Hackney and Slavery

By: Kristy Warren

A version of this blog originally appeared on the Royal Museums Greenwich Collections Blog as part of International Slavery Remembrance Day.

Last autumn, members of the LBS Team, along with Hackney Museum and Archives, community consultants and teachers, were part of a Share Academy funded project entitled Local Roots / Global Routes. The main outcome of the project was a teaching resource for Key Stage 3 students (aged 13 – 14), which explores links to slavery, abolition and the black presence in Hackney.

Extra funding from the Arts Council allowed us to engage the students at two Hackney schools through six week workshops. My colleague Kate Donington and I worked along with students at Our Lady’s Convent High School and Hackney B Six,  their teachers – Kathryn Gayton and Lucy Capes, two creative practitioners – Anthony Anaxagorou and Akala, and staff at Hackney Archives –  principally Elizabeth Green – to create spaces in which the young people could critically engage with the subject of slavery, while also allowing them to creatively respond to what they’d learned through poetry and drama.

Student viewing an archival document

As the workshops were run after school and were voluntary, we started by asking all the students why they were interested in the topic. One student’s answer has stuck with me: ‘I want to understand why I’m here and where I came from’. This student’s answer is so important for our team; for as historians you are involved in not only telling simple ‘facts’, but also in either reinforcing or breaking down stereotypes. In this case it is the pervasive narrative that the history of people of African descent doesn’t matter.

Thus it was important to speak about how Africa and Africans were placed outside of history to justify the mass exploitation of millions of people. The first lesson that the team conducted, as well as later sessions by Akala, reinforced the importance of treating the history of people of African descent as one that is first and foremost about human beings. As the dehumanisation of Africans has been one of the lasting legacies of transatlantic slavery, making sure that people of African descent are subjects rather than objects of history is a part of the work needed to undo that process. This is why, as others have noted before me, teaching children and young people about slavery must be set within a longer history of African peoples. This involves highlighting the myriad of ways in which Africans contributed to the world, while also speaking about how they lived their everyday lives.

Reinserting slavery into the story of Britain was also emphasised. It was important to stress both the involvement of British people in the business and profits of slavery, as well as giving evidence of the legacies of this connection. For although resources exist and are used by some teachers (both within schools and the wider community) slavery in the British colonies has not been a key element of the how the story of the British past is taught. In this context, it is not surprising that what is known as the slave trade and the wider history of slavery in the Americas is often conflated and the emphasis placed on abolition. This erasure has meant that the role played by the enslaved in the creation of modern Britain has either been ignored or underplayed.

Once again, reinforcing agency was key. So in addition to speaking about how enslaved people’s labour and lives were consumed in the production of mainly luxury goods; it is also important to note how, from the very beginning, they resisted this system in a variety of ways and asserted their humanity in how they formed families and kin networks, practised their beliefs and lived their lives.

Destruction of Roehampton Estate ©British Library

The students were also exposed to the history and legacies of slavery that exist in Hackney. They learnt about the ways and extent to which people of African descent, abolitionists, and slave-owners who lived in Hackney are remembered today in street names, school names, and on tombstones. Traces of people with connections to slavery in documents found in the Hackney Archives included a petition from a young woman from Jamaica, a will that included property in land and enslaved people in Jamaica, and a house deed signed by a sugar factor living in Hackney who was involved in selling goods produced by enslaved people.

Abney Park Tomb of Joanna Vassa, daughter of Olaudah Equiano, a prominent figure in the abolitionist movement

The creative outputs of the students show the journeys that they themselves are on. Some reflected on the experiences of enslaved people and other people of African descent. Others emphasised how being exposed to a new angle of this history had changed the perception they had of themselves. As one student expressed in song : ‘now I know my history, … and now no one can tell me who I am’.

Nottingham Workshop

By Hannah Young

The second workshop of the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership’s autumn series was held at the New Arts Exchange in Nottingham on Saturday September 19th. The jam-packed day was well-attended, with around 60 participants across the day, and contained lots of lively and engaging discussion and debate. We would like to thank all of the attendees for making it such an enjoyable and thought-provoking event.

The day began with the attending members of the LBS team (Keith McClelland, James Dawkins and Hannah Young) exploring the impact of slave-ownership in the Midlands and the surrounding area. Keith McClelland kicked off proceedings by explaining a little bit about the LBS project and introducing the public database to those who might be unfamiliar with it. He then provided us a glimpse of how the database will look after the results of the project’s second phase are launched in 2016. Estates rather than individuals will provide the focal point of the new database. Users will be able to explore Caribbean estate-ownership between 1763 and 1833, accessing information about those who owned the estates, those who managed them, and those who were enslaved upon them.

James Dawkins continued by looking in more detail at the slave-owners of the Midlands. He highlighted the danger of assuming that slave-owing was only an activity undertaken in port cities like London, Liverpool and Bristol and showed us some impressive maps which demonstrated the spread of slave-ownership in the Midlands. I then spoke briefly about one particular slave-owning  family. Sisters Sarah Holte and Elizabeth Newton lived in the Staffordshire village of Kings Bromley and in the 1780s owned two Barbadian plantations and 428 enslaved men, women and children.

Newtons Valuation of Land and Enslaved People 1784

Helen Bates and Lisa Robinson spoke about their experience of working with the Slave Trade Legacies project, aided by five of the group’s 100+ members. The Slave Trade Legacies project is comprised of a group of volunteers, mainly of Afro-Caribbean heritage, who are keen to explore why their own histories are missing from heritage sites in the UK. They spoke eloquently and passionately about the process of equipping themselves with knowledge about slavery for the sake of critiquing such sites. They have made seven trips so far to visitor attractions with links to slavery and the slave trade.

Newstead Abbey by Will RobsonThe recounting of their experiences of visiting Nottinghamshire’s Newstead Abbey was particularly powerful. Newstead Abbey, now owned by Nottingham City Council, was owned in the 19th century by Thomas Wildman, a Jamaican plantation-owner who spent £100,000 of the plantation’s profits restoring the house. Following the abolition of the slavery in 1834 he was awarded almost £5000 in compensation. Yet when members of the Slave Trade Legacies group visited Newstead Abbey they saw no mention of Wildman’s links with slavery and the slave trade. After enquiring about this omission they received a response from the site saying that because Widman never visited Jamaica these links were not important. They, unsurprisingly, found this response disappointing and upsetting. On the other hand, they highlighted Boughton House as a local example of how sites can reflect black history links effectively and sensitively without awkwardness or embarrassment.

We also watched two very powerful videos made by the Slave Trade Legacies group about their experiences, The Colour of Money and The Global Cotton Connections. I would highly, highly recommend that anyone who is remotely interested in the issues of slavery and heritage take 20 minutes out of their day to watch them. You will not regret it.

After lunch was the turn of the Anti-Slavery Usable Past project, which has members at the  University of Hull, Queens University and the University of Nottingham. The project’s research leader at Nottingham, Professor Zoe Trodd, looks at the ways investigating historic forms of slavery and antislavery can help the 36 million people currently enslaved worldwide today. Both she and postdoctoral researcher Katie Donnington highlighted the significant role of visual culture.

They drew attention to the extent to which contemporary anti-slavery visual culture replicates the visual culture of the British and U.S. 19th century anti-slavery movements, as well as many of the issues associated them. They demonstrated how many problematic tropes, from paternalism to supplication to voyeurism are regularly reproduced in images used by contemporary anti-slavery campaigners. The imagery of Josiah Wedgewood’s ‘Am I Not a Man and A Brother’ medallion – the supplicant slave – is, for example, echoed in the many images of enslaved people with hands clasped, passive and powerlessness. Yet both Zoe and Kate offered alternatives, arguing that what was key was remembering, and representing, the agency of the enslaved person or people. Kate drew attention to the work of Jacob Lawrence and Lubaina Himid, both of whom offer ways of thinking about the potential of a new visual culture of anti-slavery which celebrates the agency of the enslaved person rather than simply appealing to that of the audience. PhD student Michael Gill provided one example of modern slavery, drawing attention to the plight of the 1.5 million labourers exploited by the kafala system in Qatar and exploring the issues that are preventing meaningful reform from occurring.

Jedediah Strutt's North Mill with the East Mill behind by ChevinNottingham University’s Professor Suzanne Seymour, head of the Global Cotton Connections project, spoke about the often neglected legacies of slavery in the rural and provincial areas of Britain, such as the East Midlands. She also highlighted how only looking at those directly involved in slavery or slave trading neglects the many other links areas like the Midlands had with slavery. Whether thinking about trade goods, textiles or the black presence in 18th and 19th century Britain, Suzanne emphasised that there are a much wider range of connections than have traditionally been recognised. She used the example of the mahogany furniture in Derbyshire’s Bolsover Castle and the cotton used to supply the Derwent Valley Mills to show how products derived from the labour of enslaved peoples, in Brazil and North America as well as the Caribbean, were commonplace in 18th and 19th century Britain. She argued that there is still a great deal of work to be done in ‘entangling the threads of slavery’, although she also suggested that perhaps the greatest challenge is ensuring such research is open, public and accessible.

We finished the day with an animated open discussion. One of the main issues that came up was how all the people, across both the Midlands and the country, with mutual interests in slavery and black history can find out about and get in touch with each other. Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to such problems. Co-ordinating such interactions is very difficult, particularly given the current paucity of funding, However, James Dawkins kindly offered to compile a list of the emails of any interested attendees, which he has subsequently circulated. We hope this will help people to keep in touch and aid the establishment of new connections and relationships.

Scotland and Slavery Workshop

By Kristy Warren and Keith McClelland

Runaway Slave Advertisements

The Legacies of British Slave-ownership team recently launched a series of workshops which are being held this autumn across the UK. The aim of the workshops is to provide an update of the work being conducted on the second phase of the project while also collaborating with colleagues working on topics concerning slave-ownership, slavery, and the slavery business.  You can find out more about the series on our events page.

The first workshop was held this past Saturday (12 September 2015) at The Lighthouse in Glasgow in collaboration with Simon Newman, Stephen Mullen and Nelson Mundell who are the team of researchers on the University of Glasgow based project Runaway Slaves in Britain. The event was very well attended with up to 60 people there in the course of the day. The atmosphere was very friendly, lively and accessible.

The day began with a session run by LBS team members Catherine Hall and Keith McClelland. Catherine set the perimeters for the day noting that ‘re-establishing the place of slavery in Scottish history’ was one of the main aims of those who were giving presentations throughout the day.  She then gave a snapshot of her work investigating the role played by writings of slave-owners and their descendants in justifying the enslavement of Africans due to their ‘barbarity’. She chose William Young as an example of the many soldiers, medical men and indentured servants who left Scotland for the Caribbean to make their fortunes.  She outlined how the wealth he gained, in part through his marriage to a widow in Antigua, was used to gain a place in the English gentry and later, how the family wrote against the rights of the indigenous people of St. Vincent and in defence of slavery in the Caribbean. She also noted how the Young family does not appear in the compensation records as they had lost their fortune by that time, but that the work currently being done allows us to learn how three generations of the family profited from slavery.

Meanwhile Keith gave a sneak peek of the work being conducted on the second phase of the project. He outlined the wider work currently being conducted by the LBS team on estate ownership between 1763 and 1833. He showed the audience how the information is being organised in the database according to estate. This allows the user to see who owned the estates, those who managed them, and those who enslaved there throughout the period. He then gave examples specific to Scotland noting that Scots were disproportionally represented among absentee slave-owners; while Scotland’s population was about 10% of Britain as a whole, 15% of absentee owners were Scottish.

Tom Devine, of the University of Edinburgh, spoke about research contained in a collection he has just edited,  Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past: the Caribbean Connection,  which will be published in October.  He emphasised that Scotland had both ‘amnesia and denial’ with relation to its involvement in slavery. Exploring the country’s links to slavery, especially those with the Caribbean, where a great number off Scots benefited from the mass enslavement of Africans, is a vital task for historians. He also indicated the key role of the slavery business in relation to the extraordinary transformation of the Scottish economy between roughly 1760 and 1830.

The members of the Runaway Slaves in Britain Project team then gave an introduction to the research that they’ve conducted during the initial eight months of the project.  Newspaper advertisements concerning runaway enslaved people are being studied to learn more about the individuals involved. As their project develops it is bound to deepen our knowledge of the presence of those of African and Caribbean descent in eighteenth century Scotland and enhance our understanding of issues about slavery and freedom and racialised identities.

Two teachers gave presentation about teaching slavery in Scottish schools. Claire Wood, Principle Teacher of History, Modern Studies and RME at Jordon Hill School, focused on how primary evidence concerning slavery and the slave trade is used to teach research skills. She explained the assessment framework that teachers in in Scotland need to adhere to and how the sources are used for students at different assessment levels. For instance, she referred to the poem Send Back the Money (1846) and showed how the original was shortened and simplified to make it accessible to secondary school students. She ended with an appeal to academics to visit students in the classroom as such engagement is invaluable for their appreciation of what is being taught.

Katie Hunt, who teaches History at St Thomas of Aquin’s High School, Edinburgh, explained that teachers need to be confident in their knowledge of historical processes and as a result, the teaching of African history was easy to side step due to a lack of confidence.   She also noted the need for teachers to have access to the research conducted by those in universities. She explained that teachers need to be historical researchers themselves, and in order to do this, need access to high quality resources.

The last speaker of the day was Michael Hopcroft, a PhD candidate at Glasgow Caledonian University, who is investigating Highland Scots who were slave-owners in the Caribbean. His talk focused British Guiana (present day Guyana) as Highland Scots in particular, and Scots more generally, played a notable role in slave-ownership in that colony and its sugar plantation. Showing us the digital maps that he has developed of plantations, which included being able to match historic map of the plantations to a contemporary one, gave a vivid demonstration of plantation boundaries, the clustering of plantations along the coast, and illustrated too the continuation of naming patterns in the present.

The day ended with a lively group discussion in which participants shared why they had chosen to attend the event, what they had gained from the presentations, and how they might use what they’d learned going forward. We think that everybody found the day enlivening, informative, and that they were very enthusiastic about what they had heard. What was important too was the sense of people from different constituencies talking to each other. Teachers, academics, family historians, and people who were simply interested in the subject extended the dialogue about the importance of slave-ownership and the slavery business in ways in which we all hope will be taken out into the community as whole.

LBS Work Experience Week

In the week beginning 30 June, the LBS team was joined by five Year 12 (17 year-old) students from City and Islington College in London as well as by a student who has just graduated from high school in New York. They all worked hard and asked many questions which challenge the way we view our own research. Here is their blog.

Studying A-level History

At college, we study A-level History which allows us to cover an array of topics in the modern period (19th and 20th centuries). We have previously learnt about the American civil rights movement (1945-68), the decline of Tsarism and rise of Bolshevism in Russia (1884-1924) and the development of nationalism in India under British rule (1900-47). While we found these subjects to be interesting, the course often lacked flexibility and creativity as it was naturally catered to a rigid exam structure with limited opportunity to expand beyond the narrow scope of  questions. We found it disappointing that a year’s worth of learning was condensed into about two and a half hours of exam time, with much of the course not even referred to. Of course we cannot radically reverse the exam system and study whatever we choose, but the way we currently learn is too confined.

To improve the way history is taught at this level, we feel that there should be greater use of independent and group research projects,  debates, critical discussions and presentations. There should also be a greater emphasis on wider reading and more guidance into how to improve our understanding of historical matters. We were given plenty of resources such as reading lists and access to presentations on Moodle, but we would like to see the inclusion of more primary sources through visits to archives and so on. We found ourselves relying too much on the textbooks provided as they strictly adhered to the syllabus and thus felt that they were our best chance at securing a strong grade. Although we cannot escape the inevitability of exams, they allow little room for us to properly express reasoned judgement on historical controversies because of time constraints. Furthermore, many question the value of history today and believe it to be a subject that consists of nothing more than studying the dead and slogging through dusty books. To tackle this apathy, we want to see more lessons on the relevance of what we learn in history and how it relates to or affects modern society. For example, we can explicitly link the plight of the civil rights movement in the mid 20th century to current racial tensions or pressure group activity.

Our experience with the LBS project and thoughts on how the subject of slavery should be taught     

During the week, our role involved developing profiles on individual slave-owners in the Caribbean, absentee owners in Britain and others involved in the system to the LBS database. We obtained information primarily from a text entitled Jamaica Plantership by Benjamin McMahon – an Irish soldier who moved to Jamaica in search of new opportunities in 1819. He primarily worked as an overseer and a book-keeper on a variety of plantations on the island, later recording his experiences of his eighteen years there. As well as reading his work, we also made use of archival evidence, censuses, slave registers and geo-referencing with maps. In addition, we visited various sites around London relating to slavery and its legacies including former slave-owners’ houses around the Bloomsbury area, the Senate House library (where we read letters from Thomas Lane – an absentee planter), the Hackney library archives and the Museum of London Docklands.

Not only have we contributed to a public historical resource, we have improved our knowledge of this period of controversial history. It is this controversy that has made us consider how the subject of slavery should be taught to young people of all ages. Slavery is naturally an uncomfortable topic for many; however, we feel that it is not something that should be avoided or shied away from because of its incredible impact and significance that still resonates today. We should address the subject face on in a meaningful way that doesn’t overlook the horrors of slavery and Britain’s involvement, but also explores the motives and attitudes of individual slave-owners.  This investigation will allow for meaningful critical discussion of the history of the slavery system.

Many features of  transatlantic slavery go unnoticed by a lot of people. For example, we were surprised to learn that the largest number of  enslaved Africans were in fact sent to Brazil by the Portuguese, contrary to our belief that North America was the main destination. We were also unaware of how slavery was intertwined with the development of Britain as a nation and how its legacies, whether they be commercial, political, cultural and imperial, can be recognised today. As we understand, this is what the LBS project seeks to highlight.

by Robert, Hannah, Ogo, Simone, David and Molly

(We are all grateful for this opportunity to be involved in the LBS project and would like to thank Rachel Lang for all her support and information provided throughout this experience. We would also like to thank Kristy, Nick, Keith, Hannah and Cari for running very interesting and engaging sessions throughout this week.)  

Landscapes and Lifescapes: Caribbean and Highland Connections

By: Nick Draper and Rachel Lang

On Friday June 19th and Saturday 20th, we attended the Landscapes and Lifescapes: Material Spaces and Stories of Connection between the Caribbean and the Scottish Highlands, 1700 to the present symposium at the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness.  Landscapes and Lifescapes, led by Karly Kehoe of Glasgow Caledonian and Chris Dalglish of Glasgow, is a collaborative project between more than a dozen academics, archivists, heritage workers and independent scholars in Scotland, focused in its current phase on the legacies of the Highlands’ engagement in colonial slavery (there is more about the project on its Facebook page).

Northern Infirmary plaqueAlthough Landscapes and Lifescapes – like the LBS project itself- is interested in both tangible and intangible legacies of slavery, our start-point was the physical landscape.  Friday was devoted to a walking tour of Inverness and visits to Cromarty and Kiltearn on the nearby Black Isle to explore some of the many sites associated with British colonial slavery. In Inverness these included the Northern Infirmary and the Inverness Royal Academy (both of whose initial subscribers included a significant proportion of slave-owners), the footbridges uniting the south-western part of the city funded by John Ross of Berbice, and town-houses built and owned by slave-owners.  Unusually, in the case of the Northern Infirmary the role of slave-wealth in its foundation has been recognised in a plaque at the main entrance. 

At Cromarty we saw the proto-factory established in the 1770s to process hemp from Russia and the Baltic into bags for use in the West Indies, and the harbour built to support that trade, as well as the houses of some major slave-owning mercantile families, including the Davidsons and the Grahams.  At Kiltearn we saw the church and remains of the manse of the Rainy family, the centre of a very significant network of Caribbean slave-owners. We were fortunate to be guided by David Alston, the historian and local Councillor, whose work on the connections between the Highlands and the slave-owners of Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice (now collectively Guyana) in South America, entitled Slaves and Highlanders, pioneered the kind of work now taken up by LBS and by Landscapes and Lifescapes.  

On Friday night, Nick had the honour of giving the keynote address for the symposium to a full house in a public lecture on ‘Scotland, the Scottish Highlands and the Legacies of British Slave-ownership’ (which used LBS’ work to provide a context for the consideration of the Highlands’ specific role in the colonial slave-economy) at the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness. The Centre, opened in 2009, is a purpose-built testimony to the importance attached by the national and regional government in Scotland to the heritage of the Highlands.

On Saturday there were 3 panels each of 3 presentations, which set out the conceptual basis of the Landscapes and Lifescapes project, presented case studies of Highland slave-owners, considered more discursive questions of the representation of slavery in and for the Highlands, and highlighted some very powerful manuscript material by and concerning regional slave-owners from the collection of the Highland Archive itself.

David Alston’s paper applied behavioural economics and nudge thinking to the question of why Scots emigrated to British Guiana in the later 18th and early 19th centuries. He stressed the high risk of failure and the prevalence of stereotypes and personal connections to explain why these emigrating Scots may have acted in a way which was likely to be against their best interests.

Stephen Mullen’s case study of John Lamont (1782-1850) charted Lamont’s rise to fortune and the ways in which his wealth was transmitted back to Scotland. Lamont built Benmore House near Dunoon in 1849 and his main beneficiary was his nephew [Sir] James Lamont (who is in the ODNB as an ‘Arctic yachtsman’). As an illegitimate son of local gentry in Argyll, Lamont’s changing relationship with his family was particularly interesting.

 Benmore House, Argyll

Michael Hopcroft presented his georeferenced maps of Berbice (1802) and Demerara (1798) with customised visualisations of the spread of Scottish planters and the development of Scots’ influence over time. He overlaid the map of Demerara on a modern google map to show the continued influence of old boundaries today.

Gains Murdoch used the Old Statistical Account of Scotland to examine the clergy’s attitudes towards colonisation and imperial fortunes. Often disapproving of luxury and suspicious of emigration, the voices of local clergy contrasted with the Scottish intelligentsia’s writings against slavery.

Harriet, 2nd Duchess of Sutherland (c) National Trust, Cliveden; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Annie Tindley compared the Scottish internal upheaval of the Highland Clearances with external campaigns for abolition. Her case study of Harriet, 2nd Duchess of Sutherland examined the ways in which the two debates were intertwined. Harriet was a prominent abolitionist who faced charges of hypocrisy for her family’s role in the Sutherland clearances. Amongst her most vocal critics was Karl Marx who described the Sutherlands as exploiting ‘wage slavery’ and who compared large scale land-ownership with other forms of ownership including the use of people as property.



A recurring theme of the symposium was how the past is with us in the present, a theme reflected in both Friday’s tour of the Highlands and Saturday’s historical papers. Karly Kehoe’s comments on the economic and cultural value of Scotland’s heritage and the social function of universities underscored the importance of public recognition and public ownership of the history of slavery even (and perhaps especially) in communities where that history conflicts with dominant extant narratives of the oppression and exploitation of those communities themselves.

Jamaica Research Trip

By: Kate Donington

Primary Research Undertaken at the National Archives of Jamaica

I recently spent five weeks in Jamaica. The majority of my time was spent visiting the National Archives of Jamaica in Spanish Town. The National Archives contain   relevant material for forming the building blocks of the next phase of the database for slave-owners with links to Jamaica in the late eighteenth and early 19th centuries. They give us an important data set from 1763 until 1809 when the Jamaica Almanacs begin to list the plantations and by whom they were registered. Last year I spent three months working on the Crop Accounts and I returned this year to continue working on this set of documents. They are a rich source for reconstructing the management structure and personnel on the plantations. The Crop Accounts were initially used as a mechanism to stop fraud on the estates of ‘vulnerable’ people who were defined as those owners who were absent from the island, women, children, and the recently deceased. The documents tell you who owned the estate, who filed the account (usually the overseer but sometimes the book keeper) and on whose order (usually the attorney / guardian / administrator / executor / trustee), as well as the name of the estate, its location, what it produced, the amount of produce, the value of the produce and sometimes who it was shipped to and sold by in Britain. These records give us the basic detail we need to establish ownership of Jamaican plantations.

This research was really brought to life with a tour around St Iago de la Vega in Spanish Town by the wonderfully knowledgeable Bill Poinsett. The building, which is located just behind Emancipation Square, contains the memorial inscriptions and tombs of some of the most powerful planter families in Jamaica. Inside it is easy to imagine the ‘notables and worthies’ of the parish vying for space to display their status and wealth to the congregation. There are also two John Bacon sculptures in the church. The engraving that I found the most interesting was located at the back of the church by the entrance for the less illustrious attendees. Alongside the faces of medieval lords and ladies, rendered in the gothic fashion, was the face of an African carved into the stonework. Bill considered that this might have been an acknowledgment of the enslaved and free Africans who had helped to build the cathedral.

Association of Caribbean Historians Conference
College of the Bahamas

As this trip occurred towards the end of my time with the project, it was a privilege to present some of our research to audiences in the Caribbean as well as to listen to academics from the region who have been working on these issues for many years. Three project members gave papers at the Association of Caribbean Historians which took place 17 May – 22 May at the College of the Bahamas. The scope of research taking place on the Caribbean was incredibly exciting. Placing slavery within this broad church of topics and chronologies is demonstrative of the fact that the institution represents an important, but not the only, story to be told about Caribbean history. The opening panel considered the issue of reparations for slavery – an indication of the impact of CARICOM’s decision to pursue reparations from the European governments involved in benefitting from slavery. The panel that I presented on included papers from Nick Draper, Kristy Warren and Margaret Williamson. Kristy, Nick and I had planned to address different aspects of the experience of slavery; Nick focused on the relationship between slavery and the state, Kristy looked at the lives of enslaved children in St. Kitts and my paper looked at the ways in which slavery impacted on the family. Margaret’s paper complimented those from the Legacies project by offering an analysis of the practice of naming enslaved people on a single estate in Jamaica.

History Workshop in Jamaica

History Workshop Jamaica

On 2 June the Legacies project, in partnership with the History department at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus presented a workshop on the ‘Structure and significance of British Caribbean Slave-ownership 1763-1833.’ We were very lucky to have had the support and assistance of the staff at UWI and the event was very well attended throughout the day. Presenters from UWI included Dr. Suzanne Francis-Brown, Ms. Nicole Plummer, Dr. James Robertson , Professor Veront Satchell, and Ms. Louisiana Vernon. They gave papers on the history of Hope, Papine and Mona estates, the display of wealth in Kingston, the development of business culture during the period of slavery and a case study of Robert Sewell who was Agent for Jamaica. It was great to hear from both staff and PhD students who are working on histories of the slavery era.

For this event the Legacies team focused on Jamaica. Nick gave a detailed background of what the compensation records can tell us about the nature of slave-ownership in Jamaica. I, and PhD student James Dawkins, focused on case studies of particular Jamaican families – the Hibberts and the Dawkins respectively. Catherine Hall gave two papers – the first set out the thinking that underpinned the Legacies project. The second was based on her research into Edward Long and his seminal text The History of Jamaica. She outlined the ways in which his work continued to shape notions of race and place – her intervention moved the conversation away from simply considering the impact of slavery on wealth accumulation and instead critiqued its pernicious effects on the systems of thought that structure our human relationships. I also gave a paper on the outreach and educational work we have been doing – part of which is aimed at combatting some of the damaging ideas about race, identity, home and belonging that have their roots in the kind of thinking propagated by Edward Long and the proslavery supporters.

The workshop was a much needed opportunity to exchange ideas with colleagues in Jamaica and listen to each other’s research. As Professor Matthew Smith pointed out – we collectively work on a transatlantic history and it is only by examining both sides of the story that we can move towards a better understanding of what it meant and continues to mean.

John Knox House and the legacies of slavery

Guest Blog by: R. J. Morris[1]

John Knox House 1843‘John Knox House’ stands in the lower part of Edinburgh’s High Street near to the old town-gate, the Netherbow. It is picturesque in the true meaning of the word. Tourists and citizens often stand across the street with their cameras. As a result of an unlikely alliance between the Free Church of Scotland and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, this sixteenth-century merchant’s house survived attempts to demolish it in the 1840s. Despite lack of evidence, it was widely believed that Knox, founder of Protestant Scotland, had spent his final years in the house. For many it was holy ground. None the less, the survival of the house was to be both threatened and assisted by a complex web of the legacies of slavery.

The Free Church of Scotland resulting from the Disruption of the Kirk in 1843 was no ordinary dissenting church. The ambition was to replace the Church of Scotland as the national church, independent of the state. Christ was the head of the church not the Pope nor the Sovereign. Such an ambition required huge amounts of money for churches, manses and schools. Fund raising involved a trip to North America where large sums were raised including a substantial amount from the slave states of the southern USA where the Presbyterian Church was strong.

At this point Frederick Douglass arrived on the scene. A skilled and forceful campaigner, he formed an alliance with a variety of radical and anti-slavery groups in Scotland and promptly challenged the Free Church with the slogan ‘send back the money’.[2] Meetings were held, doggerel verse was printed, and children shouted slogans in the street. Douglass knew how to hit the Scots; how could those who had experienced the Highland clearances support slavery; did they know teaching black people to read the Bible was a crime in the slave states?

The Free Church leadership was clearly uncomfortable. Motions in the General Assembly were remitted to committee and deferred for future consideration. The Free Church was supremely confident of its own virtue but insecure regarding its future and hence often regarded critics of the Free Church as dangerous enemies of the true faith. Many concluded that the anti-slavery movement was the work of Satan.

It was time to hit back. Henry Clarke Wright and George Thompson, the British anti-slavery campaigners, had given lectures in Rose Street Chapel, belonging to the rival Secession Church. The Free Church defenders claimed that the Rose Street Missionary Society had accepted £500 from the owners of the Goshen Estate in Jamaica, owners who had just ‘pocketed their share of the TWENTY MILLIONS – ‘the price of blood’– with which Great Britain purchased the freedom of the whole slaves of the West Indies.[3]  They received over £7,000 in compensation for 428 enslaved people. Andrew Fyfe, Secretary of the Rose Street Missionary Society replied, no money went to Rose Street, they just sent the preacher. Still, Rose Street had given its pulpit to those who attacked the Free Church. This was not forgotten.

The 1820 Return of the enslaved people living on Alexander Aikman's Birnam Wood Estate in Jamaica.The Independent Church in Argyle Square was another target. The initial claim was that the Rev. John Aikman had built the church with money inherited from his slave owning father. In fact, it turned out that father was ‘a respectable tradesman’ from Bo’ness just west of Edinburgh on the Forth. It was brother Alexander, King’s printer in Jamaica who owned enslaved people. He indeed got £6,940 for 354 enslaved people under the 1833 emancipation act. Some of these people were employed in his printing works. Brother William was a bookseller who had two enslaved people, Harry and Neddy, employed as domestic servants. John, who had one enslaved person employed as a stable boy, inherited William’s wealth. On William’s death, these three were all granted their freedom and John returned to Edinburgh.[4] The Free Church was satisfied that even if John’s direct involvement with slaveholding had been small, he had ‘made his money by trading with slaveholders’ and thus money had gone ‘from the foul hands of the slaver-dealer’ to finance the building of Argyle Square Chapel. Insult was added when Edinburgh Corporation decided to give the freedom of the city to George Thompson, seasoned radical agitator, anti-slavery campaigner and, for the Free Church, worst of all, a Sabbath breaker.

Frederick Douglass and James Buffum looked on.[5] It was a violent and bitter contest for public virtue fought with all the weapons of civil society, the public meeting, the celebrity visitors, reports and editorials in the newspapers, pamphlets and letters to the newspapers.[6]  Scotland had a sustained and complex relationship with the Atlantic slave economies, often involving the trading activities of people like William Aikman as much as direct ownership. It was inevitable that political campaigns around slavery issues would be tense as there were few groups, political, religious or social who did not have some experience or history of gain. The Disruption meant that a key and dynamic group in Scotland failed to participate with any clarity but saw the primary issues as the need to defend their church and faith. The moral and religious claims of the Free Church were not negotiable.

Strangely and significantly no-one mentioned the major inputs of compensation to the Free Church leadership, although this must have been known at least to the parliamentarians involved. The Marquis of Breadalbane shared £6,630 for the 379 enslaved people of the Hope Estate in Jamaica; Francis Brown Douglas, advocate, received almost £3,700 for one estate in St Vincent and a share of the compensation for a second.

John Knox House modernThe legacies of slavery fed a growing intra-protestant sectarian bitterness. The alliance to save John Knox House was threatened and only stuck back together by the skilled diplomacy of Daniel Wilson, the young secretary of the Antiquaries.

Scotland’s links with slavery and the slave economies are increasingly acknowledged.[7] Jamaica Street is quietly hidden in the New Town of Edinburgh. The ‘stooshie’[8] around John Knox House was a reminder of how diverse and diffuse were the links with slavery and how threatening such links could be to social cohesion in situations already divided by sectarianism, party politics and social class. Memories of slavery were not just a threat to Scotland’s sense of virtue but a barrier to social co-operation. Both dimensions account for the ‘silences’ that obscure this history.[9]

[1] We are very grateful to R. J. Morris for this blog. He is Emeritus Professor of Economic and Social History, University of Edinburgh. He was also a member of the Advisory Panel of phase 1 of the LBS project.

[2] Iain Whyte,  Send Back the Money! The Free Church of Scotland and American Slavery (Edinburgh 2012).

[3] The Witness, 9 May 1846.

[4]  Letter from M. and Jas. Aikman, The Witness, 9 May 1846.

[5]  The Witness, 10 June 1846.

[6]  It was claimed that the pamphlet, The Free Church and her Accusers on the matter of American Slavery: being a letter to Mr. George Thompson regarding his recent appearances in this City, signed a Free Churchman (Edinburgh, 1846), [NLS 3.2744(5)] sold over 6,000 copies in the first weeks of June 1846. The Witness, 12 May 1846.

[7] James Robertson, Joseph Knight (London, 2004) is a novel but gives an idea of Scotland’s complex relationship with slavery. Paxton House in the Borders, almost totally financed by the slave economy, has developed thoughtful links with the High Commissioner for Grenada, Berwickshire News, 8 December 2014.

[8] There is no decent English equivalent of this Scots word but you can work it out from the context.

[9] John Knox House has re-invented itself as the ‘Story Telling Centre’, a project active in the re-making of Scottish culture as an open and creative environment which the historical John Knox might have regarded with astonishment.