The University of Aberdeen’s Museums and Special Collections Team have a number of online exhibitions, on a variety of topics. This blog post focuses on the Scotland, Africa and Slavery in the Caribbean exhibition currently available online.
After the Union of Scotland and England in 1707, North East Scots eagerly claimed a share of the riches generated by slavery, especially in the Caribbean. The exhibition which was originally created to mark the 200th anniversary of Britain’s abolition of the African slave trade in 1807, presents research into violence against enslaved people in labour camps and the financial profits from slavery.
Library staff have selected a range of books in our collections that showcase the many different aspects of both the slave trade and the anti-slavery movement.
Recommended by Lucy Drysdale: A Monograph being a Contribution towards the History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade & Slavery by James Eames: Addressed to the Earl of Shaftsbury and published in 1854, this book is a blistering condemnation of slavery; and invites the Earl to follow the abolitionist’s example in the form of a detailed examination of Clarkson’s work as a “wise, zealous and untiring advocate for the rights and privileges of mankind…” Exploring his adult life from the point of winning prizes for his anti-slavery dissertation at Cambridge to working with luminaries such as William Wilberforce and Granville Sharp, and their final successes in Parliament, the narrative combines moral and philosophical arguments against the slave trade with historical biography and insight into the writings and thoughts of Clarkson and his fellow abolitionists.
Recommended by Louise Faustino: The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery by Vincent Brown: This book is multidisciplinary, part social history and part anthropology. It is themed around the “extravagant death rate” in Jamaica during the era of slavery, amongst all sectors of the population whether enslaved or free, white, or black. It outlines the horrifying violence that was a continual method of creating and maintaining slavery throughout the world. Further it examines how “mortuary politics”, that is, practices around death, were central in creating culture and giving communities opportunity for change, particularly in the abolitionist movement. Jamaica and its story are used to explain the racial culture of the making of the United States and the world of Britain too.
Recommended by Sarah Todd: The Interesting Narrative by Olaudah Equiano: A contemporary autobiography, Equiano tells his tale of life in southern Nigeria, enduring the brutality of plantation slavery, winning his freedom, and his subsequent life as a pre-eminent abolitionist, businessman, public speaker and author. With deliberation, piercing insight and deep humanity, he outlines the physical, mental and spiritual journeys his life contained, and how he developed his strong faith and speaking and writing abilities. Finally, the book lays the seeds of his legacy as a pioneering abolitionist.
Other books held in the Library’s collections give evidence on historical debates around abolition, highlight the differences in international law and attitudes, and explore the consequences of abolitionism in contemporary Scottish politics and society. Joseph Knight by James Robertson is a novel based on the landmark court case between Knight, an enslaved African brought back to Scotland from Jamaica, and his master John Wedderburn, a wealthy sugar-plantation owner. Taking place in 1778, this momentous legal trial ended with the ruling that the slave laws of Jamaica did not apply in Scotland, making Joseph a free man. Robertson’s “gift for witty re-imagining” and his “canny understanding of the novelistic and its conduits to the world we live in now” is evident as the story moves to Knight’s life following his emancipation; exploring the concepts of slavery and freedom with “cunning and great assurance.”
The Joseph Knight case came during a period of history where individuals all over the world were strongly challenging slavery and the political and commercial organisations that kept this brutal practice alive. Many of them, such as Clarkson and Equiano, are justly famous, but figures such as Zachary Macaulay are less well known. Born in Inverary and beginning his adult life as a plantation overseer, Macaulay soon discovered that slavery was a “foul stain upon this nation”, and embarked on a 40 year career of research, campaigning and writing for the cause in the UK and Sierra Leone. Iain Whyte’s Zachary Macaulay 1768-1838: The Steadfast Scot in the British Anti-Slavery Movement follows his subject’s efforts to balance his passion for this work with his personal shyness and desire for anonymity. Catherine Hall is another author who examines Macaulay closely; this time through looking at his legacy and the impact he made on his son Thomas: her work Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain examines the deep contrasts between them: the “evangelical humanitarianism” of the abolitionist and reformer against the “liberal imperialism” of the Victorian historian.
Elsewhere in our collection, we see strong friendships forming, and an international dimension to the anti-slavery movement. An example of this can be seen in “Geographies of Early Anti-Racist Protests in Britain: Ida B Wells 1893 Anti-Lynching Tour in Scotland” (Chapter 6 in the “Activists, Visionaries and Artists” section of Africa in Scotland, Scotland in Africa: Historical Legacies and Contemporary Hybridities.) The chapter details Wells’ life in America and her pioneering struggles as a teacher, journalist and activist in the USA; and her work on both sides of the Atlantic, working with like-minded British women such as Aberdeen-based Isabella Fyvie Mayo, in whose home Wells stayed while in Scotland in 1893; and Catherine Impey, founder of “Anti-Caste”, possibly the first British journal against racism. It explores how these three women met and worked together with other like-minded souls throughout the 1890s to consistently “keep plugging away at the evils they were fighting.” From the first speech Wells gave in the Music Hall in Aberdeen, the chapter provides a deep insight into the tour, the formation of ‘The Society of the Recognition of the Brotherhood of Man (SRBM)’ alongside it, and the strong public response to Wells and her speeches and writings across Scotland and England.
A broader perspective on this period in history; and how culture and society across the country was influenced by the changing political and social landscape can be found in Scotland and the Caribbean c.1740-1833: Atlantic Archipelagos. Written by former Aberdeen academic Michael Morris, this work fully examines the literature and poetry of the time, and explores and discusses how the imperial vision of the Scottish and British colonists in the Caribbean gave way to the realities of abolition and emancipation across the country, paying particular attention to figures such as Robert Burns, Joseph Knight and the Wedderburn family. Similarly, ‘Send Back the Money!’: the Free Church of Scotland and American Slavery by Iain Whyte is “an exciting investigation” of the growing opposition to slavery, and the various roles the Church played in galvanising support, spreading information and driving the national campaign. Finally, detailed information on local activities can be found in records of the Aberdeen Anti-Slavery Society, which can be accessed via our Special Collections Centre.
These selected items examine the themes, questions and some of the individuals featured in the exhibition from a variety of perspectives. We hope that you will gain a better understanding of this period from these resources, and welcome your comments and suggestions as we continue to develop our collections.
Lucy Drysdale, Louise Faustino & Sarah Todd. Many thanks to the Museums and Special Collections Team.