Black presences and the legacies of slavery and colonialism in rural Britain

By: Kristy Warren

The connections to slavery and empire of  metropolitan areas such as Liverpool, London and Bristol have become increasingly well known. However, knowledge about black presence and links to colonialism in places like Norfolk is still limited, despite the increasing amount of research being conducted on the subject.

On 15 October, three members of the LBS team attended the final consultation workshop held as part of a University of Nottingham based AHRC funded scoping and development project entitled ‘Historicising and reconnecting rural community: black presences and the legacies of slavery and colonialism in rural Britain, c.1600-1939’. Facilitated by Susanne Seymour and Lowri Jones, who worked on the project which ran from February 2012 to October 2013, the workshop presented the outcome of the project and also engaged with research being conducted by others on both the history and heritage of rural Britain’s connection to the wider empire.

Susanne gave an overview of the aims and outcomes of project in the introduction to the day. She outlined the outcomes of four aims: scoping historical research, scoping research on representational strategies, scoping of the source materials, and public development workshops. She explained that they had found more references to black rural presences than had been expected, but despite this, and all the research being conducted on the issue, they found that the engagement with legacies of colonialism and slavery and Black presences was the exception rather than the rule in rural contexts. One of the most concrete outcomes of the project is an interactive map which can be accessed on the project’s webpage.  The map highlights individuals with connections to slavery and colonialism, who lived in Norfolk, Nottinghamshire or Angus between c.1600 and 1939.

This introduction was followed by the first panel which focused on challenging narratives of the rural which assume that communities in the British countryside were isolated and insular. Panellists included Lowri Jones (University of Nottingham); Richard Maguire (University of East Anglia); Kate Smith (University College London) and Susanne Seymour (University of Nottingham). Lowri stated that more work is needed on the geographies of these histories in order to change the narrative of the countryside as stagnant. Kate presented on the UCL based project ‘East India Company at Home 1757-1857’, explaining the extent to which individuals and  families connected with the East India Company brought back household objects and other goods from India to the English countryside. Richard spoke about the black presence in rural Britain and how he has traced familial lines to the present day. He also stated that he had not found evidence of prejudice against black people in his research which he argued helps to challenge the narrative of rural conservatism (with a small c).

Susanne then spoke of her work on eighteenth and early and nineteenth century landed estates. She noted that among the elites, several people spent time living on their colonial property or working abroad in the military or for the government and then returned to their landed estates. Furthermore, they were not purely rural – as they moved between the rural and the urban. Additionally, she spoke about the interconnections across empire and Britain as people employed on estates in Britain also went to live and work in the colonies. Furthermore, events in the colonies and wider empire impacted the estates as well. Buildings reflected colonial iconography, tropical fruits like pineapples were brought back and grown, lakes on estates were used to re-enact battles, and when an estate in Grenada burned during a late 18th century rebellion, wood was felled on the British estate to raise money.

The second panel focused on how this knowledge about the presence of black people in rural Britain and the countryside’s connection with empire, is being and can further be brought to wider audiences. Panelists included Helen Bates (freelance community historian); David Callaghan (University of Birmingham); Marian Gwyn (University of Bangor); Shawn Sobers (University of the West of England); Susanne Seymour (University of Nottingham). David Callagan spoke about his experiences of doing community history in Birmingham – ‘The History Detectives’.  In speaking of black presences in the Midlands, he gave the example of the existence of the grave of an enslaved girl named Myrtilla, who was brought from Nevis by Thomas Beauchamp and was baptised and buried in Warwickshire in 1705.[1]

Helen gave an overview of the HLF funded Hyson Green Flats oral history project called ‘On the Flats’ which she managed from 2011 to 2012. The project interviewed several former residents of the flats to gain greater understanding of how those who lived there viewed the area. She noted that Keith Piper, an artist  who had a piece at Tate called Go West Young Man, lived at Hyson Green Flats. Donald Rodney, another artist who had work featured at the Tate, was also a former resident of Hyson Green Flats. His sketchbooks show the influence of the transatlantic slave trade, and Black history more generally, on the art he made in the 1980’s.

Marian spoke about the work she’s been involved in to re-connect rural communities. She explained that the Pennant family invested money acquired from their Jamaican sugar plantation in Penrhyn Castle, an old medieval castle on the outskirts of Bangor, Gwynedd, in Wales. She described work conducted in both Wales and Jamaica to increase awareness of the connection and provides links between the people living in both locations. Connections were also made between the descendants of slave owners and the enslaved with the same surname.  Shawn explained how gaps in information leave room for myth and supposition. He described how when information concerning black history is brushed over or ignored in schools and at heritage sites, stories are created to fill the gap which do not always have any historical grounding.[2]An issue that arose from both Marian’s and Shawn’s presentations was the need to train teachers about how to talk about slavery and black history more generally.

Each panel presentation was followed by a lively discussion in which workshop participants, engaged with the information presented by the panellists. The conference ended with a discussion about the need to record and make accessible the work which has been done (especially during 2007) so that it is not lost, forgotten or replicated unwittingly. Everyone echoed the call for regional and national hubs for researchers and research.

[1] For more on this see David Callaghan’s Black People in the West Midlands Before 1807; Alison Benjamin (2007) Beyond the Grave, The Guardian Online; Barbara Willis-Brown and David Callaghan (2010) History Detectives: Black People in the West Midlands 1650-1918, SCWADI; David Callaghan and Barbara Willis-Brown eds. (2011) A Day in the Life: A Black Heritage Trail of the West Midlands, SCWADI.  The ‘History Detectives’ book has a write up of the story of Jane Harry – George Hibbert‘s mixed heritage cousin who was an early abolitionist.

[2] For more information on this see,  Rob Mitchell and Shawn Sobers (2013) Reinterpretation: the representation of perspectives on slave trade history using creative media, in Madge Dresser and Andrew Hann (eds.) Slavery and the British Country House, English Heritage. Please note that a PDF copy of this book can be downloaded for free.