Researching International History Workshop

Researching International History Workshop

On Friday I gave a paper at the Researching International History Workshop that was held at The University of Edinburgh on May 6 & 7. The workshop brought together doctoral candidates, early career researchers, and internationally renowned historians who work in the broad (and growing) fields of international and transnational history.

It was the call for papers that made me want to participate and write a paper for the workshop. In the CFP, one of the suggested topics for potential speakers was to write about how the study of international or transnational history can relate to modern politics and law. I was already interested in looking into the funding and uses of recent slavery research for one or more future blog posts, so this was an ideal reason to get started on the research and a great opportunity to get feedback on a draft copy of the work.

I spoke about contemporary research into slavery history being conducted at British universities and how their findings have the potential to be used to support calls for reparations. I examined the origins of these research projects’ funding and the irony of how government funding could be being used to find information that challenges the David Cameron and his government’s position on reparations. My paper was well received and I got some good feedback.

I was the second to speak on a panel of three speakers and the only presenter on slavery history (and the only female presenter) on the day. In the Q&A session I got asked a great question that I hadn’t yet thought to address in my study:

Why did I think that the Caricom Committee was asking for reparations now?

Caricom, which stands for Caribbean Community, has 15 member states and 5 associate states from the Caribbean region. In March 2014, the Caricom Reparations Committee released a Ten Point Plan for Reparatory Justice as a means of achieving their goals, ‘to prepare the case for reparatory justice for the Region’s indigenous and African descendant communities who are victims of Crimes against Humanity (CAH) in the forms of genocide, slavery, slave trading and racial apartheid’.

My thoughts are that the wave of commemorations in 2007 addressing the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire didn’t start the calls for reparations by any means, but they did bring a lot of publicity and greater awareness of Britain’s past slaveholding and trading activities. Many new academic studies were published, memorials were held, and even commemorative coins were minted (which I plan to write more on at a later date). The public commemorations highlighted the role of British abolitionists, frequently leaving black agency out of the narrative and strategically overlooking Britain’s prior role as a leader in the transatlantic slave trade.


In this short time, in my view, increased public interest and an increase in relevant digitised resources plus funding bodies interested in providing money into slavery-related research has led to a greater understanding of Britain’s role in slavery and not just abolition, and this could then be used to support the case for reparations.


In the News: Harvard Law School’s Slavery Past

Last Friday, the dean of Harvard Law School, Martha Minow, recommended changing the school’s official shield to remove the crest of the Royall family because Isaac Royall, a man who provided the land for the school and thereby helped the school’s establishment, had owned slaves. The dean is acting on the recommendation of a committee set up to address the issue, but the committee has very likely been acting in response to the Reclaim Harvard Law students who have been organising protests and occupying a student centre.

The removal has led to a bit of media coverage, including articles and interviews by The New York Times and NPR, and some oppositional viewpoints, such as by law professor Annette Gordon-Reed. The question is, should the crest be removed?

I can understand why Harvard wants to take action. They are under pressure from student protesters. They’ve experienced race-based vandalism, including the vandalism of images of African American professors, this school year. Charges of institutional racism have also led to the recent removal of the term ‘House Master,’ even though the use of the term in this particular case, specifically in Ivy League Schools in America, appears to have come from the European term for teacher centuries ago. And the family crest is directly related to slavery. It is a reminder that the very foundations of the school have been built on land that was the profit of slave labour.

But I side with Gordon-Reed and her supporters, in that I believe that the shield and crest should remain. By keeping the crest and providing appropriate historic context, the shield as it is can serve as a reminder of the horrific institution that slavery was and the financial benefits that were taken from it to invest in America’s infrastructure and institutions. Removing the crest and changing the law school’s shield won’t change Harvard’s historic connections to slavery, but it could become easier to forget or brush over these connections if they are washed away.

As Gordon-Reed points out, the shield itself is not about slavery. It doesn’t support or advocate for slavery or the use of slave labour, it’s not synonymous with slavery, and it probably has a tremendous amount of meaning to generations of Harvard Law School graduates. I think it’s much worse to pretend that slavery didn’t happen or has no relation to the present and remove the image (out of sight, out of mind), than to acknowledge it, allow physical reminders to remain and, perhaps the biggest challenge and one that should be undertaken, try to make amends.

Then again, I’m someone who wrote an entire book to show the world how generations of British politicians defended slave trading, the enslavement of Africans, and the use of colonial slavery.

The Case of the Missing Proslavery, Pt. 2

Earlier I began writing down some of my thoughts on why I think historians haven’t talked much about “proslavery” in British history. If you missed my first post, please click here. I wrote that I believed there were 5 main reasons for British proslavery to be missing from our understanding of British slavery and abolition.

Here’s a quick reminder of my first four points:

  1. The first histories of British abolition were written by abolitionists and tell their story.
  2. There are many more abolitionist primary sources to study.
  3. Abolition took place decades earlier in Britain than in the US.
  4. British colonial planters had less power and influence than their American counterparts by this period.

I had decided to leave the fifth point for another day, because I think its worthy of a discussion all its own. It’s also a bit more complicated than the others to get across.

I believe that British proslavery has been pushed aside, ignored, and downplayed in the traditional story and historiography of British slavery and abolition because people don’t want to remember it.

I think it’s a morality issue. Slavery, and definitely pro-slavery, is an awful thing to remember. The moral and ethical issues surrounding the study of how groups of men could justify, support, and encourage the enslavement of other groups of men are challenging to say the least. People said despicable things about the men, women, and children who were enslaved. They insulted, degraded, and demeaned them using a wide range of means that had long-lasting consequences, not least for colonial life and race relations. And a better understanding or official acknowledgement of the mind-set and historic support of Parliament might very well be used against the British Government to justify the case for reparations.

In the later 18th and early 19th centuries, people used the Bible to explain and justify slavery and the enslavement of people of African descent. They used contemporary beliefs and the latest “scientific” studies about race and “civilization” to justify it. They could draw on past parliamentary decisions and legal rights to explain and support it. These are not things to be proud of to say the least.

If someone wants to look at this era of history from a moral perspective, or with a view of finding something to celebrate or of which to be proud, then it sure isn’t going to be how the West Indian interest and their supporters within Britain continued justifying slavery right up to 1833. It’s going to be the hard work of the abolitionists – the winning side – that gets remembered and celebrated. That’s what the statues will remind us of. That’s what the memorials will be dedicated to. That’s what the ceremonies will commemorate on the anniversaries of beating the proslavery side.

The opinions and efforts of the British West Indian interest have been discussed in some of the major 20th century studies of British abolition, but from the earliest works they were judged and placed on the losing side of a moral, humane battle for liberty and good. Therefore, proslavery people couldn’t be discussed without being placed firmly in the context of the abolitionist fight. Any attention that was paid to them focussed on their decline, their doomed position, and their inability to compete against the moral campaign for abolition.

But we know that Wilberforce and his supporters lost many bills for abolition. They faced growing, substantial opposition and had to fight to earn public support and then fight for that public support to mean something within the halls of Parliament. By downplaying or even casting aside the opposition to abolition in the story of British abolition, then not only can we not fully understand abolition, but we aren’t giving the abolitionists enough credit for what they were able to achieve in spite of a strong, powerful, knowledgeable, legally-supported opposition.

Suggested Reading:

Dumas, Paula E. Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Klingberg, Frank J. The Anti-Slavery Movement in England: A Study in English Humanitarianism. 1926. Reprint, Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1968.

Ragatz, Lowell Joseph. The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean, 1763-1833: A Study in Social and Economic History. 1928. Reprint, New York: Octagon Books Inc., 1963.

Tise, Larry E. Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

Britain’s Black Debt: Reflections

In November 2015 the University of Edinburgh hosted a multi-day, interdisciplinary conference on the issue of reparations, entitled Repairing the Past, Imagining the Future: Reparations and Beyond…. I attended the final element of that interdisciplinary conference, Sir Hilary Beckles’ lecture on Britain’s history of slavery and its legacy in the former Caribbean colonies, “Britain’s Black Debt.” This was also my first experience live tweeting on Twitter, and I welcome you to go back through my twitter account @HistoryByPaula to find the quotations I recorded live on November 6th.

Sir Hilary is a scholar of British slavery and abolition and supporter of the reparations movement. In his talk, he explored Britain’s former and current relations with several Caribbean nations, explained how Britain had used and exploited African slaves and its Caribbean colonies to develop its own infrastructure (and, crucially, not that of the colonies), and gave a brief history of the growing push for reparations. He spoke of his early discomfort at the fact that it was the enslavers and not the slaves who had received compensation from the British Government and the British taxpayers at the end of slavery in the British Empire. He referred to the British slave trade as “cultural genocide” and explained that “black people in the Caribbean are without a known ancestry.” He argued that the former colonies had been so desperate to achieve independence from the “mother country” that they hadn’t had time to ask or argue for reparations, which was why the issue hadn’t been dealt with decades ago at the time of independence. And he spoke in support of the global reparatory justice movement and concluded that reparations were inevitable; if anything, David Cameron’s casual dismissal of the claims for reparations would only work to bring people together to strengthen and solidify the case for compensation (financial or otherwise).

Sir Hilary is an excellent speaker and his great speaking skills, passion for and knowledge of his subject, and the relevance of the subject led to one of the most heated Q & A sessions that I have ever witnessed. Individuals literally stood up in support for reparations and for what Sir Hilary had said. They concurred, they added their own personal experiences and stories, they shouted, they argued, and they cried. The audience’s passion kept us there for so long that we eventually had to be forced out of the room by the conference’s organisers as we had gone so far over the allotted time.

So often I think that, as historians, we find ourselves detached from our subjects, seeing them as being in a time too different from our own to matter much today. Yet here is a topic with a legacy that directly affects individuals, towns and cities, and entire countries. It continues to adversely affect governments’ abilities to care for their people, and for people to understand themselves.

Suggested reading:

Beckles, Hilary McD. Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide. Kingston, Jamaica: The University of the West Indies Press, 2012.

British slavery reparations Q & A.The Guardian, September 30, 2015.