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

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.