Lessons from the Usable Past: Part 1

Now that we are entering the final 18 months of the Antislavery Usable Past project, we thought it an opportune moment to start summing up some overall lessons from the project, while re-affirming others. What follows is an interim report setting out our first set of thoughts: ‘Lessons from the Usable Past: Part I’.  (Please have a look at About the project for further details about the project and the work strands.)

The Antislavery Usable Past project is a critical reflection on how past antislavery activism might inform the present. Not ignoring the fact that slave rebellions and riots were also forms of antislavery activism, the project acknowledges that the enslaved were agents in the process of Emancipation. The project raises some difficult and sensitive issues which need to be addressed.

Here are some of our important tenets:

  • Slavery did not end in 1833 with the passing of the Abolition Act.

We recognise that the legislation in 1833 to make slavery illegal in the British Caribbean, Canada, Mauritius and the Cape of Good Hope did not result in freedom and equality for the people who were enslaved, any more than 1807 ended the transatlantic slave trade. Transatlantic slavery was followed by a period of apprenticeship in which formerly enslaved people continued to work for free. After the ending of apprenticeship racial inequality persisted and continued to limit life chances. The exploitation of labour in the Caribbean can be read in the continued resistance of people to their circumstances, for example the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865. Globally, different forms of unfree labour from penal colonies to debt bondage have persisted up until the present day.

  • Transatlantic slavery and contemporary slavery are not the same thing.

Transatlantic slavery was a specific form of chattel ownership in which the status of the mother dictated the status of the child. It was a regime of racial supremacy and dominance. We do not equate transatlantic slavery with other forms of unfree labour because each system of labour has its own unique set of cultural, social, political and economic circumstances.

  • What happens in the present is not more important than considering the legacies of the past.

We believe that the history of transatlantic slavery and anti-slavery activism can offer lessons for the present, but this does not imply side-lining or undermining efforts to represent and remember the suffering of the enslaved and the legacies of that history today. Many people including community activists and historians have worked hard to make sure that this history has a place in the national narrative. We explicitly recognise the importance of this work, just as we recognise the importance of the work done by activists who continue to campaign for social justice in relation to transatlantic slavery.

  • The history of antislavery is not the history of European campaigners.

Our project is not about re-inscribing past narratives which focus on white abolitionists. On the contrary, we are keen to explore and highlight African resistance to European enslavement. African writers such as Ignatius Sancho, Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano are numbered among those who were involved in anti-slavery activity, together with rebels such as Bussa, Quamina and Samuel Sharpe. We would argue for a holistic approach (as adopted by Manisha Sinha, among others) that emphasises the history of everyday ‘slave’ resistance, uprisings led by the enslaved, and the revolutionary overthrow of the colonial regime in Haiti, as well as the political movements on both sides of the Atlantic to challenge the legal status of slavery. Self-emancipation and resistance are crucial to the empowerment of people to bring themselves out of enslavement – that is a key lesson for today’s campaigners.

  • Antislavery was not separate from the imperial project

We are very much aware that antislavery activism was used as a justification for expanding Britain’s empire throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The ‘civilising mission’ – which included a heavy emphasis on the eradication of slavery, particularly within the interior of Africa – was a key part of the imperial project. One of the periods we have been looking at is the history of slavery in the Congo Free State under King Leopold II of Belgium. The use of humanitarian and antislavery rhetoric in the Scramble for Africa is a central part of this story.

More reports will follow, and by the end of the project we will publish a full summary, drawing on this and other commentaries.

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