Why the history of antislavery is horribly important…

by Rebecca Nelson, PhD Candidate, Antislavery Usable Past, WISE, University of Hull

Large Group UOH_8186 copyRepresentatives from WISE, the University of Hull and the US Embassy working with primary school children from Hull in an Atlantic celebration of the antislavery past.

The Antislavery Usable Past project is funded via the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s ‘Care for the Future’ initiative. It aims to illustrate how an applied knowledge of the history of antislavery offers a way to care for the future by providing a usable past for today’s campaigners. The impact of this project relies on an audience that understands the importance of this historic narrative, be it academics, heritage professionals, campaigners or the general public. Antislavery has long been the view through which a British narrative of slavery has been channelled, as witness some of the commemorative activities for the bicentenary of the Abolition Act in 2007. Antislavery is a hugely important topic in both the past and present, for remembering and discussing narratives of social campaigning and slavery. What follows is just a selection of the reasons why this is the case.

  1. The antislavery past is everywhere across society; whether it is in architecture, the grand houses of those who led the abolition movement, or the public halls in which they spoke, or the monuments erected to them. It is also visible in cultural trends, such as the diverse makeup of our local communities, and the improved equality between races. Abolitionist ideas remain in politics, as do abolitionists’ methods of popular campaigning, public speaking and petitioning. To neglect the history of antislavery is to restrict the general understanding of the way in which society has developed to what we know today.
  2. An awareness of an antislavery history can contribute to a better understanding and appreciation of contemporary social movements.  The presence of social campaigns and human rights can be traced back to the origins of the abolitionist movement, which is often described as the first, popular, political campaign. Antislavery is still, in itself, a current issue and many NGOs would greatly benefit from the work being done to understand historic antislavery – as an inspiration and template for methods and motivations which were employed to justify the historic campaign. The antislavery past can also be used as a complementary narrative for the histories of slavery – these are in no way exclusive narratives, and it would be impossible to gain a full understanding of one, without the other.
  3. Antislavery histories can be employed to illustrate the early development of transatlantic institutions. The abolition campaign was one of the first to unify political, popular thought in both the UK and the US, with many American antislavery movements taking their inspiration from British counterparts. Abolitionists from the US toured extensively within the UK and vice versa for UK abolitionists. Speakers were well received on both sides of the pond. Once emancipation had occurred in the British colonies, the British abolitionists went even further, setting their sights towards an international abolition. This began a significantly more global abolition movement, with an outward focus to the slave trade at sea, and within Africa itself, which still continues today. A knowledge of the antislavery past, therefore, can be used as a case example of the development of globalisation and international relations that direct the societies that we live in now.
  4. A study of the history of antislavery can have implications for many different academic disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, politics and wider cultural studies.  Such a multidisciplinary field increases the impact value for potential research, by extending the audience to whom it may be relevant, applicable or interesting.  The longevity of antislavery thought also lends itself well to a case study of change through time, for any of the afore mentioned fields.  The issues of slavery and antislavery affected, and still resonate with, many people, in a huge range of communities, ethnicities, countries, religions and economic circumstances.  The extent of this reach ensures that academic work which is linked to either of these topics has the potential to affect a high number of individuals, as well as allowing the research to utilise a wide field of stakeholders.
  5. Knowledge of the historic movement of antislavery can help to illustrate that attitudes changed, and are still changing towards individual human rights, and the criminality of slavery. Historians have argued that the history of antislavery is equally as long as the history of slavery, with many individuals seeking to escape from their moment of capture. Knowing this to be the case may help in a restitutive sense, for those who still feel the repercussions of historic and contemporary slavery. Traditional narratives have also frequently excluded black voices and that has been a significant failure of the antislavery movement – one that we as a project hope to correct!

The history of antislavery is clearly an important tool in understanding the history of social movements, public campaigning and human rights. It can also be employed helpfully to raise awareness of and promote the cause of today’s antislavery movements, offering a long view of the public movements and attitudes against slavery since the late eighteenth century through to the present day.

Some further reading:

  • Blight, D.W (2006) ‘If you don’t tell it like it was, it can never be as it ought to be.’ In Horton, J.O & L.E (eds.) Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory. New York: The New Press, pp.19-23
  • Laderman, C (2013) ‘The Invasion of the United States by an Englishman: E.D Morel and the Anglo-American Intervention in the Congo.’ In Mulligan, W and Bric, M (eds.) A Global History of Antislavery Politics in the Nineteenth Century. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.171-197.
  • Melish, J. (2006) ‘Recovering (from) Slavery: Four Struggles to Tell the Truth.’ In Horton, J.O & Horton, L.E (eds.) Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory. New York: New Press, pp.103-34.
  • Midgley, C (1992) Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns, 1780-1870. London: Routledge.
  • Mulligan, W (2013) ‘The Antislave Trade Campaign in Europe, 1880-90.’ In Mulligan, W and Bric, M (eds.) A Global History of Antislavery Politics in the Nineteenth Century. London: Routledge, pp.149-70.
  • Sadler, N (2009) The Slave Trade. Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd.

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