By Catherine Hall
On Saturday October 24 our fourth regional workshop was held in Manchester at the Central Library – one of Manchester’s impressive Victorian buildings which has recently been refurbished and is now home to digital hubs, local history activities, meeting rooms and a café with good food as well as the usual library facilities. We had a full day of talks and discussion, organised by Katie Donington, and despite a pretty early start for a Saturday morning we had an enthusiastic and interested audience. The day opened with presentations from the LBS team – I did a brief introduction about the project and Rachel Lang then talked about some of the possible uses of the database – this provoked many questions and much interest. Katie rounded off this session with an introduction to the Hibbert family, a major slave-owning and mercantile family, their multiple Manchester connections and the ways in which they extended their business links and networks from Manchester to London and Jamaica.
We were really fortunate after coffee to have the black feminist artist Lubaina Himid in conversation with Anna Arabindan-Kesson about Lubaina’s installation – Cotton.Com. Lubaina has worked as a politically engaged artist since the 1980s and not only did she bring 50 of the 100 pieces she had made from Cotton.Com to show us, but she talked about the connections between that work and other projects she has done. Much of that work has been preoccupied with those who have been rendered invisible by the ways in which histories have been constructed.
Cotton.Com, through the medium of 100 painted and framed textile blocs, evokes the conversations that might have happened between the cotton workers in Manchester, struggling in the new mills clustered around the canal in Ancoates, and the enslaved African men, women and children who were tending and picking the cotton on the plantations of the American South. When the installation was first shown the blocks were exhibited across walls with just one powerful quote from the many documentary sources that had been used: ‘He said I looked like a painting by Murillo as I carried water for the hoe gang, just because I balanced the bucket on my head.’ It was a very inspiring and moving session – reminding us all of the importance of the work that artists do in re-presenting our histories.
In the afternoon Melinda Elder, who has done much work over the years on the slavery business in the North West, did a wonderfully illustrated talk on the Wildman family and their rise from being modest tenant farmers in Lancashire to becoming substantial members of the English gentry, via Jamaica and the spoils of King Sugar. Peter Maw then filled out the story of the transatlantic merchants and their Manchester connections, clarifying how significant these trade networks were to the patterns of colonial and capitalist development. The final talks of the day came from Alan Rice, a friend to LBS from the beginning, and the Director of the Institute for Black Atlantic Studies at the University of Central Lancashire. Alan talked about the renowned African-American activist and writer Frederick Douglass while his colleague Raphael Hoermann spoke about the impact of the revolution in Haiti and some of the black radicals in the UK such as Robert Wedderburn.
We ended the day with an open discussion. All thorough the day there were lots of questions and comments for all the speakers – one of the best characteristics of our workshops from the perspective of the LBS team is the level of audience engagement. In the last session it was good to hear from almost everyone who had been able to stay to the end. We all know what it means to give up a Saturday! Many different voices and experiences were heard, from an Irish woman who reminded us of the connections between Ireland and other sites of colonial oppression to the lively talk about possible ways of extending the reach of black histories and keeping the connections that had been made alive. Natalie Zacek gave us some terrific closing thoughts and eventually, so absorbed were we in our talk that we had to be shooed out of the building before it was locked up for the day!