a job and its players are people who wish to create a better working environment with equal opportunities. Scholars Adam Love, Alexander Deeb, and Steven Waller use the National Basketball Association for an example, stating that within the profession people of colour make up 80% of players, but only hold 30% of head coaching positions, 10% of general manager positions, and 6.9% of CEO/President roles.
As outsiders, fans only see that high player percentage, and so they tend to think of sport as removed from ‘everyday concerns of inequality, power, and discrimination’, and the success of athletes of colour as proof that racism is not rampant in the sporting world. Taking a Knee disrupts that view. Thirdly, the reaction the protest receives reflects the attitudes of the area and can therefore prove its point. For example, a football match between Millwall and Derby saw fans boo football players who decided to Take a Knee to protest racism. Lastly, and most significantly, black athletes have been using sports to fight for change for the better part of a century.
Jackie Robinson joined the Montreal Royals, a baseball team, in 1946 and successfully broke the ‘colour line’ of Major League Baseball when appearing on the field for the National League Brooklyn Dodgers from 1947 until 1956. Eroseanna Robinson stayed seated for the American national anthem at the Pan American Games of 1959. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were kicked out of the Olympics in 1968 for their raised fist gesture at the podium, and Wyomia Tyus wore black shorts at the same event to subtly protest, all in the name of highlighting racial injustice. The list continues. Why sport? Because it’s where people give their undivided attention.
Taking a Knee in sport is the next step in a sequence that goes back to slavery. Black men and women Taking a Knee for a cause is not a twenty-first-century idea but has appeared in history at crucially important moments. The idea of the gesture within sports means that it is kept in the front of people’s minds via popular events, expressing that racism does not cease to exist because one cannot see it.
‘Am I Not A Man And A Brother’ Chair, Wilberforce Institute. Photo taken by Chloé Baker.