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

The Abolition of the Slave Trade and Slavery in Britain

Professor John Oldfield

Professor of Slavery and Emancipation

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

john.oldfield@hull.ac.uk

In this blog, Professor Oldfield talks about the collaboration he was involved with between the Wilberforce Institute and the British Library.

In August 2020, I was approached by Katie Adams at the British Library [BL] to write an essay for the BL website. I would be lying if I said I did not hesitate for a moment. The brief was ambitious: a short 2000-word piece, tentatively entitled ‘The Abolition of the Slave Trade and Slavery in Britain, c. 1787–1838’, that would provide readers fourteen years of age and above with an accessible, up-to-date and academically rigorous introduction to the BL’s anti-slavery collections.

Having accepted the commission, I began to sketch out a plan. In conversations with Katie, we agreed that what was needed was an ‘integrated’ history of British anti-slavery, one that not only highlighted the achievements of William Wilberforce and his supporters but also took account of black resistance, whether in the Caribbean or here in the United Kingdom [UK], as well as the involvement of women in the abolitionist campaigns of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Furthermore, we wanted to make space for international perspectives and – if the word limit permitted – to say something about the legacies of emancipation (1833/1838) and the UK’s reckoning with slavery.

In early November, I submitted a first draft, which remarkably came in at just over 2,000 words. It soon became apparent, however, that we needed more space, not just to plug some of the obvious gaps but to tweak the argument and – in places – to make it more accessible. This was not all. The essay also had to fit within a suite of BL web pages, which inevitably meant that some degree of cross-referencing was necessary. As a result, the original draft began to expand, so much so that we set ourselves a new target of 3,000 words, including further reading and footnotes.

Late in December, I submitted a final draft, which Katie then built into web pages, complete with the relevant links. If you are interested in seeing the results, you can access the pages here:

Abolition of the slave trade and slavery in Britain – The British Library (bl.uk)

Commissions of this kind are never easy or straightforward. They inevitably involve making decisions about what to include (and what to leave out), about tone and about register. They also involve understanding your client’s needs, which is why dialogue is so important. To a large extent, the whole process is about testing ideas, while at the same time being aware of the obvious constraints. None of us likes word limits but they can also be a way of focusing the mind, demanding a different kind of discipline that can be strangely liberating.

While my name appears as the author of ‘Abolition of the Slave Trade and Slavery in Britain’, the article should properly be regarded as the result of a collaboration between the Wilberforce Institute and the BL, and one that, for me, proved immensely rewarding. I am very grateful to Katie Adams for her expertise, support and encouragement, as I am to her colleagues at the BL. The essay is all the better for their input.

An Holistic Approach to Contemporary Slavery and Climate Change

Saphia Fleury,

PhD candidate, Falling Through the Net PhD Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

s.fleury-2019@hull.ac.uk

CALL FOR PAPERS: Wilberforce Institute Workshop, October 11, 2021.

Slavery is often considered to be a problem of the past, while climate change is seen as a threat to our future. Yet the two issues present a real threat in the here and now, and often interact with exploitative and dangerous consequences.

Climate change poses an immediate and existential threat to many of the most marginalised communities on the planet. All over the world, the impacts of this global emergency are being felt right now in the form of both sudden-onset disasters and slow-onset events. When combined with ongoing deforestation, pollution and resource scarcity, the impacts of these occurrences, which are making livelihoods ever more precarious for millions of people in the poorest countries, lead to increased levels of migration and displacement.

This situation has clear implications for development and human rights. In the words of former UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, Philip Alston, climate change is ‘likely to challenge or undermine the enjoyment of almost every human right in the international bill of rights’. Among the human rights issues that emerge most strongly are those linked to exploitation such as forced and unfree labour, human trafficking and slavery.

Meanwhile, research demonstrates that slavery in industries such as mining, fishing, brick-making and timber production can raise greenhouse gas emissions and drive other forms of environmental degradation. It has even been suggested that the climate crisis could be averted completely by putting an end to contemporary slavery.

Yet to date, the relationship between climate change and contemporary slavery has received relatively little attention in the policy, advocacy and academic fields. Furthermore, mainstream approaches to both issues have traditionally favoured technocratic or legalistic approaches that place these issues within ‘siloes’, disconnected from their political, social and economic contexts.

On Monday 11 October 2021, the Wilberforce Institute with support from Anti-Slavery International will host a one-day inter-disciplinary and inter-sectoral workshop to break down these siloes and explore the relationship between these twin ills. Submissions are welcome from all sectors, including academics, activists, NGO practitioners, policy makers, journalists, PhD students, and others.

We welcome proposals relating to all aspects of these complex and wide-ranging issues, including intersecting or intervening themes such as: migration and displacement; conflict and insecurity; land, livelihoods and natural resources; ethnicity, gender and race; colonial and neo-colonial legacies.

We are interested in submissions that contribute to breaking new conceptual, methodological, and empirical ground in this topic area, and in particular those that advance novel recommendations for tackling these issues at the levels of policy and practice.

Abstracts for proposed papers or presentations (200-300 words) should be sent with a short bio to Dr Chris O’Connell, Dublin City University at christopher.oconnell@dcu.ie  and Saphia Fleury, Wilberforce Institute at s.fleury-2019@hull.ac.uk

The deadline for submission is 30 June 2021. We aim to inform successful candidates by late August. There is no fee for attendance or participation in this event.

For any enquiries, please contact Chris O’Connell or Saphia Fleury.

Mural depicting the era of the rubber boom from an Indigenous perspective in the town of Nauta, Loreto Province, Peru (Photo: Chris O’Connell).

Debt and labour coercion in historical perspective

Dr Judith Spicksley

Lecturer in Economic History

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

judith.spicksley@hull.ac.uk

As an academic, it’s always good to be invited to give a talk. Thanks to Shebanee Devadasan, President of Durham Justice Society, I was asked to join the Modern Slavery panel as part of their annual Human Rights Conference for this year.  I was in excellent company as my fellow panellists were Gary Craig,  Parosha Chandran and Meena Varma. My contribution was to provide some historical perspective on the role of debt as a method of labour coercion, as this is often a key mechanism through which modern forms of slavery operate.

Over the last decade I have been thinking hard about the relationship between debt and slavery in historical and contemporary societies. Exploring the transatlantic slave trade, I found that in the colonial records of the Portuguese government in Angola, discussions about debt slavery were an important part of the contested framework of enslavement between those areas under Portuguese law and those under African rule. As I discussed in my talk, European societies by the early modern period did not generally allow citizens to recover their outstanding debts through the enslavement of debtors. This had been a common route to enslavement in antiquity, and documentary evidence of such activity survives in the ancient Near East, Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean from the end of the third millennium to the middle of the first millennium BCE. Under the influence of Roman and biblical law, medieval societies in western Christendom increasingly rejected such practices. By the sixteenth century, debts were recovered on goods, livestock or lands, or through imprisonment until the debt had been repaid. The practice of debt bondage, in which the debtor agreed to work for the creditor until the debt had been repaid (also of ancient origin), was retained, however, and was used by early modern migrants from western Europe to the Americas who signed up to an agreed term of labour as a way to repay the cost of their passage. A very similar system remains in operation today. Siddharth Kara’s work on contemporary migrants shows how a formal debt agreement, which covers costs associated with travel and arranging work, has to be paid off on arrival through labour. But what Kara’s work also shows is that additional debts are imposed on migrants after travel and costs manipulated to keep them in debt and under control.

Debt slavery has been prohibited by international convention since 1926, and in 1956 a supplementary convention added debt bondage to the list as an institution or practice similar to slavery. Debt bondage as defined in this latter treaty refers to agreements in which the value of the labour that is performed is either not applied towards reducing the debt or has no defined time limit. A classic example is hereditary collateral debt bondage in South Asia, in which the debt rolls over to the next generation. Yet examples of debt bondage, also referred to as bonded labour and debt servitude, continue to exist around the world. There are good reasons for this, and working off your debt is not in itself against the law. The idea of being able to repay a loan through your labour offers those in need of resources, who have no other way of repaying their debt, a valuable as well as pragmatic solution. However, because this is often the only way funds can be raised it can encourage creditors to exploit their debtors and extend the labour-debt relationship indefinitely.

In my studies of the connection between debt and slavery I argue that the idea of debt is one of the most powerful sources of social coercion we know, and one of the earliest. There is a longstanding myth, as Graeber’s book articulated, that all debts have to be repaid, even though we recognise that this is not always the case. The idea of debt provides the glue that creates the social relationships that allow us as individuals to work with others for the benefit of us all. This cooperative strategy is not fool-proof, however, because not everyone obeys the rules. Debt as a social construct can also be weaponised as a way to force some to accede to the demands of others, and when debt can be recovered by using the human body, the impact can be devastating. During the transatlantic slave trade debt was used as a pretext for ensnaring its victims: if you could create a debt, no matter how small, you could call it in and claim a slave.

Today it is through the binding of labour rather than sale into slavery that debtors become trapped. Kevin Bales’ work on brick kiln workers in Pakistan revealed how dishonest managers could exploit the illiteracy of their labourers to ensure that the number of bricks they made did not cover the debts they had accrued. As a result the family had to return to work in the kilns the following year. The idea of debt may have most traction where labourers are involved in illegitimate activities. The extortionate interest rates that workers are charged in illegal gold mines in southern Ghana means they are quickly trapped into long hours of work as they try to repay their debt. They work because they are desperate and because they believe they must honour their borrowing agreements – their debts have to be repaid.

Brick kiln labourer. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Venture Smith’s American Dream: A Parable for Today?

Professor David Richardson

Former Director of the Wilberforce Institute

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

p.d.richardson@hull.ac.uk

Chandler B. Saint

President, Beecher House Center for Equal Rights

Co-director, Documenting Venture Smith Project

chandlersaint@gmail.com

Africans have been part of US history since they first landed in the colony of Virginia twelve years after Jamestown was founded in 1607. Their numbers grew, first by import and then by natural reproduction, to around 4 million (or one in nine) of the US population by 1865, the vast majority enslaved, enriching with little or no personal gain their masters and the communities for which they were forced to toil.  Simultaneously, the new nation that emerged in 1776-1783 emphasized its attachment to personal freedom, encouraging white migration by those facing persecution and poverty in Europe in search of an American dream of self-realization and prosperity linked to natural ability and to bountiful natural resources.  Some arrived in forms of time-limited bondage, but no Europeans experienced life-long or heritable slavery.  If Africans preceded the arrival of Dutch, Irish, German, and other settlers in the Americas, racial slavery denied them access to the American dream that the others were offered. Despite emancipation in 1863, the legacies of such slavery continue to blight the lives of most African Americans today.  It does not need to be so.  Indeed, by recognizing Africans’ long history in America and their historic contribution to its fortunes, social justice demands it should not be so.  Realizing the American dream demands freedom for all, not just some.

The Narrative by Venture Smith (aka Broteer Furor), published in 1798, opens a window on how, even while debate over the future of slavery in the new nation was alive, Africans as free people would contribute to the national wellbeing.  Several editions of Smith’s Narrative have appeared, the one that this blog highlights being the first to be published in Fante, the last language that Smith probably heard as he was forced to leave the land of his birth for America in 1739 (Facsimile editions of the narrative, produced by the Documenting Venture Smith Project, and including an introduction and a timeline, are available from Chandler Saint, at cost and with postage in the UK, at £5.50).

Enslaved in his youth, Smith prized the very freedoms upon which the idea of the American dream was based. He worked tirelessly over twenty-six years to liberate himself from slavery, achieving his goal in 1765.  Freedom was not something he learned about in his acquired New England home; he brought the concept with him from Africa.  It was part of his African heritage.  Once free again, he established himself as a family farmer and built a successful business, in part by supporting the cause of those who fought to free the thirteen colonies from the alleged tyranny of George III’s government.  He established a family dynasty and a reputation for integrity and honesty in his dealings with others. He helped others to acquire freedom from slavery.  And, unlike so many enslaved Africans, whose final resting places are unknown, Venture Smith was buried in 1805 in a marked grave in the Congregational churchyard of East Haddam, Connecticut.  Smith’s life and his gravestone revealed a belief in the American dream that few other of his contemporaries were allowed to demonstrate.  They showed what was possible if only the American claim of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness applied to all Americans regardless of race or other forms of social difference.

The tragedy for Venture Smith and for the millions of those who came to or were born in America as slaves is that notwithstanding gaining personal freedom in law, race would disqualify them from fully realizing the American dream.  To be African was a barrier to becoming an American.  Venture Smith knew it.  Despite 60 years residence in his adopted homeland, despite his economic success, despite his reputation for truth and integrity, despite even his reconciliation with his former owner Oliver Smith from whom he took his surname, Venture Smith’s last years were blighted by what he saw as racial prejudice. He fought it, as many others subsequently would, through the courts.  He doubtless saw it too in the gradualism of slave emancipation that Connecticut enshrined in law in 1784.  It was written large in the constitutional settlement of the new nation in 1789.  And he almost certainly knew on his deathbed in 1805 that it would blight the lives of those of African descent who followed him. 

 The Narrative published by Venture Smith in 1798 is an inspirational story. It deserves to be better known, not only by those living in the continent where he was born (hence its translation into native African languages) but also by all Americans who are descended from those who, because of persecution, poverty, or enslavement, left the Old World for the so-called New.  It reminds us in sober but uplifting ways how ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things even in the most unpromising circumstances.  It speaks directly to its readers in uncomplicated language.  It narrates a story of hope and, in the context of US history, one that imagines Africans as well as those of European descent sharing in the new nation’s dreams.  But it was a story, too, tinged with profound sadness, even bitterness; one that foretold how racial prejudice identified with slavery would prevent so many of African descent from realizing their ambitions. Such prejudice would, Venture Smith knew, deny the nation he helped to found in his lifetime the full fruits of Africans’ inherent talents and values. The flame of hope that Smith identified in 1798 still remains alight today among at least some of his descendants, but two hundred years on continuing racial prejudice and social injustice prevent it from burning as brightly as it should for so many Americans of African descent. The human and social costs of such discrimination remain profound for the whole nation not just those directly subject to it.  It is surely time to recognize that truth for the benefit of all who look, as Venture Smith did in 1798, to the United States as their place of residence or their home.

The cover of the Fante edition of Venture Smith’s narrative

The Anti-Slavery Knowledge Network – building resilience in sub-Saharan Africa

Professor John Oldfield

Professor of Slavery and Emancipation

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

john.oldfield@hull.ac.uk

The Wilberforce Institute is involved in a number of collaborative research projects, among them ‘The Anti-Slavery Knowledge Network’ (AKN), led by the universities of Hull, Liverpool and Nottingham. As its name implies, AKN is about knowledge and knowledge sharing, in this case in sub-Saharan Africa. The aim of the project, funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, is to show how the arts and humanities can help to build resilience in communities vulnerable to human trafficking, forced labour and child exploitation through strategic, heritage-led interventions: such things as community radio, music, storytelling, performance and film.

In the initial phases of AKN, we set up a number of pilot projects, including a series of projects in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where researchers at the Wilberforce Institute already had close contacts, among them Lansana Mansaray (‘Barmmy Boy’), a talented young filmographer who runs a cooperative called ‘We Own TV’. Eager to get these projects started, in February 2018 I visited Freetown, taking this opportunity to introduce our work to the British Council, DfID and government ministers. I also made contact with local NGOs, community groups, heritage clubs and members of the Sierra Leone Historic Monuments Commission, some of these groups later becoming our partners.

One of the people that Barmmy introduced me to while I was in Freetown was Brima Sheriff, a filmmaker, activist and former Human Rights Commissioner. Brilliantly talented, Brima Sheriff began his career with Amnesty International, eventually becoming Director of the Sierra Leone Section. It was this work that drew him to the attention of the Sierra Leone government, which in 2012 made him one of its Human Rights Commissioners. An outspoken critic of human rights abuses in Sierra Leone, Brima subsequently fell foul of the ruling party, which in 2017 rather unceremoniously removed him from office. When I interviewed him in 2018, all of this was still very much on his mind and provided the backdrop to a conversation that ranged widely over local politics, human rights and the future prospects of Sierra Leone.

By the end of our interview, we had over an hour’s worth of material. Barmmy later edited this down into a series of shorter films, two of which can be accessed via the links below. In the first of these, Brima speaks eloquently about the relationship between the arts and humanities and what we might call social development, drawing on his extensive experience as a filmmaker. The second video deals with the subject of contemporary slavery in Sierra Leone, a problem that Brima sees as being rooted in his country’s social structure (especially family life and the role of women) and its peculiar demography. Shot in his own home and against the noise of the busy street outside, these are intimate films in which Brima speaks frankly about some of the challenges facing Sierra Leone in the twenty-first century.

This work was undertaken with the support of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Further information about ‘The Anti-Slavery Knowledge Network’ and the projects we are supporting in Africa can be found at: https://www.liverpool.ac.uk//poliitcs/research/research-projects/akn/

I would also like to thank ‘Barmmy Boy’ for all his hard work on this project, not only in setting up my interview with Brima Sheriff but also in editing the material and producing these short videos. As it turned out, this was the first interview that Brima had given since stepping down as Human Rights Commissioner, and for that I am immensely grateful. Brima Sheriff is a compelling figure: impassioned, eloquent and forthright. We hope that these videos will bring his unique voice to wider audiences and help to raise awareness about slavery and human trafficking, modern-day scourges that continue to have a devastating impact on communities across Africa and beyond.

The two films made during the project can be viewed here:

Fighting Injustice: The Role of the Arts and Humanities in Sierra Leone 

Slavery and Human Rights in Sierra Leone 

Brima Sheriff talking to John Oldfield in Sierra Leone in 2018

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

Professor John Oldfield

Professor of Slavery and Emancipation

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

john.oldfield@hull.ac.uk

Dr Mary Wills

Honorary Fellow

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

marycwills@live.co.uk

The tumultuous nature of 2020 has impacted many fields of scholarship and research, not least slavery studies. This year has witnessed a re-evaluation of the place of transatlantic slavery in Britain’s history and public memory. For centuries, Britain benefitted enormously from the highly lucrative network of global commerce that existed between the United Kingdom [UK], West Africa, slave-holding British colonies in North America, and British territories in the Caribbean. At its heart was the exploitation of enslaved people of African descent. While much work has been done to examine the uncomfortable truths of Britain’s involvement in transatlantic slavery, this difficult part of our history is often omitted or forgotten in public discussions of the nation’s past.

Recent events associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, and the intense media spotlight subsequently focused on who should and should not be celebrated in Britain’s public history, has led to calls for national institutions to review and reinterpret statues, heritage collections and paintings in the public realm. The Mayor of London announced a commission to review diversity in London’s public landmarks and a recent audit commissioned by the First Minister of Wales identified over 200 public memorials in Wales associated with transatlantic slavery. Wealth associated with colonialism and the business of slavery subsequently invested in some of Britain’s grand houses is investigated in a report by the National Trust, and an audit commissioned by Historic England reviews the research undertaken in this field in relation to the built environment. There are renewed calls for more representative accounts of Black history – and particularly Black British history – in the national curriculum.

This level of scrutiny into the representation of this contested aspect of British history is not unprecedented. If 2020 represents a pivotal moment in Britain’s engagement with its slaving past, our new article examines the impact of a similarly decisive moment: 2007, the year of much commemorative activity and public discussion marking the bicentenary of the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act.

With governmental backing and the availability of finance through the Heritage Lottery Fund and other funding bodies, a huge number of institutions, heritage organisations, schools, theatres, youth and community groups mounted projects and exhibitions in 2007 that explored local and national connections to the history of transatlantic slavery and its abolition. Nearly 350 of these commemorative projects have been archived in the Remembering 1807 digital archive produced by researchers at the Wilberforce Institute, part of the Antislavery Usable Past, a collaborative Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project. Remembering 1807 gives access to hundreds of resources emerging from the  excellent research carried out in that year. In part, this archive is itself a work of preservation and commemoration. More to the point, however, it also provides us with a ready-made opportunity to evaluate what really happened in 2007, particularly at the local level, and to correct some lingering misconceptions about the nature of the bicentenary.

As we reveal in our article, while much of what occurred in 2007 in relation to the bicentenary was legitimately criticised as a ‘Wilberfest’ (with an over-concentration on William Wilberforce and other abolitionists), the array and scope of projects that took place around the country also revealed how far representations of the nation’s contribution to the business of transatlantic slavery were revised and contested in 2007, part of a movement to acknowledge and interpret this history for a wider public audience. New permanent spaces, such as the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool and the ‘London, Sugar and Slavery’ galleryat the Museum of London Docklands, reflected on all aspects of British involvement, and the many forms of African resistance to slavery. Detailed associations with transatlantic slavery were also made in locales beyond the ports of London, Liverpool and Bristol, as local archives and collections were investigated for links to abolitionists but also to slave traders and plantation owners, to local trade and industry, to country houses, and to stories of Black British history. In large part, community activism lay at the heart of 2007’s bicentenary commemorations, as many projects sought to examine the contemporary relevance of 1807 and the transatlantic slave trade to the UK’s diverse communities.

Why is examining commemorative activity that took place more than a decade ago important? 2020 has shown that discussion and debate about how as a nation the UK remembers and memorialises its slaving past is more pertinent than ever. It also reminds us how much of this history and its legacies remains uncovered. Learning lessons from what was absent during the bicentenary can help to (re)orientate future memory work around Britain’s role in transatlantic slavery. Understanding what has been done (or not done) in the past provides signposts for fruitful new avenues of examination and analysis.

New scholarship and research projects since 2007 relating to the historical archive of Britain’s investments in slavery provide much stimulus for examining this history. For example, Slave Voyages facilitates searches on thousands of slave voyages between 1514 and 1866, including those sailing from British ports. The Legacies of British Slave-ownership provides data about the individuals and businesses who claimed compensation for loss of their enslaved workers when slavery was abolished in the British Caribbean in 1834, and who invested the profits from the business of slavery in a variety of different ways.

Looking forward, there are other anniversaries relating to transatlantic slavery to come, including the bicentenary in 2033 of the Emancipation Act of 1833 and in 2038, the bicentenary of the 1838 Act to abolish the apprenticeship clause (considered by many to represent the true ‘end’ of slavery in the Caribbean). Past commemorative efforts can inform future ones, providing tools and knowledge to affect public discussions about slavery, not least through engagement with local communities and new audiences. It is key, therefore, for historians, heritage bodies, and local and community specialists to keep identifying, recontextualising and diversifying the narrative around the history of Britain’s slavery past.

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

Summary of author’s recent publications

Professor Trevor Burnard

Director of the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

trevor.burnard@hull.ac.uk

Today Trevor Burnard, Director of the Wilberforce Institute, provides a summary of two of his recent publications.

Britain in the Wider World, 1603-1800 (London: Routledge, 2020)

2020, it now seems clear, is a decisive year in British history, however it ends. It is a year that has seen the disaster of a major pandemic, will probably see Britain’s withdrawal from Europe and possibly even herald the breakdown of the United Kingdom itself. Just potentially, 2020 will see the final end of a process that began as long ago as 1603, when England/Wales and Scotland were joined together through a common monarch, coming together properly in 1707 and being enlarged by the addition of the kingdom/colony of Ireland into a new polity in 1801 called the United Kingdom. 1603 preceded by a couple of years the founding of the East India Company, giving England and then Britain a toehold in India, which became much bigger after Britain’s victory in the Seven Years War in 1763. It was followed by the tentative start of a British Empire in the Americas, begun in a chaotic and disastrous fashion in England’s first settlement in North America, in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. By 1800, that empire, despite the political loss of the 13 colonies and the creation of the USA, was extremely large and world-spanning. My book on how England and then Britain went through this dramatic transformation between 1603 and 1800, one that might be on the verge of finally collapsing, is a British history as written by an historian of the Atlantic world. It explores how the British nation was made in this period and how England/Wales moved from being the pariah of Europe – insular nations devoted to Protestantism and the killing of monarchs – to near global dominance, with a powerful empire and an even more flourishing economy. Britain by 1800 had become a mighty world power and through the Industrial Revolution the richest country in the world, overturning in a few decades China’s millennium-long presence at the top of wealthy nations. I pay particular attention in my book to three things: imperialism, economic growth and changes in gender relations.

Within these three topics, slavery is important, though it is only one of many themes that I cover in this survey of a lengthy period in British history. I deal with slavery here less than I do in other works but I take for consideration Barbara Solow’s famous statement that `it was slavery that made the empty lands of the western hemisphere valuable … [and] what moved in the Atlantic … was predominantly slaves, the output of slaves, the inputs of slave societies and the goods and services purchased with the earnings of slave products.’ America was valuable to Britain because it had plantations and it had plantations due to the work of enslaved Africans. Britain became the most important slavery nation in the eighteenth century. That this was the case makes us pause when thinking about imperialism and the development of settler societies in North America and Australasia. Britain’s movement into the wider world was immensely successful for Britain itself, not least for its poorest inhabitants, who got goods that they wanted from the colonies and could improve their standard of living by moving out of Britain. It came, however, at great cost, including the immiseration of thousands of enslaved people, living miserable lives as coerced workers. The gap between British prosperity and the misery Britain caused its non-white imperial subjects was something that increasingly bothered thinking Britons, not least of whom was a young Hull-born politician and evangelical, William Wilberforce. Born in the triumphal year of 1759, when Britain acquired Canada, Senegal and Bengal, he lived his life in a time when Britain and its empire were important in the world in ways never seen before.

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‘Terror, Horror and the British Atlantic Slave Trade in the Eighteenth Century’ in Robert Anthony, Stuart Carroll and Caroline Dodds Pennock, eds, The Cambridge World History of Violence vol. III 1500-1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 17-35

The Cambridge World History of Violence is a path-breaking four volume series, edited by Australian scholars Joy Damousi and Philip Dwyer, which argues that violence was a key driver of history from ancient to modern times. My chapter on violence in the Atlantic slave trade is in the early modern volume, running from 1500 to 1850. It contributes to an intensive, profoundly meaningful and often disturbing conversation about how violence speaks to critical issues such as the problem of civility in society, the nature of political sovereignty and the state, the legitimacy of conquest and subjugation, the possibilities of popular resistance, and the manifestations of ethnic and racial unrest. I start with J.M.W. Turner’s 1840 masterpiece, Slavers Overthrowing the Dead and Dying and connect to a notorious incident in the history of the Atlantic slave trade, from 1781. That incident was the murder of 122 African captives on the Zong, becalmed off south-west Jamaica, in order to make an insurance claim. I use this and other cases of violence in the Atlantic slave trade to argue that one of the effects of that slave trade was the evocation in slaves of the emotion of terror – the apprehension of worse things happening if one did not obey commands. To show how this worked, I analyze James Field Stanfield’s The Guinea Voyage to explore the workings of terror and horror (a related but different emotion to terror) through violence as it operated in the Atlantic slave trade. I conclude with a consideration of how the terror that was involved in the British Atlantic slave trade inspired abolitionists, not least William Wilberforce, though I concentrate in this chapter on Thomas Clarkson and John Newton, to protest against the slave ship as a place of radical disorder, an essentially lawless place presided over by cruel tyrants. Without the revulsion that was aroused in metropolitan Europeans and Americans about the terror that resulted from the multiple acts of violence that characterized the Atlantic slave trade, abolitionism and humanitarianism would have taken a different shape – and possible been less immediately successful.

Summary of author’s recent publications

Professor Trevor Burnard

Director of the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

trevor.burnard@hull.ac.uk

Today Trevor Burnard, Director of the Wilberforce Institute, provides a summary of two of his recent articles on Jamaican history.

‘Slaves and Slavery in Kingston, 1770-1815,’ International Journal of Social History 65 (2020), 39-65

If you wander down to the magnificent Kingston waterfront, you will see nothing which marks the fact that Kingston was the `Ellis Island’ of African American life in British America. It was the place where nearly 900,000 Africans were landed to begin a usually miserable and often foreshortened life as slaves working on sugar and other plantations and occasionally enjoying a slightly better life as an urban enslaved person in Kingston. Slavery and the slave trade were central to eighteenth-century Kingston and in turn Kingston is vital as a place to study so that we understand Jamaican and Atlantic slavery in the period of the Atlantic slave trade. But our knowledge of Kingston and its slaves is very limited. This article looks at slavery in Kingston from when the slave trade was at its height, between the early 1770s, through to the immediate aftermath of the ending of the slave trade in Jamaica in 1807.

This article summarizes what we know about slavery in Kingston already and provides some empirical data which can be helpful in drawing attention to Kingston’s importance in the history of slavery. The Atlantic slave trade in Kingston was easily the largest business in eighteenth-century British America and had a very distinctive character. Contrary to popular legend, African captives were seldom sold directly from ships in what was described as a `scramble’, when potential buyers pushed and shoved each other in order to acquire valuable property. Slaves cost too much money for any factor selling slaves to allow such chaos to occur. Instead, Africans were purchased in large lots by carefully selected merchants and were moved to merchant houses where they were corralled (`like sheep’, Olaudah Equaino lamented) and then sold usually in small lots to planters. In short, the slave market in Kingston harbor was a wholesale market and was followed by retail sales. Everyone took their cut at all times and the money that flowed was so substantial as to make Kingston and its slave merchants very wealthy.

The manner of slave sales meant that enslaved Africans experienced the transformation of themselves into ‘commodities’ first in Kingston. That was a profound, and profoundly disturbing, human moment. From Kingston, they were dispersed throughout Jamaica, in ways that made enslaved populations very polyglot – Africans from various ships from various places in West Africa were purchased together and sent to very ethnically diverse plantations. Some enslaved people, of course, stayed in Kingston, and I discuss what they did as tradespeople, domestics and sailors in the article.

One would think that the end of a lucrative slave trade would spell disaster for Kingston and its wealthy merchant class. Surprisingly, this did not happen. Why not? What seems to have occurred, although much more work needs to be done on this subject, is that Kingston moved quickly from being a major slave trading entrepot to being the centre of trade with Spanish America. It was a depot from which British manufactured goods were dispersed throughout the Spanish American empire. In an ironic restatement of the famous thesis by Eric Williams that slavery created capitalism, after 1807 capitalism remade slavery as capitalism in the form of British manufactured goods stimulated the slave system and slave economy in places like Cuba.

The slave trade ended in 1807 but slavery remained in Kingston, I finish this article with the perspective of the enslaved, and their participation in festivals, such as Jonkunnu. A spatial inversion occurred during these carnivals, during which black entertainers invaded the spaces of white authority. Slavery was complicated and diverse in Kingston, as in the rest of Jamaica.

James Hakewill (1875), A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica: Kingston and Port Royal 

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‘Security, Taxation, and the Imperial System in Jamaica, 1721-1782,’ Early American Studies 18, 4 (Fall, 2020)

Aaron Graham of Oxford and myself have written an article, soon forthcoming in Early American Studies, which examines the question of how white Jamaicans ensured their security in a colony where the majority of the inhabitants were enslaved people who hated them and which was periodically subject to severe challenges to white authority coming from black people. The most serious eighteenth-century challenges were the first Maroon War in the 1730s and Tacky’s Revolt in 1760-61. These challenges were existential threats to the Jamaican state and the people – in Britain and among colonial elites – who ran that state. What these threats showed was that Jamaica was a society at war. Societies at war needed to be well funded – something Britain was very good at in the eighteenth century as it developed and perfected a fiscal-military state, designed to fight wars without incurring state bankruptcy.

White Jamaicans welcomed a strong fiscal-military state as the basis for colonial rule because they realized the perilous nature of their rule in their peculiar society. White Jamaicans were willing to pay relatively high rates of taxation to support a powerful and assertive state in schemes of settlement and security. The schemes for settlement did not work, mainly due to dire demographic conditions for white people, but white Jamaicans’ security concerns were generally answered, leading to a settler society that was reasonably content with what the state offered (unlike in the settler societies developed by their American cousins, which opted for rebellion in the 1770s) right up until the end of the American Revolution. White Jamaicans paid relatively high taxes willingly because they were satisfied with what they received from the state and because they were wealthy enough to afford high rates of taxation. Furthermore, in this period white Jamaicans believed that they had a significant stake in the processes by which taxes were collected and spent. Jamaica provides a case study of how the imperial state worked satisfactorily for imperial rulers and those colonists whom they ruled when both the state and colonial settlers shared common beliefs and where negotiations made it clear that the interests of all parties coincided.

Though an extreme example, by virtue of its exposed strategic position, the demographic imbalance between whites and blacks, and its economic importance, Jamaica differed in degree rather than kind from other colonies and territories of the British Atlantic. Eighteenth-century statesmen as different as Charles Townshend, Benjamin Franklin and Edmund Burke understood these imperial realities. Less sophisticated thinkers like Lord North and George Grenville, however, were seduced by plans that forced the empire into one colonial model and thought that the same solutions were applicable to the problems throughout the empire.  The American War of Independence resulted from a failure to understand this fundamental reality about the need to treat colonies within an imperial framework according to their local circumstances, rather than as if they were all Jamaica and equally committed to the expansion of the colonial fiscal-military state.

Map of Jamaica with relief and other marks, 1763.

Summary of author’s recent publications

John Oldfield

Professor of Slavery and Emancipation

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

john.oldfield@hull.ac.uk

Today Professor John Oldfield provides a summary of his new book on transatlantic abolitionism.

The Ties that Bind: Transatlantic Abolitionism in the Age of Reform, c. 1820-1865 (Liverpool University Press, September 2020).

My new book, The Ties that Bind, explores two inter-related themes that are at the heart of my ongoing interest in anti-slavery. The first of these is opinion building; that is, the means whereby activists created a constituency for ‘abolition’. The second is international anti-slavery, or, for these purposes, the Anglo-American origins and complexion of a lot of abolitionist activity. 

             During the 1820s and 1830s, the abolitionist movement entered a new phase, as ‘second-wave’ reformers switched their attention from the slave trade to the institution of slavery itself. While it is tempting to see the drive towards the abolition of slavery (‘emancipation’) as part of specific national histories (1833 in the case of Britain; 1865 in the case of the USA), anti-slavery also rested on dense international networks that transcended national or state boundaries. American activists, to take an obvious example, were greatly encouraged by passage of the UK’s Slavery Emancipation Act of 1833. As I make clear, these ‘Atlantic affinities’ ran deep, evident in the deference that American activists, black and white, paid towards figures such as William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, as well as the elevation of 1 August 1834, the anniversary of emancipation in the British Caribbean, to a central place in the American abolitionist calendar. In these different ways, American activists drew inspiration from Britain’s example, just as in a lot of their public discourse they created a continuous link between the British past and the American present, a way of looking at anti-slavery that underscored its distinctive origins and history.

              In the same way, American activists adapted many British strategies, particularly when it came to opinion building. On both sides of the Atlantic, anti-slavery rested on organizational structures that stressed the importance of grass-roots activism. The circulation of books and tracts, anti-slavery images and artefacts were all part of ongoing efforts to create unity and purpose, even in the face of determined opposition. So, too, was the employment of itinerant anti-slavery ‘agents’ or lecturers. First pioneered in the UK, the agency system reached its apogee in the USA. These men and women were lightning rods whose job it was to keep the anti-slavery flame alive. As figures such as William Lloyd Garrison, Abby Kelley and Frederick Douglass demonstrated, an eloquent agent could electrify audiences, seemingly bending them to their will. The proliferation of anti-slavery agents, particularly during the 1830s and 1840s, speaks volumes about the organizational skills of American activists, as well as the ongoing relevance of Britain’s influence and example.

              Then there was the question of politics. From its early origins, abolitionism had always been conceived of as a political movement, hence the emphasis on petitions and petitioning. During the nineteenth century, however, activists on both sides of the Atlantic stepped up their pressure on elected representatives through the ‘pledging’ of prospective MPs, or what in the USA was called the ‘interrogatory system’. First developed during the 1820s, these tactics challenged the independence of representatives, at the same time forging a new kind of popular politics that was at once loud and insistent. Above all, this was a transatlantic dialogue. While it is true that there were important differences at play here, not least the importance that some American activists placed on third-party politics, political abolitionists increasingly spoke a common language that set a premium on a style of confrontational politics that proved difficult to silence or ignore.

              However, American anti-slavery was always more than a pale imitation of British anti-slavery. As I reveal, American activists developed their own distinctive (anti-slavery) culture, revealing a willingness to innovate that sometimes set them at odds with their British counterparts. Nineteenth-century debates over the reception of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), for instance, reveal a growing sense that American abolitionism posed a challenge to British norms and values, as well as to the ability of British activists to control a message that they were sometimes inclined to regard as peculiarly their own. Nevertheless, interventions of this kind undoubtedly helped to re-energize British anti-slavery, particularly during the 1840s and 1850s. The same thing was true of anti-slavery songs (another American innovation), sensational slave narratives and lectures tours undertaken by prominent African-American abolitionists, chief among them Frederick Douglass, who delivered no fewer than 300 lectures during his nineteen-month tour of Britain in 1845-6. These black visitors brought immediacy and authenticity to the anti-slavery movement. Yet, at the same time, the spontaneity of their performances, as well as their willingness to take risks, could sometimes blur the distinction between ‘instruction’ and ‘entertainment’, making for experiences that challenged many British expectations.

              Anti-slavery was one of the most successful reform movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Part of that success was down to inspirational leadership and, among rank-and-file members, a passionate dedication to the cause. But, as I argue, organizational skills played a part, too. Turning ideas and sentiments into deliberate action is a complex, multi-faceted process, demanding a ready appreciation of market dynamics, as well as an awareness of social, political and cultural trends, especially when it comes to understanding how people access information. Historians are understandably wary about drawing lessons from the past. Nevertheless, there is something highly instructive about the opinion-building techniques developed by nineteenth-century abolitionists; their engagement with the electoral process; their attention to grass-roots activism; and, above all, the emphasis they placed on international co-operation.