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.

Using street art to help fight modern slavery

The University of Nottingham launched the first ever major collection of murals focussing on slavery and the anti-slavery movement, on the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery (2 December).

Murals are a common tool in the fight against slavery, but their ephemeral nature means that that have a limited lifespan. The ‘Antislavery Usable Past’ project has created the first large-scale collection of antislavery murals. It brings together both interior and exterior murals from the 1920s through to present day.

By evaluating how different groups have used murals about the antislavery past for protest and community activism, the archive aims to encourage contemporary antislavery activists to use this form of community artwork to raise awareness and build city-wide “slavery-free community” campaigns.

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Historians Against Slavery Conference 2017

“Outstanding scholarship linked directly to contemporary issues of injustice and oppression” (HAS delegate)

Overview: This year Historians Against Slavery (HAS) held its biennial conference outside of the United States for the first time at the International Slavery Museum (ISM) in Liverpool, UK. The two-day conference was part of a series of events during the 10th Anniversary of the ISM and also marked UK Black History Month 2017. It was co-hosted by HAS, the ISM, the Centre for the Study of International Slavery (University of Liverpool) and the Antislavery Usable Past project (ASUP, Universities of Nottingham and Hull).

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Human Trafficking’s Usable Past

By by Jean Allain. International Co-Investigator.  Professor, Faculty of Law, Monash University, Australia; Professor of International law, Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull, UK.

I’ve always said that grants do two things: they are a catalyst, moving one’s research forward; and second they allow the researcher to do things they might not otherwise be able to do.

A component of our Arts & Humanities Research Council Large Grant on Antislavery Usable Past allows me the opportunity to write a monograph about the legal regimes surrounding antislavery.  That book will capture various areas of the law under the umbrella of human trafficking.

As part of that research I had an opportunity in 2015 to travel to the League of Nations Archives in Geneva, Switzerland, to go gather material around the League’s activities related to trafficking, including the negotiations of the 1921 and 1933 Traffic in Women conventions.  I also visited the United Nations Library in Geneva where I collected the relevant United Nations material including that of 1949 trafficking in Persons instrument.  That material, which I photographed, will keep me busy over the next year or so, as I sift through it to drawn out its relevance.

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‘A Museum for all Americans’

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or… some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

These are powerful words, spoken by Barak Obama in his final speech as US President in January 2017. They echoed loudly when delivered in that speech, which marked one of the most significant regime changes in the political history of America, but they echo louder still etched into the wall of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington DC. This is where I saw them, in the final display of the museum’s history galleries, opposite a case filled with objects celebrating the achievements of America’s first president of African descent. In a museum that has been in the making for over one hundred years, these words are an affirmation of the achievement that the NMAAHC is.


One of the quieter displays in the museum explores the making of the NMAAHC. It was here where I really realised what a huge achievement the very existence of the museum is to African American communities across America.

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Nottingham Stands Against Slavery: Help make Nottingham a slavery free city

This event took place on 20th June 2017 at the University of Nottingham and was well attended with around 40 people including local activists, frontline social workers and faith leaders at the event to hear from the expert panel and discuss three of Unchosen’s short films. The level and quality of debate was very high, with detailed questions and analysis from both the audience and panel members. Continue reading

Red rubber in sepia: Slavery, memory and representation in the Democratic Republic of Congo

By Katie Donington

As part of the Antislavery Usable Past project I am digitising a collection of 509 photographs produced by a British missionary Alice Seeley Harris. The images have achieved an iconic status in the representation of the human suffering that occurred in the Congo Free State when it was under the control of King Leopold II at the turn of the nineteenth century. Continue reading

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.

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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.

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.

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