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 if you organised a project in 2007 and have surviving records you would like to feature in the resource.

The Iron in the Ivory Towers: Dealing with Georgetown’s legacies of enslavement

This post by Katarina Schwarz also features on the blog of the Re-presenting slavery: making a public usable past project.

Left: a statue of John Carroll, founder of Georgetown University sitting before Healy Hall on the college’s campus. Credit Alex Wong/Getty Images. Right: the grave of Cornelius Hawkins, one of 272 slaves sold by the Jesuits in 1838 to help keep what is now Georgetown University afloat. Credit William Widmer for The New York Times

Many universities and colleges benefitted from human enslavement and exploitation, and Georgetown University, Washington was no exception. What is exceptional about Georgetown’s case is how well documented those connections are, and now the nature of the attempt to reckon with them.

In 2015, Georgetown’s President John DeGioia convened a Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation to examine the university’s ties to slavery. The Panel released its report in 2016, with recommendations for the school including making amends for the 1838 sale of 272 slaves used to pay off school debts and avoid bankruptcy. Following this report, Georgetown pledged to apologise for its role in the slave trade, to commission a memorial to honour the 272 people sold, and to rename two university halls of residence originally named after the two school presidents that organised the 1938 sale. These are typical of the approaches generally taken by universities dealing with ties to enslavement. What is unique in Georgetown’s case, however, is the offer of admissions preference for the descendants of the 272 enslaved persons (the same preference given to children of alumni, faculty, and staff).

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Bill of sale dated June 19, 1838, stating: “Thomas F. Mulledy sells to Jesse Beatty and Henry Johnson two hundred and seventy two negroes, to wit.” The document outlined a payment plan, with discounts if the slaves turned out to be more infirm than described. Credit Maryland Province Archives at Lauinger Library at Georgetown University.

Beyond the now familiar critique of the university’s choice to address historical ties to slavery at all, is a debate specific to the Georgetown context, not concerned with whether institutions should grapple with these pasts, but with how they ought to do this. Ta-Nahesi Coates, author of one of the most influential reparations arguments published to date, has labelled the pledge ‘reparations’ even if the ‘scope’ of the measures remained ‘debateable’. Others have agreed with this classification, while also confirming their belief that the measures were inadequate, variably seeing the pledge as a meaningful start (at best) or self-serving and tokenistic (at worst).

The real world value of preferential admissions are challenged as potential beneficiaries still face the extreme financial hardships of attending Georgetown and the difficulties of reaching the university’s academic standards. When combining these factors with the extreme disadvantage suffered by many of the descendants (the very disadvantage the programme is designed to offset) the offer of preferential treatment becomes largely ineffectual. In the words of Melissa Kamp, one of the identified descendants of the Georgetown project, the proposal would be “dangling an apple a little too high for some of the students”. Like many others, Kamp worried that the inequalities preventing descendants from being able to enjoy the preference were not being addressed. Tressie McMillan Cottom claims these shortcomings are so significant that the measures cannot be considered as reparations at all. For McMillam Cottom, reparations require acknowledgement, specific restitution, and closure, of which only the first component is satisfied by Georgetown’s promise.

To address the financial shortcomings of the existing proposal, a number of the descendants have now joined together, seeking to establish a $1 billion foundation in partnership with the university and Maryland Jesuits. These descendants have already raised the symbolic figure of $115,000 (the 1838 sale price for the 272 enslaved persons) and are calling upon Georgetown to contribute to make reparations meaningful and accessible. Whether Georgetown will ‘put its money where its mouth is’ remains unclear. What is clear is that something more than the current proposal is necessary if the institution hopes to make a practical difference to the lives of the descendants and provide specific redress for its past actions.

Left: Descendants of slaves (left to right) Sandra Green Thomas, Patricia Bayonne-Johnson, Zeita Kemp, Melissa Kemp and Karran Harper Royal speak at Georgetown University on Sept. 1. Credit Linda Davidson for The Washington Post. Right: Joseph M. Stewart and Patricia Bayonne-Johnson, descendants of slaves sold to benefit the university. Mr. Stewart said descendants should be more involved in decision making. Credit Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times.

The creation of this foundation seeks to address another issue with the current actions of the university: the lack of inclusion of the descendants in the processes which led to Georgetown’s pledge. As Sandra Green Thomas told the Washington Post: “We appreciate the gestures of a proposed memorial to our enslaved ancestors on Georgetown’s campus and President John DeGioia’s visits with some descendants, but recommendations developed without the meaningful participation of descendants can only be seen as preliminary”. Like many institutions undergoing similar processes, Georgetown failed to open its walls to the people with whom it was attempting to reconcile, undermining the meaningfulness of the ultimate conclusions. For their part, the Working Group (and De Gioia) have acknowledged that they were only starting out on dealing with Georgetown’s past, and that consultation with descendants would be an integral part in the future processes. Whether this occurs remains to be seen.

Exactly where Georgetown will now go with its proposals to deal with its historical ties to the institution of chattel enslavement remain unclear. However, what has become clear from the dialogue surrounding Georgetown’s approach is that the discussion is beginning to progress beyond arguments over whether or not these histories matter. The conversation is expanding to cover the forms redress should take and processes through which universities should address a past that is not only theirs.

A New Curriculum for Hull – Usable Past in Action

By Rebecca Nelson, Wilberforce Institute

Since September I’ve been working as an intern with Hull’s Heritage Learning team. They are responsible for the educational offers across the museum sites in Hull, working with schools from the local area and beyond. For 2017, coinciding with the City of Culture programme, Heritage Learning are launching a new history curriculum for schools in the Hull area. This explores the history of Hull from its origins in the medieval period, to the modern day, through key events and characters. Teachers were consulted about the topics they wanted to see on the curriculum, with an original list of over 150 being whittled down to just 20.

The list of topics includes Hull Fair, both World Wars and a look at the development of the city and its docks. Each topic is then divided into sections which form a series of lessons for teachers. Within these sessions there is historical information, links to further reading, ideas for classroom activities and examples of primary sources from the museum collections. I did lots of the preliminary research for these histories, using the skills I’ve developed doing my PhD, as well as identifying relevant sources from the collections.

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An early photograph of Wilberforce House. The house was purchased by Hull City Council in 1896 and was opened as a museum in 1906, with a large collection of William Wilberforce’s personal effects © Hull Museums: Wilberforce House

Of course one topic which couldn’t be left out is the story of Hull’s ‘most famous son’ and renowned antislavery campaigner William Wilberforce. The curriculum looks at his early life in Hull, his campaign against the slave trade, and his legacy. Much of the information came from the displays at the Wilberforce House Museum, as did the examples of primary source material. These include early sketches of Wilberforce House, portraits of the man himself, contemporary newspaper articles relating to the antislavery campaign and instruments of brutality from plantations. However, the ideas for suggested teaching activities linked to Wilberforce stretch far beyond history. Teachers are encouraged to have rights-based class discussions for citizenship, look at trade routes and maps for geography, understand about how the poor conditions experienced by the enslaved affected health and the human body for science, and develop the children’s art skills with sessions on antislavery porcelain designs.

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A rare leaflet from the 1920s petitioning citizens of Hull to continue to object to slavery around the world. © Hull Museums: Wilberforce House

The Hull Curriculum is a new initiative, having only been introduced once elsewhere in the UK (in Bristol). Children are given the opportunity to develop their understanding of the past through the whole spectrum of subjects on the curriculum. In addition, they are given experiences which make the past relevant to the present. Here, antislavery becomes a vehicle for exploring human rights, ideas of freedom and equality, the abhorrent nature of racism – all of which are extremely pertinent in today’s society, locally in Hull and around the world.

A valuable experience at the International Slavery Museum

By Rebecca Nelson, Wilberforce Institute

Alongside being part of the Antislavery Usable Past project, my PhD experience also includes academic training with the Heritage Consortium. This comprises a group of Northern universities, committed to enhancing applicable heritage skills among students with related research interests. This has worked very well with my interest in museums and their engagement with and interpretation of antislavery across Britain. Part of the assessment for this training was a placement, which I wanted to do somewhere that had real relevance for my research – what better place than Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum (ISM)?

I worked at the museum for nearly a month, a relatively short time in the scheme of my PhD, but things move fast in the museum environment and I feel that during that time I had a wealth of opportunities which enabled me to get to see first-hand the work the ISM does, the challenges it faces, and to get to know the team behind it all. My experiences included conducting research to answer visitor enquiries, proof reading text for new exhibitions, transcribing letters from British plantation owners in Guiana from the 1780s, and adding new museum acquisitions to the digital database.

It was with one of these new acquisitions that I felt I had the most challenging experience in terms of my thinking about museums, and my skills working with historic objects – but also the most rewarding. Shortly before I arrived on placement, the museum had received a parcel of newly acquired items for the collection, featuring a range of items relating to slavery and the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade. Included in these were twenty copies of the Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, the weekly newspaper published by the Black Panther Party between the 1960s and the 1980s. At their peak, the newspapers had a global readership of some 300,000 and were written with the main aim of informing, educating and organising the Party’s members. In each issue there were articles about violent clashes between the Party and their opponents, plans for further aggressive action, and reports from trials and sentencing hearings, usually concerning the party leaders. There were also party rules, membership forms and adverts for merchandise.


Rebecca working with the newspapers

At first, I found these quite difficult to read. Usually I feel a sense of detachment towards museums objects, but the newspapers were tough – strongly worded, and accompanied with graphic images – and I struggled to imagine how these items could be made accessible to the museum’s audience. On second reading though, I started to notice there was another side to these newspapers. The Party operated a wide-ranging social improvement programme, ensuring education facilities for black children, a nationwide free breakfast effort and buses for those without transport. Their call for black communities across America was “We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice And Peace”, absolutely essential rights we would argue now – perhaps it was the methods utilised by the Party which has led to their ambivalent historical record.

Cataloguing these items gave me a chance to reflect on the role of the International Slavery Museum, and of museums in general. Clearly the ISM is interested in exploring, engaging with and encouraging its visitors to think about legacies of slavery – this directly applies to the circumstances which facilitated the rise of the Black Panther Party and formed the motivation for all of their work. Museums have an essential role in preserving all history, not just the parts that are easily understood. To have a full understanding of the past, for academics and the general public, it is essential that items like these are kept somewhere. Museums then can facilitate a safe space for engagement with these items, in a proper historical context, surrounded by people who can offer further advice and support as necessary. As clichéd as it may sound, there is always more than one side to the story, and museums must seek to offer that in whatever capacity – no matter how difficult, emotionally or politically. It is their duty, and particularly so for the ISM which defines itself as a socially responsible institution, to work with objects like this to enhance both our understanding of the past, and the present.

Knowing the Chains: Corporate Reporting under the Modern Slavery Act

By Katarina Schwarz, PhD candidate, Queens University Belfast

The products that we buy and use today have almost always passed through many hands before they reach us. A complex sequence processes are involved in the production and distribution of goods, increasingly pulling materials across many different borders in order to create the goods we enjoy. Just how complicated these supply chains have become can make the origins of products murky, if not impossible to determine. Increasingly, however, lights are being shone on the links of this chain to highlight the abuses which can occur throughout the process.

The risk that these abuses will include modern slavery at some point along the chain is high. The Global Slavery Index estimates that there are 45.8 million people are enslaved in the world today, the majority of whom are exploited for their labour. This unfree labour infuses our lives and the products we buy, but in most cases remains invisible.

In the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the UK government created an obligation designed to push companies to open the curtains on their supply chains, and in particular on the existence or risk of trafficking and modern slavery. Section 54 of the Act requires organisations with a total global annual turnover of £36 million (or more) carrying out business in the UK to produce an annual statement detailing the steps they have taken (or the lack thereof) to identify and combat modern slavery and trafficking in their business and supply chains.

The expectation was that the requirements would give consumers a tool for holding companies accountable for labour abuses, and that companies would have an increased incentive to take steps to deal with modern slavery in their supply chains. The provisions were supposed to ‘level the playing field’ between companies who were working hard to prevent exploitation, and those that were profiting from it. And human exploitation is undoubtedly a profitable enterprise.

For statements to work at achieving these purposes, however, they would have to change the attitudes of either the people buying the product (consumers) or the people running and managing the companies. So have companies increased their attention on transparency in their supply chains, and dealing with abuses, are they complying with the requirements of the Act, and are they doing so in a way which will contribute to long-term change?

The 31st of March 2016 marked the end of the first financial year for which companies were required to publish these statements. Although it is still early days in terms of Act, some indication as to the way that things are progressing is already becoming clear, and responses thus far leave much to be desired.

Of the first 75 statements released under the Act, only 22 met the minimum legal requirements of the Act – being signed by a company director and made available on the company website’s homepage. Only 9 met the legal requirements and reported on all six of the criteria suggested by the Act.

In an analysis of over 230 statements, Ergon found that a quarter of statements were under 250 words long, 59% were under 500 words, and 90% were shorter than this commentary. It is therefore unsurprising that the degree of detail provided in these statements leaves much to be desired. The glaring failure in addressing risk assessment found by Ergon (with 35% of companies saying nothing on the matter, and only 19% addressing risks in detail or moderately well) is particularly concerning.

Table analysis by Ergon in Reporting on Modern Slavery: The Current State of Disclosure (May 2016)

While we can hope that the momentum for changes to be made is building, and that there will be continuous improvement both in the measures undertaken and the reporting of them by companies, this should not be taken as a given. Five years into California’s state law creating similar measures, compliance with the requirements remains low and companies demonstrate a continued resistance to meaningful change. KnowTheChain in a study of statements from 2013-2015 found that only 31% of companies fitting within the requirements had statements available in compliance with the law. Again, the detail provided in the statements that were published accomplished very little in the way of transparency.

That companies have total freedom as to how they report on steps they have taken to address modern slavery allows them to stick to a ‘bare minimum’ approach in what they publicise. The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) identifies this as an attempt to manage risk, noting that the general trend towards under-reporting turns what was envisaged as an accountability mechanism into ‘wafer-thin PR exercises’ in most cases.

While a gradual, policy driven approach within supply chains may be necessary to protect workers, who are often left vulnerable and more at risk when known brands and retailers pull out of relationships with their suppliers, companies must be pushed if we hope to see meaningful and lasting change. Awareness itself is not enough – a 2015 study revealed that 71% of UK companies believe there is a likelihood of modern slavery occurring at some point within their supply chains, and yet the strategies to minimise such are scarce.

The Home Secretary Guidance issued under the Act recognises that far too many organisations ignore abuses or are “knowingly responsible for policies and practices that result in workers being subjected to modern slavery in their operations”, and yet it leaves the discretion for action with those companies that have profited from the exploitation for years. The Act imposes no penalty on non-compliant companies beyond the ability of the Secretary of State to bring proceedings in the High Court for an injunction compelling performance. If the ‘transparency machine’, NGOs and private consumers do not begin to pick up on the massive failures in these areas in a big way, there is very little incentive on companies to change their approaches.

Theresa May (then Home Secretary) in the Foreword to the Home Secretary Guidance said that it is “not acceptable for any organisation to say, in the twenty-first century, that they did not know. It is not acceptable for organisations to ignore the issue because it is difficult or complex. And, it is certainly not acceptable for an organisation to put profit above the welfare and well-being of its employees and those working on its behalf.” And yet, the current regime allows just that.

While an approach that protects workers and ensures that they are not forced to find new work at great risk to their lives and safety is important, increasing the pressure upon companies to change their ways is also vital. You can be sure that policies would change if companies and their agents were held liable under the Act for aiding and abetting the criminal offences which they allow to take place, and fund, through their supply chains.


Measuring Slavery and our “Ending Slavery” Open Online Course

By Professor Kevin Bales, University of Nottingham

How many people around the world do you think are victims of slavery today? Modern slavery is a hidden crime that is especially hard to measure. That’s why a group of researchers came together to develop the Global Slavery Index, which measures slavery as accurately as possible. The 2016 Global Slavery Index estimates there are 45.8m people worldwide in slavery today. That is more than the entire population of Canada, Poland, Uganda or Malaysia.

One of a group of young women trafficked into a sweatshop who were forced to worked 20 hours a day with no pay and very little food. After escaping and being taken in by a shelter in Bangkok, she eventually felt able to tell her story resulting in a police raid that freed 38 other women. Kay Chernush for the U.S. State Department

Counting a crime

Like victims of sexual assault, victims of slavery feel stigma and shame, in part because sexual assault is very common in slavery cases. As a result, they are unlikely to report it to the authorities so the crime goes unrecorded. But slavery also defies measurement for a unique reason.

Normally, to determine the level of any specific crime in developed countries, the results of a national sample crime survey are compared to the official arrest and conviction rate. When being counted, all crimes are treated as “events”, also known as short single episodes.

But slavery is a crime which starts, and then continues for an indeterminate time – for days, months, or even years. This unique fact about slavery crime means it can rarely be measured using national crime surveys, as the victim is hidden away, enslaved, and not available to answer questions.

Understanding slavery

In an attempt to measure the incidence of slavery with greater accuracy, the Global Slavery Index casts the net wide. Instead of just individuals, it surveys households and families to see if anyone knows someone who has experienced slavery.

These surveys provide an estimate of the proportion of the population who are enslaved, and include cases that happened in other countries. For example, respondents in national surveys in Nepal identified significant numbers of family members enslaved in Qatar and other Gulf States.

The household surveys work well in countries in the developing world, but in North America and Europe more active law enforcement means criminals work hard to keep their slaves hidden. Fortunately, a statistical technique called multiple systems estimation (MSE) can provide reliable estimates of these hidden populations.

First used to estimate the number of fish in a Swedish fjord, MSE has been regularly used to determine the number of civilian deaths in ongoing conflicts. It works by comparing lists of casualties from hospitals, police and families, to determine an estimate of the total killed. When applied to slavery, it creates an estimate by comparing the lists of victims known to different agencies, such as the police, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and social service providers.

The UK was the first country to use this technique to estimate slavery, in late 2014, and immediately revised its official figures upwards from the 2,744 cases that were known to exist to an estimated 10,000 to 13,000 slaves. That remains the estimated figure today, and was quoted by the Prime Minister of the UK in her announcement of a new taskforce and fund to tackle modern slavery. It is a figure I developed with the Chief Scientific Advisor to the Home Office, Bernard Silverman.

As the modern antislavery movement pushes forward, these new breakthrough methods mean there is a yardstick to gauge the progress of liberation. This is important because you can’t solve a problem you can’t understand. Having a metric is crucial if we are to take effective action.

Knowing the geographical spread of slavery also brings with it knowledge of which products and commodities might be tainted by bondage – for example, the minerals in our phones and laptops may well have been extracted from the ground by slaves. And as the estimates become more precise, governments, NGOs, and international bodies can mark their progress, allowing us to trace the best roads to freedom.

At the University of Nottingham, we are looking at how to end slavery worldwide in our online course, Ending Slavery (starting 17 October). The course is part of our AHRC grant project, The Antislavery Usable Past. On it you’ll learn from experts at the cutting edge of contemporary slavery research, investigating the complex systems that sustain slavery today. Together we will figure out what individuals, communities, governments, companies and the international community should do next.

Join Ending Slavery and find out how you can make a difference to this major human rights issue.

‘Unspeakable Things Unspoken:’ Transatlantic Slavery – A Public Conversation (12-13 October 2016, Nottingham Contemporary)

Codrington Must Fall High Res.JPG


By Dr Katie Donnington, University of Nottingham

The bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 opened up a space to consider the place of slavery in the narrative of British history. The commemorations, dubbed by some as ‘Wilberfest’, were not without controversy with some historians and community activists critical of the focus on a self-congratulatory narrative of abolition. Since then there has been a notable shift in focus from Britain as emancipator to the much longer history of participation and profit. In 2013 the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project launched its open access database, for the first time drawing attention to the economic processes of slavery compensation and the multiple ways in which the system left its imprint on British society. The following year CARICOM announced its ten point plan for reparations, a move that sparked a huge public response in Britain and across Europe. In Britain, activism and academia have combined in the student-led movements that have demanded universities engage in a process of coming to terms with the(ir) imperial past, including links to slavery. Continued public interest in the history of slavery was demonstrated in the viewing figures for the 2015 BBC documentary Britain’s Forgotten Slave-owners – 1.6 million people tuned in to watch each episode. Slavery and its legacies remain with us, not least in the persistent forms of racialised thinking that continue to shape the social realities of the present.

I recently won a British Academy Engagement Award. These awards are designed to encourage public engagement with new interdisciplinary academic research, with a particular focus on working with Early Career Researchers. My project ‘Re-presenting slavery: Making a public usable past’ is building a network of historians who work on transatlantic slavery and who are committed to finding ways to make their research more accessible. Part of this work involves organizing a series of events that look at different aspects of public history and the ways in which slavery has been figured within them. We will begin with a conference on 12th-13th October 2016 at the Nottingham Contemporary ‘Unspeakable things unspoken’: Transatlantic slavery – a public conversation. The event will consider how academic history has shaped public perceptions of slavery and how public debate has challenged and inspired scholarship. It will give critical attention to the ways in which slavery and colonialism has shaped both our public and academic history institutions. Given the increasing emphasis on ‘impact’ within university research agendas the event will offer new possibilities for building relationships across academic and public history. Public history will be conceived of in its broadest sense and speakers and attendees will come from among museum and heritage professionals, artists, community historians, activists, academics, poets, performers, educators and most importantly – the public!

I want the event to be have open and inclusive atmosphere that bridges the gap between academic and public history. To try and foster this spirit the conference will shift away from the traditional academic format of panellists and audience questions. Instead dialogues between the invited speakers will run for 20 minutes with 10 minutes of audience questions. We will then move to dialogues around the tables based on the content of the presentation themes. This is to encourage peer to peer conversation – everyone’s opinions and perceptions are valid and should be open to discussion not just our speakers! Speakers and chairs will be asked to move around the room and engage with the tables.

The evening event will look at the ways in which slavery and its legacies have been explored and memorialised through poetry and performance. The focus of this event will be the work of renowned Jamaican dub-poet Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze. Breeze’s poetry gives voice to a wide range of disenfranchised people as well as personal, social, political and historical issues. Her work has engaged with themes of slavery and colonialism by linking the personal to the political. Breeze will in conversation with literary scholar Abigail Ward, together they will consider the tangled relationship between slavery, gender, sexuality, class and race, with a particular focus on the experiences of Caribbean women. The evening will also feature performances by local and regional artists Sure Shot aka Michael Brome, Panya Banjoko and Marcus Joseph.

The second day of the event will be a half day workshop focused on local history activism in Nottingham and the East Midlands. Participants will be encouraged to come to the workshop with ideas for building new or expanding existing public history projects that consider the history of slavery and its legacies. The meeting will act as a forum for brokering partnerships – local stakeholders from museums, archives, art galleries, Nottingham Trent University, the University of Nottingham, Midlands3Cities, community groups, creative practitioners, the council and relevant funding bodies will be invited to come.

There will be a further three workshops across England over the course of the next year. Each one will explore a different aspect of slavery’s public history – within the art world, museums and education. My hope is that this will eventually lead to tangible public engagement projects that move academic work outside of the university so that everyone can have access to the new knowledge that is being generated through this research.

To book your free place at this event please visit our Eventbrite page.

From the Transatlantic Slave Trade to Engaging the Maangamizi: Intergenerational Justice and Repair

By Katarina Schwarz, Queens University Belfast

Professor Jean Allain hosted a two-day event on 29 and 30 June 2016, From the Transatlantic Slave Trade to Engaging the Maangamizi, in collaboration with David Archard, leader of an Arts and Humanities Research Council Care for the Future Exploratory Award entitled ‘Generating Justice: The social, legal, political and ethical issues of ensuring justice across generations’. The first day of the event featured a Public Forum, an Intercultural Dialogue on Human Rights and Justice co-hosted with the African and Caribbean Support Network of Northern Ireland (ACSONI) entitled Dealing with the Past, Looking to the Future. A pre-Conference Workshop, Historical Injustice and Reparations, took place on the second day, co-hosted by Dr Jeremy Watkins from Queens University Belfast and coinciding with the Royal Institute of Philosophy’s Annual Conference of the Society of Applied Philosophy held in Belfast.

The Public Forum focused on community engagement, working with ACSONI to reach out to the local African and Caribbean communities as well as the broader public (see pictures). Scholar activists, academics, and public officials from across the UK and Ireland were brought together to discuss research, activism, and policy with the participants. Presenters engaged with the feedback, questions, and views of the public, creating multilateral discourse. Irish experiences of colonialism and anti-imperialism were acknowledged, building solidarity between people of African descent in Northern Ireland and the Irish Catholic community. This solidarity was recognised as being crucial to dealing with racial violence and discrimination within Northern Ireland.

The Public Forum was framed around the question ‘what is the Maangamizi?’ introducing a concept developed by scholar-activists of African descent into both public and academic discourse. The Maangamizi – the African holocaust of chattel, colonial, and neo-colonial enslavement perpetrated by Europeans and their prodigy – is a term central to many reparations and justice movements seeking to address the suffering of people of African descent. Guest speakers included reparationist, advocate and radio broadcaster Esther Stanford-Xosei, Dr Nathaniel Tobias Coleman, Dr Kwesi Tsri, Dr Christopher Stange (Hon. Consul for St Vincent and the Grenadines to Northern Ireland), Minister of Finance Mairtin O’Muilleor MLA, Michael McEachrane, and Elly Odhiambo.

The pre-Conference Workshop sought to settle the Maangamizi into the academic discourse through constructive dialogue between mainstream academics, scholar activists, and representatives from the Public Forum. Participants presented academic papers on issues relating to intergenerational justice and repair, with particular consideration of the place of marginalised communities and persons within their research. The importance of engaging with the voices of those people was consistently highlighted, and the ideas and language of activist communities was discussed and incorporated into the scholarship.

Rather than simply seeking to disseminate information to the public, this two day event promoted active engagement of both the public, activists, and academics, enriching the academic discourse through consideration of concepts developed by scholar-activists. The Forum also helped to engage a broader audience with issues associated with the past, whilst respecting for the voices of marginalised persons and their contributions. The event created a unique opportunity for the development of networks including academics, scholar-activists, activists, public officials and members of local communities.

Remembering Racism: Will History Fall with Rhodes?

by Katarina Schwarz, PhD candidate, Queens University Belfast



Universities have always revered history as a source of knowledge for the future; a grand narrative of lessons to be taken into the present to enrich our understanding of our origins, make better decisions in the present, and continue progress for the future. It is therefore no surprise that people care enough about the way that history is treated in these institutions to spark broad debates, controversy, and an international movement. From South Africa, to the United Kingdom, to the United States, students (as well as members of staff) are rallying for a radical adjustment in the way that people interact with the “glorious” history of their institutions. Whether or not it is true that Rhodes Must Fall, a conversation about his proposed demise is now unavoidable.

The Rhodes Must Fall Movement (#RhodesMustFall) began in South Africa in 2015 at the University of Capetown, initially directed towards the removal a statue commemorating Cecil Rhodes. This campaign became a springboard off of which other movements launched, including Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford, Royall Must Fall at Harvard, the Black Students’ Movement at Rhodes University, and many more.

In these campaigns, demands for the abandonment of particular statues, names, and symbols serve as the public face of a broader agenda to deal with institutionalised racism within universities. Students connect individual experiences of suffering and harms to inclusivity to these relics, and call for their schools to stop commemorating individuals who were major players in enslavement, apartheid, and the development of racial inequality at large. Statues of various colonial figures, shields featuring the crests of slaveholders, and the names of colleges and buildings are all under fire from these movements.

These demands have not gone unchallenged. At every point of protest there has been opposition on a number of levels. The primary criticisms accuse ‘offended’ students of attempting to wipe out a part of history which simply cannot be expunged. They claim that those who contributed significantly to an institution should be remembered for their part, and judged by the standards of their time rather than contemporary morality.

Implicit within these objections is the assumption that the history of an institution is inherently valuable – that the traditions, the heritage, the relics of the past form an important part of the culture of that university. If this were not the case, then donors of Oxford University would hardly have been outraged enough to threaten the withdrawal of over £100 million of gifts and bequests from the school if the statue of Cecil Rhodes gracing Oriel College were removed. If this were not the case, changing a crest or the names of buildings and schools, would be considered an uncontroversial rebranding exercise rather than an outrage.

It is clear that both sides of the debate have their own attachments to history – it is viewed as something valuable and relevant to current personal experiences. So can it be legitimate within this debate to argue for the removal of relics of that history from public spaces? To answer this question, it is important to recognise the differences between the narrative of history, and memorials which recognise particular aspects of it. As Christopher Phelps identifies:

History is one thing, memorials another. As tributes, memorials are selective, affirmative representations. When a university names a building after someone or erects a statue to that person, it bestows honor and legitimacy. The imprimatur of an institution of higher education affords the subject respect, dignity, and authority. This makes memorials every bit as much about values, status quo, and future as about remembrance.

The selective nature of memorials make them as much about excluding certain figures, certain parts of our history, as they are about remembrance. The choice to honour particular individuals, and to continue doing so by giving them one of the few portions of the public space in a university, cannot be a neutral recognition of institutional history. Given that this history is affirmed and alive in the present, it cannot be enough to simply justify injustice by labelling it a byproduct of ‘the times’.

Moreover, removing statues does not remove these figures from the narrative of history, it simply ends the positive commemoration of figures that were the architects of mass enslavement, apartheid, and racism. When Hungarian rebels toppled statues of Stalin in 1956 their actions were celebrated, not considered a pillaging of history; Stalin and his role in history have not been forgotten because of his eviction from public commemoration. Likewise, there has been little outcry over the removal of over 800 statues of Lenin in the Ukraine (in response to provocations by Putin’s Russia). Lenin’s place in the annals is not seen as jeopardised by this action, particularly given that most of the works have been transported to museums, an action equally possible in the university debate.

A more nuanced objection to removal recognises the particular role of memorials in affirming a particular conception of history, and identifies them as sites of a discourse on the role of history, modern race relations, and minority experiences – discussions that can only be had when there are people publicly questioning the validity of such relics. This objector should therefore be satisfied by the development of the student movements, despite disagreeing with one prong of their demands.

Regardless of which side of the debate you fall on, it is important to recognise that Rhodes falling is not a debate about whether we remember or erase particular figures in the history of our institutions. It is a debate about how we treat particular aspects of history, and memorialise them in the public space. Given that the history is very much alive for all sides of the discussion, it is also important to recognise the very particular histories to which the relics in question relate: histories of mass enslavement, racialisation, apartheid, and genocide. The legacies of these practices live on in the contemporary experiences of racism which black and minority ethnic students face on these campuses – experiences which should be grappled with as much as feelings of attachment to blocks of stone.


  • Defaced statue of Louis Botha outside the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town during the #RhodesMustFall campaign by HelenSTB (2015) 
  • Edward Linley Sanbourne, ‘The Rhodes Colossus: Caricature of Cecil John Rhodes’, after he announced plans for a telegraph line and railroad from Cape Town to Cairo, 10 December 1892
  • The statue at the centre of the controversy: a statue of Cecil Rhodes by Marion Walgate (1934)

A new transatlantic alliance of Historians Against Slavery

By guest contributors Matthew Mason (Brigham Young University, Utah) and Stacey Robertson (Central Washington University), Co-Directors, Historians Against Slavery

Beginning in the era of the American Revolution, and even with the Quakers before that, the abolition movement was a transatlantic phenomenon. Whether in the era of Anthony Benezet and Granville Sharp or of William Lloyd Garrison and Thomas Fowell Buxton, abolitionists found that differences in the political cultures in Britain and America posed opportunities as well as challenges for the cause. Following in their footsteps, in recent months Historians Against Slavery (HAS) has been examining ways of expanding and organizing our activities in the United Kingdom.

To that end, on Friday 29 April 2016, we as Co-Directors of HAS met with a group of about 30 British scholars, museum leaders, and activists to discuss the formation of HAS-UK. HAS board member and superstar organizer Zoe Trodd and her Antislavery Usable Past network convened the gathering at the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation (WISE). After we offered a brief history of HAS and answered a variety of questions, we listened to Kevin Bales, a professor at WISE and overall rock star in the movement; Richard Benjamin, director of the International Slavery Museum; Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International; Mike Gardner, an expert on digital networks; John Oldfield, director of WISE; and Jean Allain, who is working to establish Lawyers Against Slavery. Stacey and I came away from this gathering feeling energized by the potential for HAS-UK, and struck by three ways in which HAS-UK may well end up looking different from HAS in the US.

First, academics in the UK are expected to establish the “impact” of their work, and so an organization like HAS – which is focused on employing scholarship to support human rights – is attractive. In other words, the academic context in the UK is very friendly to scholarly involvement in activism.

Second, the diverse participation in the gathering suggested that HAS may be able to make inroads quicker in some areas there than in the US. The UK’s academic culture seems much better integrated with what they call the “heritage community” (museums, historical sites, that sort of thing) than US academic culture, so there are great opportunities for partnerships in this regard. The interest of antislavery NGOs like Anti-Slavery International, and discussion at the meeting of how the media in the UK loves to cover the activities of such NGOs, suggests other opportunities for HAS in the UK. We in HAS have always been interested in partnering with antislavery organizations and people in the heritage community, as illustrated by our ongoing collaborations with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. But such immediate and high-energy and –profile partnerships in the UK may give us the momentum we need to expand our efforts in this direction in the US.

Third, in our opening statement we spoke of HAS founder James Brewer Stewart’s repeated point that the contemporary antislavery movement too often loses or marginalizes African-American voices and history, and that HAS should never lose sight of that. It was interesting to watch that theme unfold in this meeting in Hull because of the different racial scenario in Britain. Linking antislavery to people of colour there means connecting with hot-button questions such as reparations for slavery as well as the legacy of the British Empire. It seems that the question of reparations is analogous in the racial politics of Britain to mass incarceration / Black Lives Matter in the US; in both instances, any engagement with contemporary slavery that ignores such questions risks being marginalized politically and impaired in impact.

We look forward to seeing how HAS-UK unfolds given these differences from the US context for HAS’s work. Given the energy, intellectual gravity, and good will of the people gathered at the Wilberforce Institute in April, we are confident that this unfolding will produce multiple benefits.