Summary of author’s recent publications

Professor Trevor Burnard

Director of the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

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.


‘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.

The centenary of race riots in Hull

Dr Nicholas J. Evans

Lecturer in Diaspora History

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

Recent events across the UK and America remind us of the continual struggle for black and ethnic minorities to secure the equalities most of us take for granted. Despite Britain championing the historic and contemporary crusades against slavery, it has not prevented outbursts of violence scarring our nation. This month marks the centenary of widespread anti-black violence in Hull, what was then the third largest port in Britain and home to the world’s largest fishing fleet.

Whilst both the city and port of Hull showed sustained growth during the long nineteenth century, the outbreak of the First World War brought an end to both commercial and urban expansion. Following the outbreak of the war, Hull’s position as one of the world’s largest migrant entrepôts came to an abrupt end. During the war a shortage of maritime labour was supplemented by the casual employment of large numbers of non-white seafarers, especially on long haul routes to Asia and Africa. Despite valiantly staffing vulnerable steamers ploughing through bomb ridden waterways, and being paid less than their non-white counterparts, at the end of the conflict most non-white mariners were dismissed as military personnel returned from active service and demanded their jobs back.

For non-white seafarers, further misery followed as a wave of xenophobia swept British ports, including London, Glasgow, Liverpool, Cardiff, Salford, Hull, South Shields, Newport and Barry between 1919 and 1921. Despite being British subjects, competition for jobs fuelled blatant prejudice against the non-white seafarers. As Jacqueline Jenkinson has observed, this was not just related to the end of the war, but instead “evidence of a persistent anti-black sentiment in British society which, at times, in specific circumstances, spilled over into violence.” Though organisations in Hull tried to forcibly resettle mariners back to Africa or the Caribbean where they had originated, a colour bar on vessels bound for those destinations meant they could not work their passages back home.

Violence followed in June 1920 as those left stranded became the scapegoats for sustained outbursts of racial violence. Focusing upon Osborne Street, Pease Street and Lower Union Streets, close to the Paragon Railway Station, events reached a crisis when in one incident over 200 people were seen attacking a “negro child”. To try to bring some degree of order, the nearby pubs banned all non-white men, yet further attacks prevailed. Attempts were made to bribe sailors to leave Hull, but these too were largely ineffective. Meanwhile the wives and children of interracial unions were left traumatised.

Accounts published in local newspapers detail how xenophobia prompted Hull’s non-white population to decline to between 60 and 100 people by the close of 1920. In its aftermath the city developed a trend for growing intolerance to those seen as racial outsiders. Despite its proud record of accepting waves of migrants and refugees for centuries, the economic challenges of the interwar period made life for Hull’s ethnic minorities challenging. That racism emerged as the economic well-being of the port city diminished reinforced the close ties between austerity and racial intolerance.

Yet as we approach the centenary of these events, a real stain on Hull’s racial past, perhaps we need to pause and reflect upon how inclusive the city is to racial and ethnic minorities today. Despite the great work by organisations including Hull City Council, Hull Culture and Leisure Limited, Humber All Nations Alliance, the Freedom Festival, the University of Hull, and the creation of education resources like the Africans in Hull and East Yorkshire website, anti-black racism is again on the rise. Speaking to those who have chosen to make Hull their home in the past few decades, the pervasiveness of prejudice is once again alive. We all need to stand up during this centenary year for everyone. #BlackLivesMatter!

* This blog entry is based on Nicholas J. Evans, ‘The making of a mosaic: Migration and the port-city of Kingston upon Hull’, in D. J. Starkey, D. Atkinson, B. McDonagh, S. McKeon, & E. Salter (eds.), Hull: Culture, History, Place (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017), pp. 144 – 177

The headline of a report about the riots in the Hull Daily Mail, 21 June 1920.