The Colonial Legacy of the Treaty of Utrecht Conference

By: Catherine Hall

Last week I was fortunate to be able to go to a conference in Utrecht on ‘The Colonial Legacy of the Treaty of Utrecht: 1713-1863-2013’ organized by the Centre for the Humanities at the University of Utrecht. The Treaty of Utrecht marked the end of the War of Spanish Succession which confirmed Philip V as king of Spain but ended the threat that he might unite the crowns of France and Spain. It also marked the end of almost two centuries of religious wars and conflicts in Europe which extended into the colonies. Britain had done well in the war, (remember Marlborough’s great victory at Blenheim), and in the Treaty was granted Gibraltar, Minorca, Newfoundland, Acadia, Hudson Bay Company territories and St Kitts. 1713 was one of the moments in which the European powers carved up territories amongst themselves, with the victors extending their empires. In addition Spain granted Britain the asiento, the right to deliver enslaved Africans to the Spanish colonies for thirty years. In the Netherlands the signing of the Treaty is being commemorated alongside 1863 – the year when slavery was abolished by the Dutch. This conference aimed to think about the legacies of the Treaty and of abolition whilst also focusing on human trafficking today.

The granting of the asiento marked an important moment in the development of the British slave trade and the new territories meant an expansion in commerce and capitalist ventures more generally. This was the period of the growth of Britain’s maritime power and its struggle for dominance with France which was to result by the 1760s in Britain’s command of the seas. The late eighteenth century was the highpoint for ‘King Sugar’ with plantation slavery firmly established across the Caribbean but by then the movement for the abolition of the trade was also strong.

The conference brought together scholars from the Netherlands, France, the US and Britain. The atmosphere was open and constructive and there were a series of terrific presentations from Francoise Verges, Paul Gilroy, Kevin Bales and others – all of which provoked much questioning and comment. One of the papers given by Michael Rothberg, who has worked on questions of memory in relation to both slavery and the Holocaust, argued for the idea of the ‘implicated subject’ – those who are neither victims nor perpetrators of violent histories, nor direct descendants, but are nevertheless involved through the long-term effects of such events. Those in Britain, for example, who have benefitted from the country’s prosperity, created at the expense of others. Despite the spatial and temporal distance from traumatic events, he suggested, we need a figure of responsibility – a subject who is implicated – in our vocabulary. In thinking about this he drew heavily on the compensation records and Nick Draper’s The Price of Emancipation together with the LBS database as ways of opening up these questions of justice and responsibility. He also took Jamaica Kincaid’s novel about Antigua, A Small Place, as an example of an exploration of the implications of colonialism for both the descendants of the enslaved and the white colonists – some of today’s Caribbean tourists. It was good to see the ways in which the LBS work is already giving food for thought! And I immediately decided to read A Small Place again!