Little Britain’s Memory of Slavery Conference

By: Kate Donington

On 13-14 September the Little Britain’s Memory of Slavery conference took place at UCL. It was organised jointly between Jessica Moody, Ryan Hanley and myself. The idea for the conference was inspired by the ‘Slavery and Memory’ event, which took place at the American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting in New York in 2012, at which Jessica and I gave papers. The conference explored the idea of a ‘geography of memory’ – do people remember the same thing in different ways depending on the specifics of their location? Does this change the ways in which slavery is remembered and forgotten? In what ways does this difference challenge the national narrative? How does slavery fit into the story of a so-called liberal, democratic and free nation?

These questions are also pertinent to the case of Britain. As Catherine Hall pointed out in her keynote lecture – Britain itself is going through a period in which it is reassessing its identity. In the wake of unsuccessful humanitarian interventions in the Middle East and as a result of the referendum due on Scottish independence, Britain and its constituent nations are entering a process of redefinition. Britain has become a ‘littler’ place. This notion was picked up on by Michael Morris whose paper explored the ways in which Scotland has remembered and forgotten its role in the slavery business. He compared the romantic language of Scottish freedom with Scotland’s over representation within the slave economy, arguing that a re-examination of the specificity of Scotland’s role within the transatlantic trade is required.

The specificity of national and local histories and identities was explored by Madge Dresser in her fantastic keynote on the different kinds of memory work which have taken place in Bristol. Madge emphasised the work done by community activists, family historians and artists in a paper which demonstrated the complexity of remembering and forgetting in a city which came to prominence through its role in the slave trade. This theme was also picked up by Jessica Moody whose paper explored the ways in which memories of slavery are negotiated in Liverpool. She spoke about how Liverpool’s connection to the slave trade has been subsumed into a wider narrative of a port city. Describing it as a ‘maritimization’ she argued that the issue of slavery was remembered as part of Liverpool’s mercantile and seafaring story. Ryan Hanley’s paper on the black preacher John Jea in Liverpool provided a new perspective on abolitionist activities within the area. He highlighted the ways in which Jea negotiated the hostile terrain with an in depth analysis of some of his sermons.

Whilst Liverpool is remembered as one of the ‘slaving capitals’ there were several papers which investigated the role of less well known locations which formed part of the slave economy. Particularly illuminating on this subject were papers by Grace Mcgrath who looked at Northern Ireland’s involvement and Brycchan Carey’s on the Channel Islands and Cornwall.

The neglected history of women’s involvement both as slave-owners and abolitionists was taken up by Hannah Young and Ellie Bird. Hannah’s research looks at patterns of slave-ownership among women of different classes in British society. Her paper underscored the importance of the LBS encyclopaedia which has offered an empirical basis for a gendered consideration of slave-ownership. The importance of women to imperial networks was something raised by Chris Jeppesen’s innovative research into the links between East India Company families and the Caribbean.

The family formation and its importance to the mercantile houses which supported the slave trade and slavery was the subject of both my own and Jane Longmore’s papers. Jane explored the history of the Staniforth family; her wonderfully rich presentation examined the slave trader Thomas Staniforth’s diaries, skilfully moving between the private domestic sphere and the public world of business. Picking up on the entanglement between these two spaces, my own paper focused on the Hibbert family’s home in Clapham. I suggested that the weight of abolitionist memory in Clapham has meant that the presence of slave-owners in the area has been forgotten. However, tangible traces of the Hibbert family can still be found today – an indication of ways in which slave-based wealth infiltrated into sometimes unexpected locations.

The legacies of British involvement in slavery were addressed by a panel which looked broadly at different notions of reparations, social justice and restitution. Esther Stanford Xosei delivered an excellent paper on the subject of her PhD – the history of the London based reparations movement. She called for greater attention to the debate as a historical subject citing extracts from Ottabah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano. David Wilkins looked at the role museums might play in telling reparative stories, whilst Rampaul Chamba focused on the relationship between black mental health issues and the psychic legacies of slavery and colonialism. Patrick Vernon’s summative talk brought these diverse papers together linking in the complex themes which united them – present day inequalities which have yet to be addressed fully at government level. As is so often the case when dealing with this subject more time for discussion was needed.

For me, two of the most thought provoking sessions of the conference were the final panels on museums, galleries and the work of artists. The 2007 bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade was a landmark in terms of financing, researching and displaying the public history of Britain’s involvement with both the trade and its abolition. Sarah Thomas’ paper on images of colonial violence within museums culture was both fascinating and at times hard to watch. One attendee commented that although the scenes depicting explicit violence were difficult to look at, it was this image of daily life which stayed with them – the ordinariness of the market scene was what made it so disturbing.

In her paper, Sarah called for a more nuanced use of these sensitive images – one which takes into account the specificity of people and place as well as one which resists the fixing of enslaved people as passive bodies on which violence was wrought. Rovianne Matovu’s paper on Yinka Shonibare’s artistic intervention for the Scratch the Surface exhibition at the National Gallery in 2007 tied the two end panels together beautifully by showing how art can challenge and redefine both the gallery and the people represented within it.

This was something which came through during the conversation which took place between Alan Rice, Lubaina Himid, Joy Gregory and Sokari Douglas Camp. Lubaina spoke about the ways in which black British artists had fought to create a space in which the issues of race, history and identity could be discussed. Her words acted as a reminder that these debates take place across the disciplines and both inside and outside of academia. One of the things which struck me most about all three artists was the ways in which their work was primarily a personal response to their subject. Historians are so often looked upon as objective narrators and encouraged to root the self out of their writing – the ways in which the artists’ work was so intimately tied to questions of their own identity demonstrated powerfully the way in which the past exists within the present. Making, writing and representing history is as much about now as it is about then. In contrast to what Sarah had said in the previous session about images depicting the suffering of the enslaved, Joy, Sokari and Lubaina all spoke about the necessity of thinking about the history and memory of slavery in terms of the individual and their humanity. I will finish this piece then with the words taken from Sokari’s memorial proposal ‘All the World is Now Richer’:

From our rich ancestral life

We were sold, bought and used

But we were brave

We were strong

We survived

All the world is now richer

You can listen to a full mp3 recording of the artists in conversation session by clicking here.