Wilberforce Institute Webinar: Indigenous Slavery in the Atlantic World

Thursday March 31, 2022

4PM-5.30PM BST

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.

To register for this event, please click here: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/5346536240171086349 After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

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.

Titles and abstracts

Presenter: Sandi Brewster-Walker, Executive Director and Government Affairs Officer, Montaukett Indian Nation montaukett.executive.director@gmail.com

  • 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.

Presenter: Linford D. Fisher, Associate Professor, Brown University
Linford_Fisher@brown.edu
 

  • 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 University rag11@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 bnewman@vcu.edu

  • 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.
American Indian Slave Halter. Eighteenth Century, Great Lakes Region. Colonial Williamsburg Collection, 1996-816. Courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. At https://uncpressblog.com/2012/07/25/excerpt-bonds-of-alliance-by-brett-rushforth/ds1999-49/

Recovering enslaved lives in nineteenth-century British Guiana: reading sources ‘below the waterline’

Frederick Bricknell

PhD Student, Water Cultures Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull                                                        

f.j.bricknell-2021@hull.ac.uk

@fjbricknell

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.

Detail from A Map of Part of Dutch Guyana; Containing the Colonies of Essequebo, Demerary & Berbice, in which are Described all the Lands Granted under the Batavian Government. Surveyed in 1798, and 1802, by Major von Bouchenroeder, with Additions (London: William Faden, 1804). The Atlantic Ocean lies at the top edge of the image, with the River Berbice winding down from the coast in the centre. New Amsterdam, the capital of Berbice where the Fiscal was based, is indicated by a square. Prospect and Vrouw Johanna plantations are respectively indicated by a triangle and a circle.

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).

This wrought-iron Christianburg Waterwheel in Linden, Guyana, was constructed in 1855 to power a sawmill. The waterwheel which powered the coffee mill on Vrouw Johanna plantation would have been smaller and almost certainly constructed from wood (image source: https://tourismguyana.gy/christianburg-waterwheel/)

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.

Facing Unpleasant Facts:  Pondering British Slave Trade Abolition

Professor David Richardson

Emeritus Professor and Former Director of the Wilberforce Institute

P.D.Richardson@hull.ac.uk

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.  

“Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1807,” TPL Virtual Exhibits, accessed January 31, 2022, http://omeka.tplcs.ca/virtual-exhibits/items/show/143.

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.  

Seminar Report: Slavery and Servitude at the University of Leiden, 25-26 November 2021

Frederick Bricknell and Lance Parker

PhD students

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

f.j.bricknell-2021@hull.ac.uk (Twitter @fjbricknell)

l.parker-2021@hull.ac.uk (Twitter @Lj_daley)

On 25 and 26 November 2021, we attended a two-day virtual seminar on slavery and servitude across a range of chronological and geographic contexts, as part of a collaboration between the Wilberforce Institute, Leiden University Slavery Studies Association, and the Bonn University Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies. The seminar was organised and coordinated by Professor Damian Pargas, who was originally to host the participants at the University of Leiden. Sadly, the Netherlands entered a Covid-19 lockdown the week before the seminar was due to commence and the event was moved online. While we were disappointed not to be able to meet the other participants face-to-face, the seminar was nevertheless a highly successful and engaging experience which showcased the diversity and vitality of slavery studies as a discipline.

Leiden’s historic Pieterskerk, where the Puritan founders of the Plymouth Colony worshipped for more than a decade before departing for the New World in 1620. (Image: https://www.visitleiden.nl/en/locations/2974987658/pieterskerk)

The seminar was divided into five panels, each chaired by leading scholars such as Jeff Fynn-Paul, Oran Kennedy, Karwan Fatah-Black, Remco Breuker and the Wilberforce Institute’s own Trevor Burnard. Contributions from PhD candidates discussed patterns of enslavement and dependency in spatial and temporal contexts as diverse as early modern Moldavia and present-day Qatar, medieval Korea and nineteenth-century north Germany. On the first day of the seminar, as part of a panel on the complex relationship between slavery and freedom during the age of Atlantic revolutions, Lance presented some of his research on the Jamaican Maroons of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. His research explores cultural identities within Maroon communities and their relationship with the enslaved and the British within colonial Jamaica. The Maroons at first were runaways, fleeing plantation life, burning plantations and even capturing and freeing some of the enslaved. In response to the growing Maroon populations in Jamaica, the British went to war with them. However, the British were unable to put them down, so instead they made peace with them in 1739, on the condition that the Maroons put down slave rebellions and return runaways. Using both primary records from British officials and oral histories from the Maroons, Lance gets into the voices of the Maroons in order to understand how they saw themselves differently from the enslaved populations in Jamaica.   

This image was created in 1834 and is a depiction of the Anglo-Maroon war that concluded with the peace treaty of 1739. (Image: Illustration by Universal History Achieve, Getty Images, National Geographic.)

On the second morning of the seminar, Fred presented some of his research on the cultural and material roles of water in nineteenth-century Guyanese plantation slavery. Part of a joint project between the Wilberforce Institute and the new Centre for Water Cultures at the University of Hull’s Energy and Environment Institute, Fred’s PhD explores how the natural and man-made hydrology of South America’s Guiana coast influenced the development of slavery in the area and was in turn influenced by the planters’ desire to bend the environment to their own extractive ends. Using a cache of judicial records from the first few decades of the nineteenth century Fred sought to show how enslaved people negotiated their existence in this watery world, adapting to life in constant proximity to rivers, canals, and the Caribbean Sea in surprising and under-studied ways. Case studies included the desire of enslaved watermen on Guyana’s rivers to assert their position of relative privilege wherever they could; a free sailor’s struggle to regain his freedom after being deceived and enslaved; and the secret, dangerous rituals performed to secure the intercession of a powerful water-spirit.

A nineteenth-century map revealing the extent of hydrological infrastructure in the British colony of Demerara on the northern coast of South America. A contemporary observer described each plantation as ‘a complete island within itself, and dammed on all sides’ (Image: Detail from Alexander Gordon, ‘Plan of the Government Lands in the Colony of Demerara’, 1823, The National Archives, MR 1/941)

In spite of the broad range of topics discussed at the conference, spanning the entire globe and over six hundred years of history, several major themes emerged. These included a more complicated relationship between the concepts of ‘freedom’ and ‘slavery’ than the simple binary to which they are often reduced, with an array of subtle distinctions, hierarchies, and sub-categories instead suggesting a continuum of constant negotiation between the two. In addition, consistent areas of focus between the papers included the ‘veil’ cast over the legacy of slavery in superficially non-slaveholding polities like eighteenth-century Hamburg and Bremen, and the role of water in both micro- and macrohistorical perspective as both a conduit for symbolic/religious meanings and the basis of vast continental empires.

We are both extremely grateful for the opportunity to present and receive feedback on our work in such a collegiate environment, and would like to extend our thanks to Damian Pargas for organising the seminar as well as to all of the other participants and panel chairs for enabling such productive discussions.


Conference Report: Climate change is driving modern slavery

Saphia Fleury

PhD student, Falling Through the Net Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

S.Fleury-2019@hull.ac.uk

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

Caption: Melbourne Global climate strike on Sep 20, 2019.


‘This is the first blues I no doubt heard in my life’: The role of African-American GIs in introducing Britain to Blues Music

James Baker

PhD student, Falling Through the Net Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

J.Baker-2019@hull.ac.uk

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 history of blues music is defined by the histories of slavery and African-American oppression. Work songs and religious spirituals sung by enslaved African-Americans were heavily influenced by traditional African harmonies and rhythms. They would use these songs not only to pass the time but also to communicate with one another, as typified by the call and response element of this music. Even after emancipation, many African-Americans in the South were forced to work for little or no pay, and the blues music of this era came to symbolise the plight of those whose lives remained blighted by prejudice, hard labour and incarceration. The Delta blues, originating from the Mississippi Delta, were first recorded in the 1920s and told of the ongoing poverty, discrimination and poor working conditions that continued to affect African Americans at the turn of the century. Although African-American GIs played a vital role in the Second World War, with around 100,000 stationed in the UK alone, institutional and societal racism remained highly prevalent.

Despite being stationed in the United Kingdom, the African-American GIs who served here remained subject to US law, meaning that they continued to experience segregation and racial oppression. African-American GIs were largely consigned to service and supply duties, including having to endure poor living and working conditions while building airfields. When they attempted to raise issues regarding their ongoing racial segregation, they were met with brutality at the hands of their own military police, as was the case at Bamber Bridge in Lancashire during June 1943 and Park Street in Bristol on 15 July 1944[NJE1] . In both instances, one African-American soldier was killed and several more were injured. Legalised prejudice towards African-American GIs continued throughout their time in the United Kingdom and the British government did little to remedy the situation despite being aware of their ongoing mistreatment. The GIs also experienced discrimination during their recreation time with many pubs, such as the Colston Arms in Bristol, enforcing racial segregation between soldiers.

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.

There were also several chance encounters between these GIs and the families of future British blues stars. A young Mick Jagger was first introduced to the music of Muddy Waters after meeting an African-American cook who worked at the same US airbase as his father, a PE teacher. Furthermore, merchant seamen stationed in port cities including Belfast and Newcastle exchanged records with their British colleagues, including the fathers of Van Morrison and the Animals’ Eric Burdon. In addition, many of the blues LPs that were sold in UK record shops in the decades after the end of the war previously belonged to African-American GIs. Many other prominent blues musicians including Manfred Mann’s Paul Jones would buy these albums and take inspiration from them while creating their own music in later years. 

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.


Caption: Steel Guitar, courtesy of Steve Garry at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:JHS_Vintage%C2%AE_AMG1_Acoustic_Resonator_Guitar_-_f-holes.jpg

Taking a Knee: a gesture redefined for protest

Chloe Baker, Research Intern

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull.

chloe.ambaker@gmail.com

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.

‘Anywhere Kids’ – a film for young people by young people

Andrew Smith

Coordinator, Humber Modern Slavery Partnership

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

a.smith9@hull.ac.uk

The Humber Modern Slavery Partnership, based at the Wilberforce Institute, has teamed up with the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner (OPCC) for Humberside and local award-winning production company My Pockets to produce an innovative animation and resource pack for parents, teachers and carers to educate 10–12 year-olds on the dangers of child criminal and sexual exploitation.

The OPCC fund and oversee a local campaign called Not In Our Community that aims to raise awareness of child exploitation, both criminal and sexual. In addition to successful social media campaigns, they also produce resources and stories based on real life events that are used throughout educational and professional settings to raise awareness that helps protect young people.

My Pockets has vast experience in making innovative and heartfelt films, music, digital campaigns, and social art projects. In 2008 the company was invited to Downing Street to meet the Prime Minister in recognition of their work inspiring young people.

‘Anywhere Kids’ uses aspects of real stories from real victims in our area to reveal how young people are groomed, coerced, and trapped into exploitation such as drug dealing, forced criminality and sexual exploitation. The film seeks to open a dialogue with younger children about some of the dangers they may face online or in person and how they might protect themselves from being targeted by exploiters and organised criminal gangs.

The film is narrated by the female character called Aiesha, a young person who lives in our area, and her story is very real. Aiesha wanted to tell her story in a way that would help other children stay safe from sexual exploitation and abuse. From beginning to end this brave and inspirational young lady has been a constant motivation for all who have worked on the film. We are absolutely sure that when other young people hear her story, they will not only be able to relate to Aiesha but they will feel more confident and empowered to stay safe or ask for help.  

The resource pack will help children explore elements of the film by using specially designed question and activity cards that promote critical thinking, group discussions, debate, and even creative activities such as drawing and painting. The resource pack also contains useful information for teachers, parents, and carers such as the definitions of child criminal and sexual exploitation, signs to spot, support available and specific advice on how to work with children who make disclosures or have concerns. The hope is that this resource will empower teachers to be confident in facilitating conversations with their pupils, give children the confidence to speak up, and help parents to understand the risks of this destructive crime.

As coordinator of the Humber Modern Slavery Partnership I recognise that ‘finding new ways of reaching young people in Humberside is a top priority for us and our partners. Seeing first-hand the devastating effects this despicable type of crime has on young people and their families we are determined to bring partners together to take the fight straight to the criminals and organised criminal gangs who are relentless in finding new ways to exploit and harm our young people for their own gain.

‘These criminals destroy our children’s lives for profit, they tear families apart and show little regard for the lasting damage they often do. As this issue becomes increasingly complex, we must work hard to find more suitable and lasting solutions by which to safeguard our young people. This must always begin with education and empowerment. By giving young people the knowledge and confidence to push back against those who would take advantage of them we are building the foundations of more resilient communities that drive out CCE [Child Criminal Exploitation] and say no to all forms of slavery.

With input from colleagues at the Wilberforce Institute the resource pack will act as a template for discussing other difficult subjects with young adults and children in the future.

  1. You can view the ‘Anywhere Kids’ animation here
  2. Click here to visit the Fearless.org website
  3. The full range of Not In Our Community resources can be accessed at www.notinourcommunity.org along with information on the help and support available in Humberside

Tropical Hospitality, British Masculinity, and Drink in Late Eighteenth-Century Jamaica

Professor Trevor Burnard

Director of the Wilberforce Institute

University of Hull

t.g.burnard@hull.ac.uk

In our last regular blog before the autumn, Professor Trevor Burnard provides a summary of his recent article in the Historical Journal. 

Jamaica was the wealthiest and most unequal colony in the eighteenth-century British Empire. It established a distinct culture among its white inhabitants – what we might call the lifestyle of the ‘British male abroad’. That culture was characterized by various forms of libidinous excess, as seen in sexual behaviour that was depraved, deviant and debauched by the standards of the time, and by our standards today, involving as it did the sexual exploitation of enslaved women and free women of colour. It involved, moreover, reprehensible and exploitative attitudes to non-white people both directly and also indirectly – the gluttony and drunkenness of white Jamaicans contrasted glaringly with enslaved people on the verge of starvation. Commentators such as the historian Edward Long praised the white inhabitants for their commitment to an ethos of hospitality and generosity but the reality of white Jamaican ‘hospitality’ was much more sordid. A better guide than Long to the realities of white culture in eighteenth-century Jamaica, even though Long is by far the more important writer, is J.B. Moreton, who wrote a racy guide for the benefit of ‘cowskin heroes’ or young male immigrants seeking wealth and fortune in managerial positions as overseers of enslaved people on plantations.

Tropical Hospitality, British Masculinity, and Drink in Late Eighteenth-Century Jamaica uses Moreton’s guide as a means to investigate Jamaica’s debauched drinking culture. It shows that drink, dancing, and illicit sex combined to create a milieu in which activities frowned upon in Britain, or which were confined to specific and highly regulated homosocial encounters, defined white male cultural practices in the island. They drank to excess, adopted libertinism as a mode of behaviour, and saw hospitality less as a virtue than as a way of obtaining pleasure, often at the expense of enslaved women. In short, white Jamaicans were hospitable but they were not polite. If anything, they grew less polite over time, as their positions as privileged parts of the plantation system made them feel especially entitled. Ideas about the tropics formed in the Caribbean quickly migrated to other regions, notably to India. This revealed that British rule was not inevitably linked with ‘moral progress’. The tropical male abroad was devoted to very hard drinking, a vice which harmed their health, turning their well-formed British bodies into diseased Creole ones. This transformation showed in the malign effects of the tropics on character and physiognomy. The white tropical male abroad was thus not generous and hospitable, as patriotic Jamaican writers tried to insist was an intrinsic part of Jamaican culture. Instead, the tropical male abroad, at least those that took enthusiastically to island life, was typically a drunkard and a sexual predator. Their drinking culture provides a window into how white men devoted to satisfying their urges and seeking pleasure as a major goal adapted themselves to the peculiar social conditions, including slavery, of eighteenth-century Jamaica.

Harbour Street, Kingston, Jamaica, between 1820 and 1824, James Hakewill (1778-1843). Source: https://archive.org/details/picturesquetouro00hake/page/12/mode/2up

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Times: Living the British Empire in Jamaica 1756

Sheryllynne Haggerty

Honorary Research Fellow

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

s.haggerty@hull.ac.uk

The Europa left Jamaica for London in November 1756. It was the start of the Seven Years’ War, and the vessel was taken by a French privateer on the 21st December, and then retaken by the British two days later. When the British retook the Europa, they found its letter bag from Jamaica hidden under a gun in the Captain’s cabin. The bag of letters – written by planters, merchants, ships’ captains, attorneys, artisans, ordinary sailors, and even some women, and sent to people in London, Bristol, Dublin and Liverpool – was taken as evidence for the Prize Courts in the High Court of Admiralty, as was usual, along with the vessel and its cargo. Those letters were never delivered. The cache of c.350 letters, covering September to November 1756, is preserved at The National Archives (HCA/32/189/22 and HCA 30/259). This is unique, because none of the original post bags of letters of the thirteen other vessels which were retaken as prizes returning from the British Caribbean during this conflict have been found.

I first discovered these letters in 2016 by accident, when I was looking for additional material for an article on privateering. I knew they were exciting, but had no idea what for, so I just photographed them all, including all the bills of lading, bills of exchange, ephemera and envelopes. It was about a year later that I realised that whilst others had used these documents for specific purposes such as prices of enslaved people and the processes of the prize courts, no one had used the letters as a discreet data set. Yet here were letters from people from a wide range of social backgrounds, writing on a vast array of topics. They provided a prism of Jamaican history – even of British imperial history – at a moment in time. Moreover, given that the Seven Years’ War would end with British hegemony in the Atlantic, and that Jamaican attitudes towards the enslaved would harden considerably after Tacky’s Revolt in 1756, they spoke to how life was experienced by ordinary people, white, black and of colour, men and women, free and enslaved, at this important moment in Jamaican history.

I decided to let the letters speak for themselves. Not knowing where to start I transcribed all the letters, associated documents, envelopes, ephemera – everything. This started possibly my largest academic journey. By following the letters I followed the themes they spoke to: trade and finance (okay I was fine with that) but the remaining themes pushed me into areas of history with which I was unfamiliar: war and politics; love, family and friendship; death and disease; consumerism. One area, if not missing entirely – but certainly unrepresented in the letters – were the enslaved. How was I to deal with this glaring omission of ninety percent of the population? In fact I dealt with this issue in the same way I had in fleshing out the lives of the white letter writers. I adopted an iterative methodology in which I used every source I could find for 1756 in conjunction with the letters. This has included: accounts of produce (statements of crops produced on estates of absentee planters); manumission records; court records; mercantile papers; wills; probate documents; and state and government records in Jamaica, Dublin, London, and many regional British archives. I also looked for further information beyond 1756 to tell me more about some of the people who either wrote the letters, were written to, or written about. I used the letters of the elite, but only for what they told me about others, rather than themselves. This methodology has enabled me to furnish far more information on the lives of the enslaved and ordinary whites than would otherwise have been possible.

I enjoyed the challenge of learning about all these areas of history that were new to me immensely. The only thing I have enjoyed more has been getting to know the characters that appeared to me from the pages of these letters: Captain William Clutsam, aptly named given the various travails he encountered; Edward Magnar who deserted a slave ship to go privateering; Sarah Folkes who could not bear to think that her child in England was dead; carpenter Ewbank Ogle, grateful that his brother had survived a fever; Rachel and Manoel Mendes ordering kosher beef brisket for a taste of home; and Amelia, who had to wait fourteen years for her promised manumission to be realised. I like to think that in some small way, not only have I told their stories, but that their letters have finally been delivered.

My book on this project, Ordinary People, Extraordinary Times: Living the British Empire in Jamaica 1756 is under contract with McGill-Queen’s University Press and will hopefully be published in 2022.

“Untitled Image (Thatched Houses)”, Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, accessed March 1, 2021, http://www.slaveryimages.org/s/slaveryimages/item/2402