By Mary Wills, Wilberforce Institute
The recent announcement from the University of Glasgow that it benefited from donations from the profits of slavery amounting to the equivalent of tens of millions of pounds serves as another reminder of the long and complex money trail behind Britain’s role in transatlantic slavery. The way that universities, museums, religious bodies and other institutions around the world deal with the legacy of benefactors with links to slavery has become a major area of debate. These difficult histories must be acknowledged and confronted when assessing the place of transatlantic slavery in Britain’s public history. The Remembering 1807 archive highlights the ways in which heritage organisations and community groups around the UK tackled such uncomfortable questions in 2007.
As David Alston’s guest blog examines in the case of Scotland, the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 provided an opportunity (albeit seized by some more than others) to explore these histories. While many projects mapped in Remembering 1807 focused primarily on Britain’s role in abolition, others challenged visitors and participants to rethink the boundaries of slavery and abolition, and importantly, to consider how and where the vast sums of money generated from the trade in human lives was spent.
Wealth was accrued from slavery, directly or indirectly, in multifarious ways. Many British individuals and families made huge personal fortunes from trading in enslaved Africans or from ownership of slave-worked plantations in the Caribbean. Some projects examined this theme in 2007 (an area of research greatly expanded since 2009 by the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project): an exhibition at Manx National Heritage Library and Archives, for example, looked at the career of the slave trader Captain Hugh Crow. Much of the wealth generated by these connections is still visible in bricks and mortar, not least in some of Britain’s stately homes. English Heritage (now Historic England) commissioned research in 2007 into the linkages between properties in its care and transatlantic slavery. At Harewood House in West Yorkshire, there were several interrelated projects which highlighted the wealth accrued by the Lascelles family in the 18th century from their estates in Barbados, Jamaica, Grenada and Tobago. Examinations of this legacy included a well-received production of Carnival Messiah in the house grounds. Similarly, the Bittersweet exhibition at Tissington Hall in Derbyshire examined life, work and slavery on four Jamaican sugar plantations inherited by the FitzHerbert family in the 18th century. At Penrhyn Castle in Wales the Sugar and Slavery exhibition and accompanying events threw light on how the fortune of its former owners, the Pennant family, was built on Jamaican sugar.
Local schoolchildren at the ‘Sugar and Slavery – The Penrhyn Connection’ exhibition. Courtesy of Marian Gwyn
Such projects explored the complex historical legacies of this wealth, often tied up with the development of local industry or funding of charitable institutions. The wealth Richard Pennant made from his slave-worked plantations meant that he could develop the slate industry in Wales, and with it build roads, ports and railways. Victorian cities and entrepreneurs of Britain’s Industrial Revolution grew rich from trading in cotton, tobacco, guns and ships. This was particularly the case in North-West England. The Cotton Threads project in Bury, for example, explored the links between Britain’s booming textile industry and the import of slave-produced cotton from the United States.
Plaque placed at the former Royal Northern Infirmary in 2007 (with a translation in gaelic). Courtesy of David Alston
British institutions were given opportunities to thrive due to gifts or bequests from individuals and families whose wealth came from slavery in the same way that British business and industry prospered due to lucrative trading relationships with slavery at their heart. The Slaves and Highlanders exhibition developed by Cromarty Courthouse Museum, recorded the role of Highland Scots in the slave trade and slave plantations of the Caribbean and South America. This project involved the placing of a plaque in the former Royal Northern Infirmary (now the executive office of the University of the Highlands and Islands). It remains one of the few public acknowledgements of the use of profits from slavery to fund charitable public institutions. In Bristol, St Stephen’s was once the city’s harbour church which effectively ‘blessed’ slave trade ships leaving the prosperous port, and which benefited from slave merchants’ donations. This history was acknowledged in the Reconciliation Reredos project, from which a new altarpiece – or reredos – for the church was commissioned. The altarpiece contains four pieces of contemporary artwork by artist Graeme Mortimer Evelyn which explore the mercantile connections that built the city.
‘Reconciliation Reredos’: a new altarpiece at Saint Stephen’s Church in 2007, artwork by Graeme Mortimer Evelyn. Courtesy of Saint Stephen’s Church
Some projects from 2007 examined the subtle forms of enrichment from slavery, infiltrating all corners of the social and cultural development of British life: traces of this history can be found in street names, industrial heritage, and architecture. Several projects successfully used heritage trails to highlight the connections between transatlantic slavery, the wealth generated by the sugar or tobacco industries, and the built environments of UK cities – see, for example, the Sweet History youth project in Bristol, ‘It Wisnae Us!’ by Glasgow Built Preservation Trust or London, Sugar and Slavery at Museum of London Docklands.
Initiatives by the Bath Preservation Trust looked at how connections to plantations in the Caribbean enhanced the luxury of 18th century life in Bath, through objects, paintings and furniture. The Gentlemen Slavers exhibition at the London Borough of Sutton Archives examined how the influence of wealth generated by the slave trade was present in many aspects of the area’s local history and development. The exhibition focused on the activities of the Taylor family of the Carshalton Park estate, funded by a family fortune made on slave-worked sugar plantations on the islands of St Kitts and Nevis.
Other projects made connections with slavery in the histories of individuals not usually associated with the trade in human lives – Sir Henry Tate, for example, one of the most prominent philanthropists of the 19th century. A group of young men from the ORIGIN Rites of Passage Programme in Brixton produced a documentary to investigate Tate’s legacy and the tensions inherent in his acts of generosity being funded by wealth derived from sugar production. 1807 and Tate at Tate galleries in London, Liverpool and St Ives examined similar themes in connection with the philanthropist.
The bust of Sir Henry Tate outside Brixton Tate Library
These and other projects mapped in Remembering 1807 demonstrate that alongside the predominant focus on Britain’s role in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, the unsavoury legacy of enrichment and material benefits arising from a system built on cruelty and subjugation was also an important theme of commemorations in 2007. It is a theme explored in other public history explorations since the bicentenary year: see, for example, the Global Cotton Connections project, which ran 2014-15 and examined the legacies of cotton manufacturing in the Derbyshire Peak District. Further research and an open mind to the reaches of influence of Britain’s role in transatlantic slavery in all aspects of British social, economic and cultural history will ensure that it will remain an essential element in future discussions of the place of slavery and abolition in Britain’s public history and memory.