By: Keith McClelland
One important dimension of the Legacies project is the geography of slave-ownership in Britain. It’s possible, through using the advanced search form, to show some of the regional spread of ownership. As you’d expect, there are places where the density of ownership is notable: Bristol and the region around it; Liverpool; Glasgow; and, of course, London. At the same time, a striking feature is the dispersal of owners across Britain as a whole, even in areas where there was no immediately obvious connection between the region or town and slavery and slave-ownership, such as the 59 individuals with addresses in North-east Scotland. But for many owners, the ownership of other human beings was simply another species of property holding.
While we don’t have comprehensive address information for all owners living in Britain, it is possible to map their locations in many cases. The ‘map of the Fitzrovia area of London’, produced by Rachel Lang, LBS project administrator and researcher, shows what can be done – and shows too the conspicuous concentration of owners in one particular London district which was undergoing uneven but pronounced growth and development in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Rachel’s map has been part of the inspiration for work being undertaken in the Netherlands. Last week, Catherine Hall, Nick Draper and I travelled to Amsterdam to attend a small conference at the Stadsarchief Amsterdam, Het slavernijverleden op de kaart / Mapping Slavery, which was organised by Dienke Hondius of the University of Amsterdam. Dutch researchers are developing comparable maps to the one for London in that they are able to pinpoint the residences of prominent slave owners in Amsterdam, Den Haag and Haarlem – a place which like some British instances had no obvious connections with slavery – as well as investigating the associations between particular places like the Oude Kerk Amsterdam and slavery. You can see, for example, the spread of owners in Amsterdam by going to ‘Slaveneigenaren in Amsterdam 1863’. Dutch researchers have also developed an app to accompany a walking tour of Utrecht tracking the physical legacies associated with slavery – buildings and monuments – of the city. (You can get it [in Dutch] ‘on the Sporen van Slavernij Utrecht website’.)
The work builds on records which are comparable with the compensation records for Britain which are the fundamental basis of our own project. Slavery in the Netherlands empire – including in Surinam, the Dutch areas of Guyana, and Curaçao – was abolished in 1863 although, as in the British case, ‘abolition’ was followed by a period in which the enslaved were compelled to work without payment for their former owners: in the Dutch areas the period was 10 years – longer than the British period of ‘apprenticeship’. So slavery wasn’t actually ended until 1873. (While we were in Amsterdam we were given commemorative badges marked ‘1873’ in recognition of this.)
As in Britain, the owners were given compensation for the loss of their property. In a very important contribution to public history, the Netherlands National Archives have been digitising the compensation records. Although you’ll need to able to read Dutch to make sense of all the data, the records for Surinam and the Dutch Antilles are available ‘on the gahetNA website’. And not least of what is important is that the names of the enslaved are included as well as the owners. For historians of the enslaved as well as the owners this is a terrific resource.
Colleagues in the Netherlands have done more than we have yet in mapping Dutch-owned estates in their colonies. At the conference several speakers illustrated this. For example, Suze Zijlstra, a PhD student at the University of Amsterdam, who is working on ‘Power Relations between ethnic groups in the seventeenth-century Suriname’, is using very sophisticated mapping software to show the associations between owners and plantations in the colony.
The traces of slavery and of slave-ownership, and the plotting of them on maps or in other forms, are not simply relics of the past. They are enmeshed in contemporary cultures. As in Britain, issues round persistent racism, inequalities built around race and ethnicity, and the legacies of an imperial past are necessarily imbricated with each other. One of the persistent themes in the conference discussions was the conjoining of memory and forgetting: while many efforts are being made to register and memorialise the legacies of slavery and slave-ownership, they take place in a context in which not recognising those legacies is persistent. It was a theme which was also pronounced in a panel discussion on ‘Identifying Slave-Ownership in European Cities: Tracing the Presence and Legacy of Trans-Atlantic Slavery ‘at Home’ in Europe’ at the Conference of Europeanists the following day. Together with Myriam Cottias of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, Alana Lentin of Sydney University, Dienke Hondius and others, we discussed our project and Myriam’s very interesting presentation on ‘The Memorial Culture of Slavery in Cities in France’. As in Britain and the Netherlands, there have been real efforts to recognize the legacies of slavery in France and to overturn the disavowal of its importance in French history. And what’s clear is that there is considerable scope for trans-European work on the history of slave-ownership. Part of this could be large-scale comparative work on compensation records from Britain, the Netherlands and those produced, but not yet digitized, for France following the abolition of slavery in 1848. Mapping slave ownership in Europe is a potentially huge but exciting possibility.