Why Study Slavery from a Comparative Viewpoint

In September I’ll begin teaching the first of two new courses at the University of Glasgow‘s Centre for Open Studies on the histories of slavery and abolition. ‘Slavery in the Americas‘ will run for 10 weeks from September 28 until December 7 (no class on October 12). With a little over one month to go, I’m beginning to put together some of the resources that I will be sharing with my class. One of the Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs) for Slavery in the Americas is to ‘Compare the size and state of the slave populations of the various colonies’. I think it’s a really intriguing topic that deserves a bit of exploration here, too.

Atlantic_Ocean image

Why should we study slavery within a wider context? For example, you may have come across studies that look at slavery in two different states in the USA, or the South versus the North, or the United States versus the British Empire and so on. The short answer is that studying slavery using a comparative perspective can tell us more. It can reveal things that we might not have seen otherwise. It gives us context and can reveal significant differences and unique events as well as similarities and trends across space and time.

Here are a few examples of areas to consider when thinking about placing your study within a wider context:

  1. Demographics. While it’s hard to know exact numbers, there are a number of ways to attempt to assess the size of the enslaved population of one or more regions. For example, we can use the Transatlantic Slave Trade database, Voyages, to get an idea of the numbers that were imported to specific regions from Africa. (Check out my guide to using Voyages here.) We can look at registers from the Caribbean and census records from the USA. British compensation records give numbers from the period of abolition in the 1830s. Some plantation record books are still in existence, allowing for comparisons between individual plantations. There are also advertisements in newspapers that provide information on slaves for sale which gives an indication of the interest in and scale of slavery in an area.
  2. Local crops. Coffee, sugar, tobacco, etc. were all grown using slave labour in the Americas. The kinds of crops being grown have been shown to affect the size of the enslaved population. This is due to a number of factors, including: physical intensity and exertion required to grow and harvest the crop; the degree of mechanisation; and the risk of accidental physical harm due to the machinery and tools involved in the growing, harvesting, and processing of the crop. Sugar, for example, was a dangerous, exhausting crop to grow, harvest, and process, yet demand for it was skyrocketing in the later eighteenth century. Planters in the Caribbean, then, struggled to maintain the size of the slave population in their sugar plantations, whereas their counterparts in the southern USA, with more land devoted to growing cotton and tobacco, witnessed a self-sustaining enslaved population.
  3. Mortality. Mortality rates were high for enslaved Africans and those of African descent. Corporal punishment, accidents, racially-based hate crimes, restricted legal rights in the justice system, malnutrition, and infanticide all affected mortality rates (probably many other factors did, too)*, as well as old age and disease. By the late seventeenth century, planters and abolitionists alike were becoming obsessed with understanding and justifying the rate of natural increase (or decrease) in slave versus free populations. Abolitionists argued that a slave population that could not sustain itself was proof that the system of slavery was inhumane. Planters and merchants, meanwhile, blamed decreasing numbers on an unequal sex ratio, the climate, natural ageing, and manumission (the process by which a slave could become free). They used the declining numbers to justify their continuing support for the slave trade.
  4. The timing and nature of abolition. Abolition (here referring to the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade) and emancipation (the freeing of enslaved persons) took place at different times in different areas and also comprised of different things. For example, while both the USA and Britain officially ended their participation in the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, Britons could still invest and take part in the foreign trade for several more years. Britain’s Caribbean colonies faced a growing labour shortage France, meanwhile, abolished slavery in her colonies in 1794, only to reinstate it eight years later. Brazil didn’t abolish slavery until 1888. As such, an estimated four million enslaved Africans were imported to Brazil from Africa over the centuries.

I hope that this has been a helpful overview of some of the ways in which we can look at the history of slavery and abolition from a comparative perspective in order to contextualise and, really, just better understand the numbers and experiences that we will inevitably come across.

*The history of slavery in the New World contains stories of unimaginable death, terror, and tragedy. I know that I don’t discuss these elements very often in the context of this blog, but you can’t understand the demographics, the events, and the arguments for and against abolition without acknowledging this reality. We are looking at people’s lives and it was an awful life to live, but there were also enslaved and freed people who kept hope, who made their own ways out, and who helped others get out, too, on the ground, in community centres, and in government chambers and assemblies both there and abroad.

Suggested readings:

Blackburn, Robin.  The Making of New World Slavery (Verso, 1997)

Blackburn, Robin.  The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery (Verso, 1988)

Eltis, David. ‘Was Abolition of the U.S. and British Slave Trade Significant in the Broader Atlantic Context?’ The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser. 66 (2009): 715-36.

Littlefield, Daniel C. ‘Plantations, Paternalism, and Profitability: Factors Affecting African Demography in the Old British Empire.’ Journal of Southern History, 47 (1981): 167-82.

Mason, Matthew. ‘Keeping Up Appearances: The International Politics of Slave Trade Abolition in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World’. The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser. 66 (2009): 809-32.

Morgan, Kenneth. ‘Slave Women and Reproduction in Jamaica, ca. 1776-1834’. In Women and Slavery: The Modern Atlantic, ed. Gwyn Cambell et. al. (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2008): 27-53.

Sheridan, Richard B. ‘Slave Demography in the British West Indies and the Abolition of the Slave Trade.’ In The Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade, ed. David Eltis and James Walvin (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981): 259-86.

Slavery & Abolition, 26 no. 2 (August 2005). [special thematic issue on women and slavery]

Postcard from Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags, Edinburgh


The Salisbury Crags – photo credit: L. Flewelling

This is quite simply one of the best places in the world (and my favorite spot in Edinburgh).


Arthur’s Seat from the top of Salisbury Crags – photo credit: L. Flewelling


Arthur’s Seat on a snowy day – photo credit: L. Flewelling


Museum Websites and Enhanced Public Engagement

Over the past few months I’ve been looking at ways in which social media is being employed in new ways to share information on historical events, public history, and the digitisation of historical resources. This has included using a combination of blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and traditional websites.

As part of my work contributing to H-Net Slavery’s Twitter account this month, last week I came across the website for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. This striking website inspired me to want to highlight some of the work that museums are doing online that raise awareness, not only of their own institutions, but of their holdings, exhibits, and important contemporary issues. These sites bring visitors into the museum through their browsers where ever they are in the world. As such, here are some great examples of modern, accessible, and engaging websites from museums that focus on the broad subject areas of Isles Abroad. Enjoy!


Photo credit: Fuzheado via Wikimedia Commons.

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Explore the building, explore the collections, and immediately be confronted with the goals and ideals of this museum “100 Years in the making”, all online. The NMAAHC opens on September 24, 2016. I hope to be able to find an opportunity to make it to Washington, D.C., to make my way through its displays and exhibits, but until then, this beautiful, inviting website will make do quite well.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Find out about current and upcoming exhibitions, discover online resources for teachers to use in schools, and learn about the research and curation process that goes into a museum on such an important but “difficult” topic. There’s even information and advice on how to become a defender of human rights. Manitoba is one of the few Canadian provinces that I haven’t visited yet, but it’d be great to get to Winnipeg sometime soon!

Museum of London Docklands

Housed in a formed sugar warehouse along the side of the West India docks in the early 19th century, the Museum of London Docklands brings visitors to their website directly into their exhibitions with slideshows, a timeline outlining their permanent exhibitions, and activities for families to do at home. The London, Sugar, and Slavery 1600-present permanent gallery acknowledges the history of the museum building and the vital role sugar and slavery played in London’s development.

These are just a few examples of modern engaging museum websites. We’d love to hear about your favourites, so be sure to share a link or two in the comments below!

Olympics Retrospective: London as a Host City, Part III

Click here for my post on London 1908, and here for London 1944/1948.

2012_12012 Summer Games

27 July to 12 August

10,568 athletes (5,992 men and 4,776 women) from 204 countries participating in 302 events.

Of course these Olympics are pretty recent in our own memories but I’ll talk about them to be a completist and compare to the two other London games.  Just the basic facts on numbers of athletes and events are in startling contrast to earlier years (not to mention the cost of putting on the games).

The Guardian put together a series of charts and data visualizations to convey different impressions of the 2012 Olympics – here is a particularly interesting article with visualizations on how life in the UK changed from 1908 to 1948 to 2012.

At the 2012 Olympics, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Brunei sent female athletes for the first time.  This was the first Olympics to include women’s boxing, meaning that this was the first time each sport included female athletes.

Michael Phelps (in a down year) won 4 gold and 2 silver to earn the most gold medals and overall medals in Olympic history.  His number of gold medals was matched by US swimmer Missy Franklin (who also won a bronze).  And Usain Bolt won at 100 meters, 200 meters, and the 4×100 relay with his Jamaican teammates for the second Olympics in a row.

Team GB earned 65 total medals, 4th behind the US, China, and Russia.  Charlotte Dujardin won two gold in mixed dressage, and Mo Farah won gold at both 5,000 and 10,000 meters, securing his place as one of the winningest athletes in British history.  Farah’s 10,000 meter gold came in the same hour as Jessica Ennis won in the heptathlon and Greg Rutherford was victorious in the long jump for Team GB’s most successful Olympic day in 104 years.

Jason Kenny and Laura Trott each won two gold at track cycling, along with Chris Hoy, who won two gold in his final Olympic appearance.  Here is a retrospective of Hoy’s 2012 Olympics and his six-gold-medal Olympic career.  He was Team GB’s flag bearer for the 2012 games.

Other big names for Team GB included Bradley Wiggins who won gold in the Individual Time Trial after winning the Tour de France a few days earlier; and Andy Murray securing gold at Wimbledon as an Olympic venue the year before he actually won Wimbledon (plus the silver in mixed doubles with Laura Robson).

Ireland had 64 athletes participating in 54 events, with Katie Taylor winning gold in boxing.  Here’s video and a recap of Taylor’s 2012 Olympics (she was also Ireland’s flag bearer for the opening ceremonies).  Three of Ireland’s other medals were also in boxing, with their other one coming in equestrianism.

Video: Mr. Bean at the Opening Ceremony

Highlight video from the Olympic site


Photo Credit: DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Olympics Retrospective: London as a Host City, Part II

My post from last week covering London 1908 (and the amazing tug-of-war skills of Team GB!) can be found here.


London was selected by the IOC to be the host for the 1944 Summer Games in 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War.  As the fighting spread, the Olympics were cancelled for the duration of the war, and were marked only by a small ceremony in Switzerland.  In addition to the 1944 Summer Games, the Olympics have been cancelled four times: the 1916 Berlin Summer Games; 1940 Tokyo Summer Olympics (later reassigned to Helsinki before being cancelled); 1940 Sapporo Winter Games (reassigned to St. Moritz and then Garmisch-Partenkirchen before being cancelled); and 1944 Cortina d’Ampezzo Winter Games.

Here’s an interesting article on London and Tokyo’s “Lost Games.”



Photo Credit: wikimedia commons

29 July to 14 August

4104 athletes (3,714 men and 390 women) from 59 countries participating in 136 events.

In the midst of post-war austerity, London was called upon to host the 1948 Summer Games on short notice, as the IOC had voted to locate the games in London just two years earlier.  The games mainly took place in Empire (Wembley) Stadium and Wembley Park, with no new venues constructed.  Germany, Japan, and the USSR did not participate.  This was the first Olympics to be televised.

Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands earned four gold medals, more than any other athlete.  She won the 100 m, 200 m, 80 m hurdles, and 4×100 relay.  At the time, Blankers-Koen was also the world record holder in the high jump and the long jump, but was only allowed to participate in three individual events.  Blankers-Koen was named the woman athlete of the 20th century by the IAAF in 1999.  Here’s what the Guardian had to say about her in 1948:

Blankers-Koen is easily the outstanding all-round woman athlete of her day.  Off the track she is as feminine as man’s capricious heart could wish.  On it not only is she as expert technically as most men champions but her actual foot and leg movements are straight like a man’s rather than a woman’s a temperamentally she is a lesson to all.  She is cheerful before going to her mark, is as steady as a rock on it and then starts as though she herself had been fired.

Great pictures of Blankers-Koen at the 1948 Olympics here.

Team GB came away with 27 total medals (USA in the lead with 84 total).  Stand out British athletes included David Bond and Stewart Morris in Sailing, Dickie Burnell, Burt Bushnell, Jack Wilson, and Ran Laurie (Hugh Laurie’s dad) in Rowing, and Alfred Thomson in the Art competitions, each of whom won gold.  Thomson was the only Briton to ever win in the art competitions at the Olympics, with his painting portraying boxers at the London Amateur Boxing Championships.  London 1948 was the final Olympic games to include art competitions.

Alfred Thomson’s other paintings can be seen here, and here’s more information about the Olympic arts competition.

61-year-old Briton Archibald Craig was the oldest athlete at the Olympics, on the men’s épée fencing team.

Ireland, which had been competing independently since 1924, had 83 participants in 34 events plus the arts competitions.  Letitia Hamilton won bronze for Ireland in the arts competition, for her painting Meath Hunt Point-to-Point Races.  Hamilton’s paintings can be seen here.

Here’s more information on the 1948 Irish Olympic team.

More good pictures from the 1948 games hereand hereHere is the BBC’s collection of broadcasts from the games.  And here’s a fun video on London 1948 from the Olympics website.


Photo Credit: wikimedia commons

Postcard from Arrochar, Scotland

Postcard from Arrochar, Scotland


The village of Arrochar can be found at the top of Loch Long, about an hour northwest of Glasgow. There are walkways and picnic areas along the edge of the water. Arrochar is a lovely little place to stop for a break before taking on the forest paths and hillwalking nearby. Note that Loch Long reaches out to the sea. These photos were taken at low tide.



Arrochar and Loch Long — Photo credits: Paula Dumas

Olympics Retrospective: London as a Host City, Part I


Photo Credit: wikimedia commons

With the Rio Olympics starting tomorrow, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at some highlights for British and Irish participation in the Olympics, particularly with London acting as the host city on three separate occasions.

1908 Summer Games

27 April to 31 October

2,008 athletes (1,971 men and 37 women) from 22 countries participating in 110 events

Originally awarded to Rome, the summer games were reassigned to London when it became apparent that Rome would not be ready.  Italy had to divert resources toward disaster relief due to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1906.  London was already playing host to a Franco-Britannic Exhibition in 1908, and the exhibition organizers funded and built a 66,000-capacity stadium next to their site at White City.  This was the first Olympics with a stadium specifically built for the games, and to host indoor swimming rather than open-water.  Diving and field hockey made their debuts, and powerboating featured for the first and only time.  The 1908 Olympics were also the longest-ever, running from April to October.

The marathon, capping the games, was one of the most dramatic ever seen.  The course ran from Windsor Castle to White City Stadium, followed by a partial lap of the stadium ending at the royal box.  This was a distance of 42.195 km, which was adopted as the standardized distance for a marathon in the 1920s.  Italian runner/pastry chef Dorando Pietri was leading the race when he entered the stadium, but overcome with fatigue and dehydration he took the wrong path and fell several times.  Umpires helped him up each time.  He ended up finishing the marathon in first place, but was disqualified due to receiving assistance.  In lieu of a gold medal, he was given a gilded silver cup by Queen Alexandra and he became something of an international celebrity.

Pictures of the 1908 marathon can be found here – these are very interesting and fun.

Great Britain won the overall medal count with 146 total medals (USA was second with 47).  Standout athletes for Team GB were Henry Taylor, who won three gold medals in freestyle swimming, and Benjamin Jones, who won two gold and one silver in track cycling.  In addition, Arthur Gore (singles/doubles indoor tennis), George Larner (men’s walking), Paul Radmilovic (waterpolo/freestyle relay), Thomas Thornycroft (motorboating), Bernard Redwood (motorboating), John Field-Richards (motorboating), and Clarrie Kingsbury (track cycling) each won two gold for Team GB.

Olympics website for London 1908

Video highlights of 1908 Olympics – highly recommend watching these, including Olympic tug-of-war (Team GB swept the podium in this event in 1908)!


1908 Gold Medal Tug-of-War Team – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Building the CV: Getting a headstart on the next school year

It’s summer, and for the most part there’s still lots of time before the big scholarship and funding award deadlines start looming. This means that now is an ideal time to think about strengthening your CV, meeting with mentors and potential supervisors or future colleagues, and formulating your plans. Keep in mind that many will likely have research trips planned, but they’ll also have more free time as classes are out and exams marks have been submitted. Why not send out an email or two to see if someone in your field at a nearby university would be free for a coffee as you ask a few questions about their work and projects. You find find yourself with some new leads, new ideas, and new connections.

Now is also an ideal time to write out a list of all of the award programmes you’ve been thinking of applying for and note their official deadlines. Next, check with the university you’re planning (hoping?) to take up the award at to see if they have their own internal deadlines and work from those. Go over the description of your future project to see what areas you can expand upon or clarify. The clearer and more specific you can be about your proposed project, including your timeline, your objectives, and your planned output, the better. Be sure to note where you’ll be doing your research, what archives (and specific archival sources) you’ll be utilising, and in what format(s) you plan on sharing your findings.

For example, are you planning a website, journal article, conference, public lecture, an essay in a published collection, or even an academic monograph to come out of your project? Then show and prove that you’ll be able to accomplish this. For example, past publications with reputable publishers demonstrates that you can write and get published. Technical skills in web design show that you can put together a website. Evidence of event planning in previous employment or having helped out with past conferences might help convince a funding body that you’ll be able to plan and run a successful conference withe their money.

You’ve probably noticed that I specified that past publications are an indication that you’re likely to be able to get published in the future, and the same goes for events such as conferences and workshops. In fact, it’s also true for funding. One of the best ways to support a funding application is to have already had successful funding applications. This is one of the (many) reasons postgraduate students who are self-funded struggle to continue in academia beyond the PhD. Not only do they often graduate with crippling debt (or end up ABD — all but dissertation — because they’ve often had to take up paid work and run out of time or motivation to finish their own research and thesis), but they can’t show that they’ve been considered a worthy investment by funders.

So how do you build a strong academic CV? Keep your CV in mind as you make daily choices about what you’re going to do. Could you be doing some additional research to strengthen that article you’ve been writing? Could you ask someone in your department about possible funding for student-run conferences? Past funding doesn’t have to mean scholarships and studentships. You could volunteer to help organise a series of postgraduate work-in-progress workshops at your school, or email a friend who’s organising a conference to offer to give a talk. Become a member of an organisation that is connected to your field. Not only will your membership go on your CV, but you’ll suddenly be getting insider information about upcoming events and opportunities for ‘service’.

Have you taken note of publishers who have been publishing on topics related to your field recently and looked up how to contact the editorial team? You may find that your preferred publisher appreciates early contact with authors in order to discuss a potential book idea instead of waiting until you have a fully-formed book ready to go. Who knows? You might suddenly have a book deal with two years to go before you feel the book will be ready (just be completely honest and up front about the stage at which your research and ‘book’ is at — you don’t want to miss publishing deadlines).

It’s worth looking into their instructions for authors from an early date. You can gain a lot of insight from a few webpages and an email or two; not only could this save you a lot of time in restructuring work or chasing down editors at a publishing company that may no longer be interested in your field or in adapted PhD theses, but you might also find just the right person at the right company who wants to work with you now to create an exciting book in the not-so-distant future.

My plan is to revisit this topic later this year with some clearer points to help with building and refining the CV, but for now I want to wrap up with some advice one of my PhD supervisors always gave at his postgraduate skills seminar on publishing: finish the degree. The most important thing to do is to finish the degree. There’s a reason why ‘Education’ is listed at the start of the CV. Completing your degree shows that you have commitment, drive, and ability. You stick to the task. You can be trusted to finish what you start, and you’re worth investing in. So enjoy the relaxed pace of summer, but consider using some of this time to get ready for a better, more productive year in the next school year, one that you can document and utilise to do even more in the future.