About the Project

There are an estimated 40 million slaves worldwide. A modern antislavery movement is working to end global slavery and the UN Sustainable Development Goals include a target for its eradication. Our AHRC-funded grant project (2014-19) sought the lessons of past antislavery movements for these contemporary antislavery efforts.


Working with survivors of slavery, community muralists, heritage and policy partners, NGOs, and activist education groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we identified and applied usable antislavery past for the contemporary  movement challenging the illegal forms of slavery that persist in our world.

The project rested on a number of related inquiries: where did past movements succeed and fail? What can we learn from both the success and the failures of the past? How can we learn from the past to build an effective, multi-dimensional movement that puts the voices, ideas and strategies of slavery survivors at its heart? How can heritage practices move beyond nostalgia for past antislavery victories towards an active protest memory? How useful is the notion of an active protest memory? How might such a protest memory be deployed? Are there any problems with ‘using’ the past and how might these be negotiated? What historical antislavery opinion-building techniques, legislative battles, rhetoric, visual culture and movement structures would provide adaptable models for contemporary antislavery?

The project was a partnership between University of Nottingham, and the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation (WISE) at the University of Hull. It was funded by the AHRC under their ‘Care for the Future: Thinking Forward Through the Past’ theme. The project brought together scholars from different disciplines (including History, American Studies, Social Sciences, Law) and partners from outside of the academy (NGOs, museums, activists, educators).

The project also collaborated closely with the Antislavery Knowledge Network, which is based at the University of Liverpool, and seeks community-led strategies for creative and heritage-based interventions in sub-Saharan Africa.

Some of our sub-projects are described below (see Project Strands for a full list):

  • Remembering 1807: John Oldfield and Mary Wills (WISE) collected material on UK projects that commemorated the bicentenary of the abolition of the British transatlantic slave trade in 2007. It is concerned with the relationship between slavery, memory and identity. The collection reflects a huge variety of different commemorative strategies from temporary small scale local interventions to much larger permanent national exhibition spaces. It will enable researchers to ask important questions about representations of slavery and abolition. Who gets to control that representation? And what does it tell us about how we think about ourselves in the present? As we approach the bicentenary of the Parliamentary Act that made slavery illegal in the British Caribbean, Canada, Mauritius and the Cape of Good Hope in 2033, we hope that the archive will provide useful lessons for those seeking to engage in similar commemorative activities.
  • Antislavery Visual Culture: Hannah Jeffery (University of Nottingham) collected and mapped murals that feature references to slavery and antislavery from around the world, with a focus on the USA. This project was part of Hannah’s doctoral research. She used the collection to think about the role of antislavery protest memory in the continuing struggle for civil rights and social justice for African Americans.
  • Contemporary Narratives: Zoe Trodd (University of Nottingham) gathered a major collection of testimonies by survivors of contemporary slavery. Inspired by the tradition of powerful nineteenth-century slave narratives, this collection put survivors’ voices and stories at the heart of antislavery activism in the belief that their opinions should be key to the formulation of antislavery strategies in the present day.
  • Congo Antislavery: Katie Donington (University of Nottingham) digitised a photography collection of 509 images taken by British missionary Alice Seeley Harris which were used during the Congo antislavery campaigns of the early twentieth century. Rooted in the relationship between humanitarianism and empire, the project was centrally concerned with issues of representation; the ways in which past antislavery visual culture sustained racialised tropes that, far from anti-colonial, were bound up with the imperial project. The problematic nature of these photographs, framed as they are through an imperial and ethnographic lens, form part of a highly racialised visual economy that continues to persist within current humanitarian campaigning. As part of this project we worked in partnership with Yole!Africa (an arts-based education organisation in Goma) to define what the usable past of these images is. The project documented the responses of different communities in the DRC through the creation of an archive of their artwork, co-curated exhibition material and educational resources.
  • Reparations: Jean Allain (Monash University) and Katarina Schwartz (University of Nottingham) held an Intercultural Dialogue on Human Rights and Justice and a workshop on Historical Injustice and Reparations at Queen’s University Belfast. Katarina’s doctoral research explored the role of reparatory justice within the current legal landscape, assessing this against the objectives of the contemporary slavery reparations movement.

To explore the collections, please visit our archive.

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