Remembering 1807, Archiving 2007

By Dr Mary Wills

At the Wilberforce Institute we are in the final stages of collecting materials for ‘Remembering 1807’, a digital archive of materials from UK projects which in 2007 commemorated the bicentenary of the abolition of the British transatlantic slave trade. The archive will go live this September, and will be one of the major resources in the Antislavery Usable Past’s online portal, providing primary source materials to be used in future antislavery scholarship, teaching and learning.

‘Remembering 1807’ will reflect the commemorative outpouring in 2007 as hundreds of heritage groups and community organisations around the UK marked the anniversary of the 1807 Act. It will showcase the primary source materials produced to mark the bicentenary by the various museums, galleries, archives, community groups, churches, theatres, schools and other groups. The responses were incredibly varied, taking the form of exhibitions, debates, music, dance, theatre, storytelling, poetry, film, carnivals and festivals.

To highlight the breadth of activity, we have collected – and in many cases digitised –  materials from large national projects and regional initiatives, from local history projects and smaller, community-based events. Many of these projects received funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other national and regional funding bodies; others were self-funded. Much of the content of ‘Remembering 1807’ is ephemera: posters, leaflets, photographs from events. Many projects and organisations have also kindly contributed their research, in the form of exhibition panels, research guides, education packs and smaller publications.

Two projects from North-East England. Left: Schoolchildren from the Durham area took part in a re-creation of the cramped conditions on the slave ship ‘Brooks’ on the city’s Palace Green, as part of a project led by Durham University Library. Courtesy of Durham University Library. Right: A scene from ‘Sharp Practice’, a play about the slave trade and abolition devised and produced by Jackass Youth Theatre in collaboration with Jack Drum Arts in 2007. Courtesy of Jack Drum Arts.

There are many reasons for bringing together these materials. First and foremost, to preserve and share the many histories of the transatlantic slave trade and its abolition in the UK, connecting stories at a community, local, and national level. While several excellent scholarly articles have been written about 2007 (including those detailing the outcomes of the University of York’s 1807 Commemorated project), there is no resource which compiles all events and activities from 2007. Our AHRC theme is Care for the Future: part of our rationale is therefore to conserve the past, to preserve information and materials which because of their ephemeral nature are in danger of becoming lost with time.

The bicentenary commemorations challenged the UK’s heritage sector to negotiate a range of tensions surrounding the legacies of Britain’s history as a slaving nation, not least in the various partnerships established with African and African Caribbean community groups. The British government threw its weight behind the bicentenary, and the Heritage Lottery Fund made available £20 million to fund projects. Several aspects of the official narratives were problematic, however, notably the claims that themes of abolition and benevolence were privileged over a thorough exploration of the brutalities of colonial slavery and its legacies. 2007 was labelled ‘Wilberfest’ as a reaction to the disproportionate focus on William Wilberforce and other white male abolitionists. Truth 2007, for example, was founded in Bristol, to promote the African perspective perceived to be missing from ‘official’ commemorations in the city.

Ten years on and we are now able to reflect on the hundreds of bicentenary events and initiatives that took place in many communities across the UK. Many projects tackled the more contested themes. Several critically engaged with abolitionism and addressed the legacies of slave ownership, colonialism and racism in the UK. Partnerships and dialogues were established between community organisations and museums, archives, libraries and universities to look at ways of revisiting and reinterpreting collections. Elsewhere, there was focus on African voices and stories of enslaved resistance.

Bristol Museums
The exhibition ‘Bristol Faces, Afrikan Footsteps’ was a collaborative project between Bristol Museums and local young people of African and African Caribbean heritage to research the legacy of Bristol’s involvement in the trade in enslaved Africans. The project included a two-week trip to Ghana to learn about the country’s history and culture. Courtesy of Bristol Museums.

New exhibitions were opened in Liverpool, Bristol and London – three cities with long and troubled histories as ports of the transatlantic slave trade. This included the opening of the International Slavery Museum in 2007, alongside other community-led initiatives in Liverpool. Importantly, other projects revealed the presence of the slave trade and its abolition in the local histories of towns and localities not usually associated with slavery and its legacies: for example, Norfolk, Derbyshire, Enfield, or the Scottish Highlands. Several initiatives (particularly in North-West England) studied economic connections and trading relationships with slavery at their heart, as Victorian cities and entrepreneurs engaged with the slavery-related industries of cotton, tobacco, chocolate, guns and ships, which continued to flourish into the nineteenth century. This local visibility exposed how deeply slavery was embedded in the culture of most British towns and regions.

Left: Hackney Museum’s ‘Abolition 07’ exhibition told the story of British involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and resistance to it, and in particular emphasised the involvement of Hackney’s residents in the abolition movement. Courtesy of Hackney Museum. Right: ‘Slaves and Highlanders’ was an exhibition developed by Cromarty Courthouse Museum in the Scottish Highlands recording the role of Highland Scots in the slave trade and slave plantations of the Caribbean and South America. Courtesy of Cromarty Courthouse Museum.

This primary source material has much to offer future research into the place of slavery and abolition in the UK’s public memory. As part of our project’s goal to identify a ‘usable past’ for tackling modern slavery, we are also exploring how these past commemorative practices can create space for discussion of current concerns. Several initiatives from 2007 not only assessed the historical significance of 1807, but also looked to use the bicentenary as an opportunity to throw light on other forms of slavery and coercion, and contemporary forms of unfree labour in particular. The idea that abolitionism somehow triumphed in 1807 or 1833 was challenged and thrown open to wider discussion and debate, in recognition of other post-emancipation histories. In this interaction of history and activism, abolitionism can be presented as an ongoing movement of social action, informed by past efforts. To take forward this vocabulary and perspective is particularly relevant as we look towards future commemorations of Britain’s slave-owning history, and especially the next significant anniversary in 2033, marking 200 years since the abolition of slavery throughout the British empire.

‘Remembering 1807’ will be launched in September 2017. It is not intended to represent a finished project, but more a starting point. Indeed, there will be gaps in the archive, where we are including events that we know took place but which we have been unable to document with materials. Please get in touch (at m.wills@hull.ac.uk) if you organised a project in 2007 and have surviving records you would like to feature in the resource.

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