By Hannah Young
The second workshop of the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership’s autumn series was held at the New Arts Exchange in Nottingham on Saturday September 19th. The jam-packed day was well-attended, with around 60 participants across the day, and contained lots of lively and engaging discussion and debate. We would like to thank all of the attendees for making it such an enjoyable and thought-provoking event.
The day began with the attending members of the LBS team (Keith McClelland, James Dawkins and Hannah Young) exploring the impact of slave-ownership in the Midlands and the surrounding area. Keith McClelland kicked off proceedings by explaining a little bit about the LBS project and introducing the public database to those who might be unfamiliar with it. He then provided us a glimpse of how the database will look after the results of the project’s second phase are launched in 2016. Estates rather than individuals will provide the focal point of the new database. Users will be able to explore Caribbean estate-ownership between 1763 and 1833, accessing information about those who owned the estates, those who managed them, and those who were enslaved upon them.
James Dawkins continued by looking in more detail at the slave-owners of the Midlands. He highlighted the danger of assuming that slave-owing was only an activity undertaken in port cities like London, Liverpool and Bristol and showed us some impressive maps which demonstrated the spread of slave-ownership in the Midlands. I then spoke briefly about one particular slave-owning family. Sisters Sarah Holte and Elizabeth Newton lived in the Staffordshire village of Kings Bromley and in the 1780s owned two Barbadian plantations and 428 enslaved men, women and children.
Helen Bates and Lisa Robinson spoke about their experience of working with the Slave Trade Legacies project, aided by five of the group’s 100+ members. The Slave Trade Legacies project is comprised of a group of volunteers, mainly of Afro-Caribbean heritage, who are keen to explore why their own histories are missing from heritage sites in the UK. They spoke eloquently and passionately about the process of equipping themselves with knowledge about slavery for the sake of critiquing such sites. They have made seven trips so far to visitor attractions with links to slavery and the slave trade.
The recounting of their experiences of visiting Nottinghamshire’s Newstead Abbey was particularly powerful. Newstead Abbey, now owned by Nottingham City Council, was owned in the 19th century by Thomas Wildman, a Jamaican plantation-owner who spent £100,000 of the plantation’s profits restoring the house. Following the abolition of the slavery in 1834 he was awarded almost £5000 in compensation. Yet when members of the Slave Trade Legacies group visited Newstead Abbey they saw no mention of Wildman’s links with slavery and the slave trade. After enquiring about this omission they received a response from the site saying that because Widman never visited Jamaica these links were not important. They, unsurprisingly, found this response disappointing and upsetting. On the other hand, they highlighted Boughton House as a local example of how sites can reflect black history links effectively and sensitively without awkwardness or embarrassment.
We also watched two very powerful videos made by the Slave Trade Legacies group about their experiences, The Colour of Money and The Global Cotton Connections. I would highly, highly recommend that anyone who is remotely interested in the issues of slavery and heritage take 20 minutes out of their day to watch them. You will not regret it.
After lunch was the turn of the Anti-Slavery Usable Past project, which has members at the University of Hull, Queens University and the University of Nottingham. The project’s research leader at Nottingham, Professor Zoe Trodd, looks at the ways investigating historic forms of slavery and antislavery can help the 36 million people currently enslaved worldwide today. Both she and postdoctoral researcher Katie Donnington highlighted the significant role of visual culture.
They drew attention to the extent to which contemporary anti-slavery visual culture replicates the visual culture of the British and U.S. 19th century anti-slavery movements, as well as many of the issues associated them. They demonstrated how many problematic tropes, from paternalism to supplication to voyeurism are regularly reproduced in images used by contemporary anti-slavery campaigners. The imagery of Josiah Wedgewood’s ‘Am I Not a Man and A Brother’ medallion – the supplicant slave – is, for example, echoed in the many images of enslaved people with hands clasped, passive and powerlessness. Yet both Zoe and Kate offered alternatives, arguing that what was key was remembering, and representing, the agency of the enslaved person or people. Kate drew attention to the work of Jacob Lawrence and Lubaina Himid, both of whom offer ways of thinking about the potential of a new visual culture of anti-slavery which celebrates the agency of the enslaved person rather than simply appealing to that of the audience. PhD student Michael Gill provided one example of modern slavery, drawing attention to the plight of the 1.5 million labourers exploited by the kafala system in Qatar and exploring the issues that are preventing meaningful reform from occurring.
Nottingham University’s Professor Suzanne Seymour, head of the Global Cotton Connections project, spoke about the often neglected legacies of slavery in the rural and provincial areas of Britain, such as the East Midlands. She also highlighted how only looking at those directly involved in slavery or slave trading neglects the many other links areas like the Midlands had with slavery. Whether thinking about trade goods, textiles or the black presence in 18th and 19th century Britain, Suzanne emphasised that there are a much wider range of connections than have traditionally been recognised. She used the example of the mahogany furniture in Derbyshire’s Bolsover Castle and the cotton used to supply the Derwent Valley Mills to show how products derived from the labour of enslaved peoples, in Brazil and North America as well as the Caribbean, were commonplace in 18th and 19th century Britain. She argued that there is still a great deal of work to be done in ‘entangling the threads of slavery’, although she also suggested that perhaps the greatest challenge is ensuring such research is open, public and accessible.
We finished the day with an animated open discussion. One of the main issues that came up was how all the people, across both the Midlands and the country, with mutual interests in slavery and black history can find out about and get in touch with each other. Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to such problems. Co-ordinating such interactions is very difficult, particularly given the current paucity of funding, However, James Dawkins kindly offered to compile a list of the emails of any interested attendees, which he has subsequently circulated. We hope this will help people to keep in touch and aid the establishment of new connections and relationships.