"debates on reparation need to include questions about the historical..."
21st August 2020 / Article
By: Catherine Hall
"debates on reparation need to include questions about the historical..."
21st August 2020 / Article
Doing Reparatory History: bringing ‘race’ and slavery home
By: Catherine Hall
debates on reparation need to include questions about the historical narratives on ‘race’ and empire
"debates on reparation need to include questions about the historical..."
21st August 2020 / Article
Doing Reparatory History: bringing ‘race’ and slavery home
By: Catherine Hall
This article asks whether history writing can be reparatory. Opening with a discussion of the bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 and the national conversation that was created at that time, it goes on to reflect on contestations over memory and the significance of the emergence of reparations as a key term with which to think about the wrongs of the past and the possibilities of repair. It uses a discussion of the author’s individual and collaborative historical work to argue for the importance of a different understanding of Britain’s involvement in the slavery business and our responsibilities, as beneficiaries, of the gross inequalities associated with slavery and colonialism.
Keywords: collective memory, disavowal, historical wrongs, Legacies of British Slave-ownership project, Macaulay, ‘race’, reparation, slavery
What is reparatory history?
What does it mean to do it in Britain?
This essay reflects on some of the ways in which the histories of ‘race’ and slavery have figured in the recent past in Britain. It argues that debates on reparation need to include questions about the historical narratives on ‘race’ and empire that have been and are being produced. It utilises a discussion of some of my own work as a historian over the past twenty years to think about what history that was reparative might look like.
Creating a national conversation
The bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 provoked what could be described as a ‘national conversation’ in the United Kingdom. This had happened before: at the end of the eighteenth century, pro-slavers and abolitionists engaged in fierce debate and polemic culminating in the abolition of the trade in 1807. The hope that once the trade had been dismantled slavery would disappear was soon shown to be an illusion, and this led to the activism of the 1820s, once again challenged by the pro-slavers. The major revolt of 1831 in Jamaica combined with popular pressure across the country brought about the Act of 1833 abolishing slavery in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape. During 2007, once again, the question of British responsibility for the enslavement of Africans became a subject of mainstream political and cultural debate. The context for this re-awakening was the major changes which had taken place in British society since the late 1940s, the scale of the African-Caribbean presence, the turbulent politics of race particularly in the wake of the killing of Stephen Lawrence (1993) and the Macpherson Report (1999) recognising the significance of institutional racism in the police, and the pressing questions from second and third generation young people as to whether it was possible to be black and British. In 2007 the bi-centenary provided an opportunity to re-open questions about the slave trade and slavery. Anti-racists had a number of different political agendas but were perhaps united in their hopes for new political and educational initiatives that would tackle persistent racism and repair historic wrongs.
Blair’s New Labour government looked to the future and advocated the idea of a modern multicultural Britain. The limits of their commitment were all too apparent, however, in the response to the Parekh Report of 2000, The Future of Multi-ethnic Britain, which discussed ‘the many varieties of racism and exclusion that disfigure modern Britain and that have been woven into the fabric of British history for many centuries’. The report provoked a furore in the rightwing press. Jack Straw, the then Home Secretary who had supported the establishment of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain by the Runnymede Trust, backtracked, effectively abandoning any efforts to follow up on the report’s more radical recommendations. The following year, at the World Conference against Racism held in Durban, the British government did not support Caribbean nations’ claims for reparation for slavery and the Conference Declaration was limited to acknowledging the historical and contemporary practices of the slave trade and slavery as morally outrageous. That same year, Randall Robinson, an African-American lawyer, author and activist, published The Debt: what America owes to Blacks. This significant intervention in the US debate on reparation argued that responsibility for the terrible effects of slavery across generations, the destruction of a hereditary identity, lay with the US government and people. Restitution could and should be made. Questions about racisms, reparations and historical wrongs were increasingly present in public debate across the Atlantic world.
So when it came to 2007 the government felt the need to respond. ‘It is an opportunity for the United Kingdom to express our deep sorrow and regret’, as prime minister Tony Blair put it, ‘for our nation’s role in the slave trade and for the unbearable suffering, individually and collectively, it caused.’ He was very careful, however, as many pointed out, not to apologise; for an apology might have indicated historic responsibility and had material consequences. 2007 gave all Britons an opportunity, he argued, to reflect on ‘the spirit of freedom, justice and equality that characterised the efforts of the early abolitionists, the same spirit that drives our determination to fight injustice and inequality today’. We could ‘rejoice at the different and better times we live in today’. The government’s chosen focus was abolition, not slavery, echoing the narrative that had been established from the early nineteenth century. This was part of an updated version of the Whig story of progress, of Britain’s capacity to lead the world on issues of liberty and freedom. ‘There is a golden thread which runs through British history,’ said Gordon Brown, ‘that runs from that long-ago day in Runnymede in 1215 when arbitrary power was fully challenged with the Magna Carta, on to the first bill of rights in 1689 where Britain became the first country where parliament asserted power over the king,’ to the abolition of the slave trade and on to democratic reform. This was the narrative that informed the liberal humanitarian interventions of the Labour government, some of which had such disastrous effects.
While the official response to 2007 was to celebrate Britain’s record, others asked, how can we celebrate this? Establishment figures such as cultural commentator Melvyn Bragg and former Tory leader William Hague, albeit from different political perspectives, were united in their admiration for William Wilberforce, the saintly and iconic figurehead of the abolitionists whose evangelical Christianity was central to his struggle against both slavery in the Caribbean and vice at home. A rather different perspective informed the critique of what some called the Wilberfest. ‘Our object’, as Wilberforce had put it, ‘was by ameliorating regulations, and by stopping the influx of uninstructed savages, to advance slowly towards the period when these unhappy things might exchange their degraded state of slavery for that of free and industrious peasantry.’ This language of ‘uninstructed savages’ and ‘unhappy things’ is redolent of the ways in which much abolitionist discourse assumed white superiority, a discourse that has had powerful echoes into the present. At the same time, Wilberforce’s vision of ‘free and industrial peasants’ marked the gap between conservative abolitionists such as himself, who believed in class, gender and racial hierarchies, and those radicals, Robert Wedderburn and Elizabeth Heyrick, for example, who rejected his pastoral vision of everyone in their proper place and sought not only the ending of slavery but also a transformation of society and the creation of an egalitarian world.
The ‘national conversation’ was greatly facilitated by the Heritage Lottery Fund’s decision to commit a substantial sum, between 15 and 20 million pounds, to bi-centenary projects. The money made possible both large-scale projects such as the establishment of the New Centre for the Understanding of slavery in association with the Liverpool Museums and many small-scale initiatives, some of which have now been archived in an effort to conserve what was an extraordinary set of activities. ‘Remembering 1807’ (http://antislavery.ac.uk/remember- ing1807) reflects the ways in which hundreds of heritage groups and local organisations around the UK marked the anniversary. Museums, galleries, archives, community groups, churches, theatres and schools organised exhibitions, debates, music, dance, theatre, storytelling, poetry, film, carnivals and festivals. The BBC commissioned radio and TV programmes. Universities organised conferences, seminars and exhibitions. Artists produced new materials, such as Lubaina Himid’s ‘Swallow Hard: the Lancaster dinner service’. Himid collected plates, jugs, tureens and dishes from local shops in Lancaster and Whitehaven, significant ports for slaving vessels. She decorated them with images of traders, ships, sailors, buildings, servants, the enslaved, maps and goods, exploring the connections between the North West and the development and abolition of the slave trade. The dinner service was initially exhibited on the splendid mahogany dining table in the Judge’s Lodging in Lancaster, reminders both of the flourish- ing mahogany trade from Jamaica and Honduras and its importance to the development of eighteenth-century consumer society, and of the centrality of the law to class power in that period.
The ‘national conversation’ about the slave trade and slavery in 2007 marked a contestation over memory – what was to be remembered and how? It was Maurice Halbwachs in the period after the first world war who initiated much of the work on collective memory, drawing on his own experience and illuminating the ways in which memory is constructed, mediated and shaped in the social world. Individual and collective memory are always related; experiences and private recollections are tested by and shaped in encounters with collective memory. It is collective memory that constitutes social values, shapes convention, law and language. If we are haunted by past memories that are not shared by others, it can be deeply lonely and indeed alienating. ‘I have shown’, he argued, ‘that memory is a collective function … If recollections reappear, this is because at each moment society possesses the necessary means to reproduce them.’ In 2007 the question that was being asked was what should be remembered? Was Wilberforce really the carrier of the story of abolition? Can trauma pass through generations affecting the descendants of the enslaved? If so, how? How can the different legacies be given weight and significance in the minds and cultures of people today? There will always be different perspectives and voices but which narratives would/should achieve cultural and political hegemony? Would it continue to be white abolitionists or those black abolitionists, men such as Ottobah Cugoano, kidnapped at 13 in West Africa, sold into slavery and eventually freed in England, who believed that redress would never be adequate, and drew attention to ‘the incommensurability between pain and compensation’. And what about the women? What about the practices of the trade and slavery itself, the hundreds and thousands of African men and women who had been transported across the Middle Passage, and sold to planters and merchants across the British Caribbean? What impact did all of this have on the lives of those in the UK? What kind of responsibility did Britons, generations later, have for those wrongs committed by their forbears? There was no common view, but many voices were raised, unsettling what had seemed to be settled narratives. In that sense 2007 was a reparative moment, marking new discoveries and provoking new questions.
There is a long history of claims for reparations for the wrongs associated with slavery. As early as the 1780s there were petitions from those who had previously been enslaved. Hundreds of Quakers both freed enslaved men and women and paid them compensation. Some abolitionists argued in the nineteenth century that freedom should include compensation, some challenged the payment of compensation to slave-owners at the time of emancipation in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape. Arguments were made for compensation in the US after the civil war and Marcus Garvey sought payment to descendants as part of the back to Africa movement. Congressman John Conyers, who represents Detroit, has marked every session for the last twenty-five years by introducing a bill calling for the congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects and recommending remedies.
‘The subterranean stream of Western history’, Hannah Arendt wrote in the immediate postwar years, ‘has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our position. This is the reality in which we live. And this is why all efforts to escape from the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipated oblivion of the future, are vain.’ Such a recognition of the weight of the past, ‘that subterranean stream’, marked a very different attitude from earlier periods. For Marx the past had weighed like a nightmare on the brain of the living: but it was to be transcended. It was not until the 1990s that the need to come to terms with the past and the insistence that the legacies of the past lived on in the present became more urgent. Notions of reparation and a demand for reparative justice became a global phenomenon. The Holocaust was the most powerful symbol of the impossibility of ignoring the misdeeds of the past, and of thinking about that past as catastrophic, for it was still a living memory. Holocaust survivors, slave labourers in Nazi camps, Australian aborigines, Native Americans in Canada, Maori in New Zealand, the Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa were making claims on governments. Such claims implied a break with the idea of history as progress, that the future would always be better than the past, an idea heavily influenced by both Enlightenment stadial theory and Marxism. Now the emphasis is on reconstituting the past, in ways that enable thinking about responsibility in the present. Some have argued that this preoccupation with the past is a result of the decline of a more future-oriented and utopian politics. The combination of the horrors of Stalinism and of fascism, together with the end of the Soviet Union, the resurgence of nationalism, the unfinished work of decolonisation, the ‘failures’ of postcolonial states and the apparent triumph of global capitalism, have destroyed beliefs in the possibility of a transformative politics, the loss of a sense of common destiny, and a retreat into a growing concern with particular groups and claims, with victims and their rights. It may be that the crisis of neoliberalism and the growing critique of capitalism and the market that characterises one aspect of our contemporary world, albeit alongside the successes of authoritarian populism, will mark the onset of a very different political moment. Could re-thinking the past, taking responsibilities for its residues and legacies, be one way of challenging rightwing politics and imagining a different future?
In the aftermath of the first world war, the word reparations was associated with the punishing payments demanded by the victors from the defeated. Sometime after the second world war, the word was transformed from its original connotations with war reparations. Karl Jaspers’ The Question of German Guilt argued for the need for the German people as a whole to atone: the Nuremberg trials and the hanging of individual Nazis were in no sense an adequate response to what had happened. Reconstruction and restoration would require recognition of the full meaning of what had happened and its implications for the majority population. A shift took place from the language of perpetrators to the notion of beneficiaries, facilitating efforts to claim reparations for wrongs done in the past, for gross violations of human rights and their effects into the present. As Mahmood Mamdani put it in relation to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:
Where the focus is on perpetrators, victims are necessarily defined as the minority of political activists; for the victimhood of the majority to be recognized, the focus has to shift from perpetrators to beneficiaries. The difference is this: whereas the focus on perpetrators fuels the demand for justice as criminal justice, that on beneficiaries shifts the focus to a notion of justice as social justice.
Responsibilities are then understood as belonging to nations and peoples, to ‘by- standers’, those who acquiesced or benefitted, as well as those who pressed the button. In a similar vein, Michael Rothberg, exploring what the legacies of slavery mean today in terms of justice and historical responsibility, has proposed the term ‘implicated subjects’. He argues that there is a need to develop a new cate- gory describing the implication of people in events that are temporally or spatially distant and in which they have not played a direct role either as perpetrators or victims. Those of us living in the rich societies of the West have all, albeit profoundly unequally, enjoyed the fruits of racial capitalism, we are all survivors of slavery, not just those who can directly trace their lineages.
John Torpey makes a helpful distinction between ‘reparations’ (plural) in the more literal meaning of rectifying past injustices (whether or not you are directly responsible for committing the wrongs), and ‘reparation’ (the singular noun), which covers the wider terrain of reparation politics. Transitional justice, with its many permutations of truth, justice, and reconstruction; the tropes of forgive- ness, apologies, and regret; efforts at reconciliation, memory, and communal memorialisation, all these can play a part in attempts to take responsibility for as well as hope to put wrongs right. While the word reparations generally means compensation of some kind, reparation has come to mean repair. People make reparation, states and corporations pay reparations. Reparation politics can include transitional justice, the legal mechanisms such as criminal trials and truth commis- sions which would mostly be concerned with perpetrators. ‘Transitional justice’, writes David Scott, ‘is the name of a post-Cold War development in liberal justice that, through the political technologies of successor trials and above all, historical truth commissions, aims to draw a line between the illiberal past and the liberalizing present.’ Then there is compensation and restitution of a material kind such as the German payments to Israel and the return of art works stolen by the Nazis. Reparation can include acknowledgement as in the case of the Japanese-American claims over internment, which involved token payments, apologies, as Blair refused in relation to slavery, some churches have made for sexual abuse, most recently Hollywood for misogyny/sexual harassment, or statements of regret. Efforts to reshape historical memory can also be made through history writing, school textbooks, exhibitions in museums, memorials, statues and commemorative plaques. Many of the activities associated with 2007 were indeed of this kind.
Claims from the Caribbean for reparation from the erstwhile empires were given new life by the publication of Hilary Beckles’s book Britain’s Black Debt in 2013, documenting the evidence of the destruction wreaked by slavery, the benefits that accrued to Britain, and the arguments for reparation. This was followed by the launch of the CARICOM ten-point programme in 2014, a claim from the regional states for reparatory justice from the European states ‘whose countries grew rich at the expense of those regions whose human wealth was stolen from them’. A full apology was demanded alongside debt cancellation, development programmes, resources to tackle ill health and illiteracy and psychological forms of rehabilitation for those who were ‘denied recognition as members of the human family by laws derived from the parliaments and pal- aces of Europe’. The search was for a ‘path to reconciliation for victims of crimes against humanity and their descendants’ in the region. The CARICOM claim has been met with a deafening silence from European governments, has provoked criticism from Pan-Africanists for its failure to challenge the system of racial capitalism with its global reach, and from those in the wider diaspora for the exclusive focus on harms done in the Caribbean. Many black people are suspicious of the whole enterprise, many white people think that there is no reason to saddle them with responsibility for things they did not do. But might the reparations argument have the potential, as David Scott puts it, to
“redescribe the past’s relation to the present … to foreground the sense in which Caribbean debt is the other side of European theft – that the ‘persistent poverty’ of the Caribbean has been a constituting condition for ill-gotten European prosperity … The point is that this is not the story of a mere episode in a marginal history; it is the integrated story of the making of the modern world itself.”
It is to be hoped that the new Centre for Reparations that has been established at the University of the West Indies will be able to build a detailed case that European governments will not be able to ignore. The priority is to seek reparations for the descendants of the enslaved and of those indigenous peoples who suffered genocide. But as Robin Kelley has written in relation to the US, ‘The reparations campaign, despite its potential contribution to eliminating racism and remaking the world, can never be an end in itself … without at least a rudimentary critique of the capitalist culture that consumes us, even reparations can have disastrous consequences.’
Reparation and the UK
Reparatory work in the UK needs to be connected with these wider struggles but also to be rooted in the locality. Anti-racists have been challenging the systemic racism that has blighted the lives of generations, tackling inequality and discrimination for decades. Historians, writers, visual artists and critical race theorists have been exploring colonialism and its legacies, challenging the silences on ‘race’ and slavery. In her brilliant essay on the apparent absence of ‘race’ in the American literary canon, Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison analysed a range of texts, from Willa Cather to Edgar Allen Poe and Mark Twain. ‘Her project’, she argued, ‘is an effort to avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject; from the described and imagined to the describers and imaginers; from the serving to the served.’ She examined
“the impact of notions of racial hierarchy, racial exclusion, and racial vulnerability and availability on nonblacks who held, resisted, explored, or altered those notions. The scholarship that looks into the mind, imagination, and behaviour of slaves is valuable. But equally valuable is a serious intellectual effort to see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination, and behaviour of masters.”
The recognition of white privilege, grasping the extent to which white identities have been built on the capacity to ‘other’ those who are defined as lesser is a crucial part of the work that is underway and needs to be sustained in Britain.
My own first effort to do something I have come to call ‘reparatory history’ began in the 1980s when questions about the politics of ‘race’ erupted angrily amongst feminists, with demands from black feminists that white women should think about themselves and the positions of privilege they/we occupied. I began to research the question of ‘race’, the ways its presence and significance had been denied and disavowed in British history, and what this meant for white populations, whether ‘at home’ or in the empire. Britain’s domestic history had been systematically demarcated from its imperial history as if the two had nothing to do with each other. My study became an investigation of the impact of colonial- ism on English identities in the period after the abolition of slavery, an exploration of the long historical links between England, particularly Birmingham, and Jamaica. What did it mean to be a coloniser: how central was that identity, that sense of power over others who were thought lesser, to notions of Englishness and Britishness? How were white identities constituted in relation to black? What were the distinctive characteristics of white masculinities and femininities? How was class articulated with this? What happened to thinking about ‘race’ in the wake of abolition? Once slavery, with its supposedly clear binary between white and black and assumption of black subjection, was abolished, other legitimations had to be found for the systematic forms of exploitation, expropriation, cruelty, terror, coercion, violence, abuse, destruction and hatred of ‘others’ that continued across different sites of empire. Othering could take many forms as has been clear from the treatment of the Irish, of Jews and of people of colour in the metropole. As Cathy Bergin and Anita Rupprecht have argued, the demand for reparation put a particular purchase on history and the history of ‘race’. ‘It challenges the progressive onward march of freedom from below by demanding the recognition and repair of exploitation, expropriation and violence not just by building monuments or demanding financial payback.’
There is much work to be done: exploring the continuities between the racisms of the past and the present, investigating the history of the descendants of the enslaved, documenting resistance and exploring the constructions of ‘race’, including whiteness, across different sites of empire, investigating the role of states and corporations. We need histories of the enslaved and their survival, they argue, of the perpetrators and the beneficiaries, of those who refused the Manichean binaries of ‘race’. Reparatory history must be about more than identifying wrongdoers and seeking redress: it begins with the descendants, with trauma and loss, but the hope is that the work of mourning can be linked to hopes for reconciliation, the repair of relations damaged by historical injustice.
The attachment to the idea of abolition as a mark of Britain’s love of liberty and freedom was linked to a deep, yet disavowed, attachment in English culture to Britain’s imperial power. In the wake of decolonisation and the loss of Empire,Paul Gilroy diagnosed ‘postimperial melancholia’, marked by
“an inability even to face, never mind actually mourn, the profound change in circumstances and moods that followed the end of the Empire … Once the his- tory of the Empire became a source of discomfort, shame, and perplexity, its complexities and ambiguities were readily set aside. Rather than work through those feelings, that unsettling history was diminished, denied, and then, if possible, actively forgotten.”
Such a denial has had profound moral and psychic costs, he suggested, not least shaping hostile responses to strangers and settlers, stirring up fears of ‘swamp- ing’ and invasion. ‘An anxious melancholic mood has become part of the cultural infrastructure’, he argued in 2004. Gilroy’s analysis recalls Freud’s emphasis in Mourning and Melancholia that if a loved object cannot be relinquished and mourn- ing completed, melancholia will ensue, akin to a state of paralysis. That melancholic mood has more recently been transposed into widescale resentment, an anger associated with the loss of an imagined time of purity, when England was white and her borders were secure.
Disavowal and evasion
The concept of disavowal, first articulated by Freud and subsequently developed by a range of other psychoanalytic thinkers has become central to me in my efforts to understand the erasure of ‘race’ and empire in much British history writing. Freud asked, how do we remember, forget and reconfigure the past, and how is it that we can make a thing appear never to have happened? We can ‘know’, according to this account, something unconsciously even as we are consciously ‘innocent’ of the knowledge. Freud’s thinking was based upon the idea that mind is always conflicted, and that we actively rid ourselves (sometimes unbeknownst to ourselves) of certain mental contents. The body may speak another ‘unconscious’ story: thus Freud described a hysterical patient who seemed to know nothing of sexual desire, yet whose hands conveyed a different drama: the one unbuttoning her clothes, the other doing them up. Others have investigated the ways we may misrecognise ourselves, avoid pain, bury our guilt, and disclaim our desires. Lacan’s famous reading of a story by Edgar Allen Poe, ‘The Purloined Letter’, zeroed in upon a hidden object, the epistle in question, hidden in plain view, on a mantelpiece where nobody (except the alert detective) could see it. Hence the casual leaving of a secret in an accessible location may turn out to be, by and large, a brilliant hiding place. As historians are well aware, archives may be technically ‘open’, but nobody bothers to look in them, or they/we look with ‘blind eyes’, asking some questions, forgetting others. Freud’s emphasis is on an unconscious process, the rejection of a reality that is potentially traumatic. Forgetting is understood as actively produced, not just a matter of failed remembering, rather it is willed, unconsciously. Disavowal is connected with a denial of external realities, a refusal to think what is unthinkable, a wish to put aside what cannot be integrated. And this is as relevant in our intimate and interpersonal relations as in relation to forgotten histories. Statements of denial are assertions that something did not happen, does not exist, is not true, or is not known about. It can be argued that individuals or collectives, indeed whole states and societies can be engaged in it. Disavowal is the refusal to avow, the disclaiming of responsibility or knowledge of, repudiation or denial. It is often linked to the notion of a ‘blind eye’ or the refusal of something in plain sight, so carrying the implication of knowing and not knowing.
Hannah Arendt was no disciple of Freud, yet there are connections with her concept of thoughtlessness, characterised in part by the absence of internal dialogue. This was a crucial concept for her exploration of the imperial roots of totalitarianism and the Holocaust. She re-named Nazi rule ‘race imperialism’. The priority, she insisted was to examine the past ‘bearing consciously the burden that events have placed upon us – neither denying their existence nor submitting meekly to their weight as though everything that in fact happened could not have happened otherwise. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality – whatever it may be or might have been.’ She saw the repetition of empty and trivial truths as a key aspect of ‘modern times’.
‘In matters of race, silence and evasion have historically ruled literary dis- course’, Morrison wrote. ‘Evasion has fostered another, substitute language in which the issues are encoded, foreclosing open debate. The situation is aggravated by the tremor that breaks into discourse on race.’ A similar argument can be made about history writing, a topic that I have been investigating in recent times. One case study has focused on Macaulay’s History of England, the great popular history of the nineteenth century, read across the globe. It was an epic story of progress from Elizabeth I to modern times, 1848. It covered the period of the conquest of Jamaica and the expansion of the slave trade and the development of colonial slavery. Macaulay’s father, Zachary, had a lifelong preoccupation with Africa and the Caribbean. An abolitionist, he had spent formative years as a bookkeeper in Jamaica and then time in Sierra Leone, and became Wilberforce’s right-hand man. Yet his son banished the slave trade and slavery to the uttermost margins of his volumes. The peoples and politics of the Atlantic were irrelevant to his vision of history as was the huge flow of wealth from Caribbean slavery and commerce. Despite the development of the Royal Africa Company under Charles II and James II there was no discussion of the slave trade or plantation slavery, the subjects that had occupied most of Zachary Macaulay’s waking hours. This was a startling silence. Sugar and slavery were becoming central to England’s wealth and power by the late seventeenth century. But slavery was a system that Macaulay preferred to forget. It was abolition that should be memorialised. This was a process that had begun in 1808, with the publication of Thomas Clarkson’s history, celebrating the actions of a group of humanitarian white men on both sides of the Atlantic: it was they who had effected abolition. The Wilberforce brothers’ hagiographic account of their father’s life confirmed this way of constructing England’s role: it was humanitarianism that was to be remembered, not the country’s investment in the slave trade and slavery.
In Macaulay’s mind there was nothing significant to be said about the Caribbean, those colonies had no History, with a capital H, History was a story of progress, the story England exemplified. The Caribbean was locked in what Dipesh Chakrabarty famously named ‘the waiting room of history’, possibly seeking entry at some future date. The ‘great experiment’ of emancipation was increasingly problematic in the 1840s, the years Macaulay was writing, the freed men and women had found no real freedom and were frequently in conflict with their erstwhile owners, the Caribbean islands no longer dominated sugar production and were increasingly irrelevant to global economics and politics. There was no story of progress there. Macaulay’s history was of the making of the multi-ethnic nation named England, with its inclusion, as lesser siblings, of the Scots, and, much more problematically, the partial inclusion of the Irish, who could not be comfortably assimilated in his imagination. England provided a model in his analysis, a successful example of the route to modernity, laying out a path which others could follow. His underlying assumption, rooted in his ethnocentrism, was that it was the route. In that sense his History purported to be a universal history.
Macaulay never chose to write a biography of his father, far from it. He preferred to distance himself from all that his father had most valued, evangelicalism and the struggle against slavery. We cannot think, as he had once proclaimed, as our fathers do. His disavowal of the significance of the slave trade and slavery to his nation’s history could be read as the most potent rejection of his father’s legacy. Abolition had been effected: in its wake he had no time for ‘impracticable, uncompromising reformers’, who never did good and led ‘miserable lives’ and he hated ‘negrophiles’ as much as ‘nigger drivers’. He disliked the whole subject of slavery, did not want to talk, think, or write about it, refused to act as the Vice- President of the Edinburgh Antislavery Society. It was a relief when the subject was avoided, as at a dinner with Sumner, the Massachusetts anti-slavery leader: ‘We had no talk about slavery, to my great joy.’ Avoiding subjects, blocking off difficulties, making the world in his own image: these were some of his strategies for keeping trouble at bay.
He had been in the House of Commons in the difficult days when the terms of abolition were being negotiated. He had done his duty to his father. The supreme authority of the ‘parent state’ had been enacted with the abolition of slavery in 1833 by the imperial parliament, in the face of opposition from the colonial assemblies. England had done its duty and so had he. Now he could put it aside. But putting it aside meant deliberately avoiding and forgetting: disavowal. Macaulay was well aware of the extent to which the slave trade and slavery had sustained the economy and society. He was a member of the government that negotiated compensation to the slave-owners: he knew what the payment of 20 million pounds meant in terms of the government’s overall expenditure. But he preferred not to know, he could not face reality. The West Indies rarely crossed his mind, peopled as they were by ‘stupid ungrateful’ gangs of ‘negroes’. He paid lip service to the abolitionists, but Africa and the Caribbean, effectively excluded from his history, only featured in one paragraph.
Yet what a paragraph: the tremor in his text was marked by the forgotten but not to be dispelled spectre of the slave trade and slavery. Evoking the terrible earthquake in Port Royal, Jamaica, in 1692, he described ‘The fairest and wealthiest city which the English had yet built in the New World, renowned for its quays, for its warehouses, and for its stately streets, which were said to rival Cheapside.’ On that fateful day all ‘was turned into a mass of ruins’. Here the focus was on the city, built by Englishmen and brought into homely purview by being compared to Cheapside. The markets where the enslaved were sold as commodities, the wharves where the slavers docked, the Africans who peopled the island – none of these were in his line of vision. It was the impact on home that preoccupied him, the effect of the disaster on ‘the great mercantile houses of London and Bristol’. Thus Jamaica was domesticated and slavery disavowed. That earthquake signalled the eruption of repressed memories, for repression cannot always contain its troublesome baggage. Macaulay’s History marginalised slavery and empire in the nation’s story. The work of such an influential historian, read across generations, can tell us much about the construction of Anglophone visions of white civilisation. Unpicking that narrative, demonstrating how that marginalisation was effected, what and who were excluded, how the story is fundamentally changed once questions of gender, ‘race’ and class are opened up, exploitation and expropriation registered, is one way of attempting repair.
To focus on undoing the legacies of ‘great white men’ is one possible strategy. New understandings can never undo the devastation and loss that was suffered in the past and that lives on for descendants in the present. But thinking differently can perhaps awaken a sense of the responsibilities of ‘implicated subjects’ who have benefitted culturally, economically and politically from the hurts inflicted on others, in the hope that change can happen, racisms could be eradicated. Recognition matters. The reparation done for the Holocaust has made a difference – the absence of reparation for slavery means that the wound is still open for many people of African-Caribbean descent. Acknowledgement can mean that those implicated in oppression can align themselves with the oppressed and try to repair.
The Legacies of British Slave-ownership project (www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs) (LBS) which seeks to put slavery back into British history, on which I was a principal researcher from 2009 to 2015, has also focused on individuals, but this time on a significant group, the slave-owners. The aim has been to shift the narrative of Britain’s relation to slavery from a focus on abolition to one on the benefits associated with the business of slavery and its importance to the making of modern Britain and in the process to contribute to undoing whitewashed histories. Little systematic attention had been paid to British slave-owners though there were invaluable case studies of particular families and Eric Williams had pointed the way in his attention to the absentee West Indian elite, living in Britain. We decided to use them as a lens through which to explore the tentacles of the slav- ery business in the metropole. Pro-slavers resisted emancipation as long as they could. Once they knew the battle was lost they used their parliamentary power to get the best terms possible for themselves. They drove a hard bargain. The 20 mil- lion pounds (16 billion in today’s money) paid to them in compensation for the loss of ‘their’ human property was combined with a system of apprenticeship, binding the freed men and women to working unpaid for their former masters for fixed hours over four to six years. The compensation records were meticulously collected in the wake of emancipation, providing a census of slave-owners at that time, a unique source. By documenting the 46,000 individual claims for compensation and detailing the legacies – commercial, financial, political, cultural and imperial of the absentees – those with addresses registered in Britain, the extent of Britons’ involvement in slave-ownership has been laid bare. Some of the wealthy slave-owners such as John Gladstone, William’s father, were well- known. But the 3,500+ who received compensation in the metropole were enormously varied, ranging from modest widows living on annuities that were funded by the labour of the enslaved to middle-range merchants, bankers and lawyers, and rich ‘West Indians’ based partially in Marylebone and enjoying a country residence. Twenty per cent of those who received compensation in Britain were women. The compensation records deal with individuals but they illuminate the structures of class and state power. It was the imperial parliament which legislated the ending of slavery, just as it had previously legislated the trade and the notion of an enslaved person as a commodity.
Tracking the legacies has meant looking at the West India lobby and its retention of significant political influence into the 1840s, protecting the interests of the planters. British railway and canal systems, merchant banks and insurance companies, urban developments in spa towns such as Leamington, all bear witness to wealth derived from slavery. British museums and galleries display the perquisites of slavery and empire, visitors to country houses can marvel at the riches associated with sugar. Enterprises in the new colonies of white settlement were partially built on the fruits of slave-ownership. Scrolling through the LBS documentation of slave-owners who contributed to philanthropic enterprises we dis- cover that they supported asylums and schools for the urban poor, hospitals and an Institute for the Blind, the Governesses Benevolent Society and the Lifeboat Institution, typical objects of middle- and upper-class charity. Modern Britain was better equipped to respond to ill-health, poverty and disability than were the lands and peoples it colonised.
Bringing slavery home means tracking all these material traces, following the money and the people, making visible the legacies of slave-ownership, excavating what has been suppressed and marginalised, re-inscribing the slavery business in modern British history in an effort to reshape what is understood as the truth of what has happened. The database provides the evidence of the webs of connections to slavery that continue into the present within the white British elite and key social and economic institutions. It confirms Eric Williams’ insistence on the contribution that slave wealth made to the development of capitalism. It is a resource opening up the entangled histories of Britain’s relation to the Caribbean and offering extensive refutations of that binary between black and white which the slave-owners tried to impose, the ‘race-making’ that was central to their power. It challenges the systemic disavowal, the knowing and not knowing of the realities of slavery that has characterised British history writing and British society. Anecdotal evidence from educational institutions, the media and public debates suggests that LBS has made a difference. The national narrative has shifted: it is impossible now to think about abolition without compensation. Furthermore, the empirical work has given people who are making political claims the historical grounding from which to do so.
LBS’s current project is documenting the structure and scale of Britons’ owner- ship in the Caribbean between 1763–1833, this time establishing patterns of land holding and levels of production when possible, uncovering the political, economic and cultural legacies, and utilising the Slave Registers to record the numbers of men, women and children who worked on the estates. Digitising these histories, in so far as we can, including locating estates on maps, means extensive additions to the database and new possibilities for family and local historians as well as academic researchers. Attempting to grasp the world of the planter historian of Jamaica, Edward Long, the subject of my current research, is greatly facilitated by this wider comparative context across the British Caribbean. I aim to situate him as a child growing up in a family whose plantations had been established in the 1650s, fill out the details of his twelve years on the island as a planter, grasp the significance of his authoritative work as a historian and his life amongst the West Indian elite as an influential pro-slaver in Marylebone and the home counties.
The hope is to understand more about how racial thinking works, what are its logics and its mechanics, how did slave-owners such as Long establish the practices that attempted to fix the binaries between black and white, master the world in which they lived? The ability to see and not see was fundamental to Long’s life, to disavow and deny realities. He relied on what Ann Stoler has called ‘imperial dispositions’ to legitimate his own behaviour, as a planter, a legislator in the House of Assembly, a writer and polemicist, and in the network of his family and kin. He learned to ignore, turn away, refuse to witness: these were the ‘well-tended conditions of disregard’ that enabled slave-owners to live with the contradictions of their practices. Long could be a loving family man and a buyer and seller of human property, valuing others only as commodities and relying on violence and coercion to extract their labour. This culture and the divisions between black and white were not ‘natural’, they had to be created and learned. This was the work of ‘making race’.
So can we think of such work as reparative? Its primary intention is not to seek new resources for education and health in the Caribbean, nor is it focused on the long-term effects of the slave trade on Africa. It is not about the politics of sur- vival and existential struggle under the conditions of ‘bare life’ as Vincent Brown evokes in his discussion of studies of slavery. It cannot offer the kinds of insights into the harshness of Jamaican plantation life that Diana Paton has been able to unearth in her study of slave courts or the complexities of the sex-gender system captured through a fragment in the life of a free woman of colour. My chosen focus is on the UK and the need to develop a different understanding here of Britain’s involvement in the slavery business and our responsibilities, as beneficiaries of the gross inequalities associated with slavery and colonialism. This means thinking about understandings of ‘race’ and difference. How significant were the ideas about ‘race’ which developed in the Caribbean to English/British under- standings of difference? Debates over slavery and abolition brought this material ‘home’: pro-slavers and abolitionists tried to marshal their forces and their organisations, worked hard to influence policy and practice. Anti-slavery activism was vital, but it did not always undermine notions of white superiority.
A decade after 2007 it is possible to make some assessment of what shifts have and have not taken place in the UK on the question of slavery and its legacies into the present. There have been some welcome changes in schools and universities, more scholarship produced, more materials made available, a sense that the story cannot any longer be told in quite the way it once was. Politically, ground has been lost. On his visit to Jamaica in 2015 the then prime minister David Cameron’s refusal to consider reparations together with his extraordinarily ill-judged promise of 25 million for a new prison on the island marked a low point. The harsh policies of the current Conservative government on immigration and deportation and of the police on stop and search leave little faith in platitudes about tolerance. The appalling statistics on African-Caribbean levels of inequality, whether in edu- cation, employment, prisons or mental health speak volumes about the persistence of racism.
Colin Prescod has recently recognised the work that has been done by archivists and curators on Black cultural heritage, but makes a powerful argument for mov- ing beyond including the Black experience to allowing Black agency in the making of the record. Black community groups have registered anger and frustration about the opportunities that have been lost, the disappointment of hopes raised in 2007 of changes that would be made, collaborations that would develop, more genuinely inclusive policies that would be implemented. It is just as urgent to insist that Black Lives Matter in the wake of Grenfell as it was in 2007, 1807 or 1833. Morrison’s call for a ‘serious intellectual effort to see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination, and behaviour of masters’ seems no less important in the current climate of Islamophobia and xenophobia, the abandonment of refugees as ‘disposable people’. We need to understand that we are dealing with deeply embedded assumptions in the UK, what Stuart Hall described as ‘a reservoir of unconscious feelings’ about ‘race’. There remains much reparatory work to be done: history writing can be one way in.
- This essay was originally a talk at the ‘Reparatory Histories’ conference in Brighton in April 2017 and then at the Bluecoats conference in Liverpool in October Thanks to all the par- ticipants at those conferences for their thoughts and then to Sally Alexander, Nick Draper, Cora Kaplan, Keith McClelland, Rachel Lang and Diana Paton.
- Runnymede Trust, The Future of Multi-ethnic Britain (London: Profile Books, 2000), p.
- The Guardian, 12 October 2000.
- For a critical account of the Durban conference see Hilary Beckles, Britain’s Black Debt: repara- tions for Caribbean slavery and native genocide (Kingston: University of West Indies Press, 2013).
- Randall Robinson, The Debt: what America owes to Blacks (New York: P. Dutton, 2000). There were echoes here of Orlando Patterson’s emphasis on the systematic alienation and social death associated with Atlantic slavery, Slavery and Social Death: a comparative study (Cambridge, MA, 1982).
- For a helpful discussion of the value of political apologies see Janna Thompson, ‘Is political apology a sorry affair?’, Social and Legal Studies 21, 2 (2012), pp. 215–25.
- Government Press Notice,
- John Oldfield, ‘Chords of Freedom’: commemoration, ritual and British transatlantic slavery (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007); ‘Repairing historical wrongs: public history and transatlantic slavery’, 21, no. 2 (2012), pp. 243–55.
- The Guardian, 27 February
- Toyin Agbetu intervened dramatically in the service at Westminster Abbey commemorating the bi-centenary which the Queen attended on 27 March 2007, saying that the service was an insult to those of African
- I. Wilberforce and S. Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce (abridged version) (Seeley: Burnside & Seeley, 1843), p. 501.
- For one of the volumes that came out of new research in 2007 see Cora Kaplan and John Oldfield, eds, Imagining Transatlantic Slavery (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
- Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 183, quoted in Erika Apfelbaum, ‘Halbwachs and the social properties of memory’, in Susannah Radstone and Bill Schwarz, eds, Memory. Histories, Theories, Debates (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), pp. 77–92.
- Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman, ‘Fugitive justice’, Representations 91, no. 1 (2005), pp. 1–12; Quobna Ottabah Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999).
- For some of the reflections on 2007 see the special issue of Slavery and Abolition (30, 2 ), ‘Remembering Slave Trade Abolitions; reflections on 2007 in international perspective’ (edited by Diana Paton and Jane Webster); Laurajane Smith et al., eds, Representing Enslavement and Abolition in Museums (London: Routledge, 2014).
- On the importance of discovery to possibilities of reparation see Karl Figlio, Remembering as Reparation: psychoanalysis and historical memory (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
- Nicholas Draper, The Price of Emancipation: slave-ownership, compensation and British society at the end of slavery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
- Hannah Arendt, ‘Preface to the first edition’, in The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1973 ), p.
- See, for example, the discussions in John Torpey, Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: on reparation politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006); David Scott, Omens of Adversity: tragedy, time, memory, justice (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); Robert Meister, After Evil: a politics of human rights (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).
- For an introduction to aspects of the complicated history of postwar responses in Germany see Geoff Eley, ‘Contemporary Germany and denial: is “Nazism” all there is to say?’, History Workshop Journal 84 (Autumn 2017), 44–66.
- Unpublished paper quoted in Priscilla B. Hayner, Unspeakable Truths: transitional justice and the challenge of truth commissions (New York, 2001), p.
- Michal Rothberg, Unpublished paper, ‘On being a descendant: implicated subjects and the legacy of slavery’, Utrecht, June 2013. See also his book, Multidirectional Memory: remembering the Holocaust in the age of decolonization (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009) which brings together holocaust studies and postcolonial studies, aiming to change thinking about collective memory and group identities. See also Elazar Bakan, Guilt of Nations: restitution and negotiating historical injustices (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2000).
- Torpey, Making Whole What Has Been Smashed. I have found Torpey’s discussion of reparations very helpful and have drawn on it in this
- Scott, Omens of Adversity, pp. 26–27.
- Beckles, Britain’s Black Debt; http://www.leighday.co.uk?News/March2014/Caricom- nations-unanimously-approve-10-point-plan.
- David Scott, ‘Debt, redress’, Small Axe 43 (2014), pp. 1–4.
- For an account of the scale of the politics of reparation movements see Robin Kelley, ‘A day of reckoning: dreams of reparations’, in Freedom Dreams (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), 110–34.
- Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: whiteness and the literary imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993 ), pp. 90, 11–12.
- Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: metropole and colony in the English imagination 1830-1867 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002).
- 17. Cathy Bergin and Anita Rupprecht, ‘History, agency and the representation of “race” – an introduction’, Race & Class 57, 3 (2016), pp. 3–17.
- Paul Gilroy, After Empire: melancholia or convivial culture? (London: Routledge, 2004), 98.
- Sigmund Freud, ‘Mourning and melancholia’, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 14 (London: Vintage Classics, 2001) pp. 239–60.
- Max Hastings, well-known military historian, editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph and one- time editor of the Evening Standard has recently commented on the disaster of producing a film such as Dunkirk in this conjuncture, the calamitous fantasies it encourages of Britain standing alone.
- I am quoting in this paragraph from a longer version of this argument: Catherine Hall and Daniel Pick, ‘Thinking about denial’, History Workshop Journal 84 (Autumn 2017), 1–23.
- Stan Cohen, States of Denial: knowing about atrocities and suffering (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001).
- Arendt, ‘Preface to the first edition’, xviii.
- Morrison, Playing, p.9.
- For a longer account of Macaulay’s history writing see Catherine Hall, Macaulay and Son: archi- tects of imperial Britain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012). The citation in the following paragraphs are drawn from
- Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: postcolonial thought and historical difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).
- The project was funded by the ESRC, and supported by the Department of History at
- See, for example, S. G. Checkland, The Gladstones: A family biography 1764-1851 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971); Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1944).
- Draper, The Price of Emancipation.
- Catherine Hall, Nick Draper, Keith McClelland, Katie Donington and Rachel Lang, The Legacies of British Slave-ownership and the Formation of Victorian Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
- This project has been funded by the ESRC and AHRC and supported by the History Department at The establishment of a Centre for the Study of British Slave-ownership at UCL is now supported by the Hutchins Center, Harvard University.
- Anne Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: epistemic anxieties and colonial common sense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 256.
- Vincent Brown, ‘Social death and political life in the study of slavery’, American Historical Review 114, no. 5 (December 2009), pp. 1231–49.
- Diana Paton, ‘Punishment, crime, and the bodies of slaves in eighteenth-century Jamaica’, Journal of Social History 34, 4 (Summer 2001), pp. 923–54; ‘Mary Williamson’s Letter, or seeing women in the archives of Atlantic slavery’, lecture to the Royal Historical Society, 9 February 2018. The work of doing reparatory history will always be collective and collabora- tive, drawing on the many and varied skills of historians across the world, located in specific national, transnational and global contexts.
- Hall, Civilising Subjects; Clare Midgley, Women against Slavery: the British campaigns 1780-1870 (London: Routledge, 1992).
- Any illusion that official understandings have changed could be dispelled by the Treasury tweet of 9 February about compensation that was ill-judged and See David Olusoga, ‘The Treasury’s tweet shows slavery is still misunderstood’, The Guardian, 13 February 2018.
- Colin Prescod, ‘Archives, race, class and rage’, Race & Class 58, no. 4 (2017), pp. 76–84.
- Stuart Hall interviewed by Les Back, Darkmatter.101.org/site/2010/11/28/stuart-hall- in-conversation-with-les-back.
16th May 2022
Convened by Susuana Amoah, the Sussex University Stuart Hall Fellow 2022, this panel will explore some of the imaginative de-colonial...
26th July 2021 / Video
26th July 2021 / Video
Can the Museum Be Decolonised? Mohammed Ali, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan and Ahdaf Soueif
On Wednesday 7th July, the Stuart Hall Foundation an online roundtable as part of their #ReconstructionWork series to think through the...
26th July 2021 / Video
Can the Museum Be Decolonised? Mohammed Ali, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan and Ahdaf Soueif
On Wednesday 7th July, the Stuart Hall Foundation an online roundtable as part of their #ReconstructionWork series to think through the possibilities of decolonising the museum. The event included short presentations from the panel of guest speakers followed by a chaired discussion:
• Mohammed Ali, Artist/Curator, Founder of Soul City Arts and Trustee of Birmingham Museums
• Sado Jirde, Director, Black South West Network
• Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, Writer and Poet
• Ahdaf Soueif, Writer
• Intro: Bridget Byrne, Director, the Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE)
• Chair: Orsod Malik, Digital Content Curator, Stuart Hall Foundation
What can the concept of decolonisation look like in practice and in relation to the museum? We welcomed Ahdaf Soueif, Mohammed Ali and Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan to share their experiences working within and without the museum to examine whether or not the museum can be a space for realising disruptive and radical possibilities. The panel explored what and who the museum is for, the relationship between the museum and the construction of racial hierarchies as well as the museum’s entanglements with the history and legacies of colonisation.
In partnership with the Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) with support from Arts Council England.
"The dilemma is how to cultivate the positive potential of folk cultures..."
8th April 2020 / Article
By: Matt Martin
"The dilemma is how to cultivate the positive potential of folk cultures..."
8th April 2020 / Article
'wi' nowt but dialeck for democracy': Bill Griffiths' Cultural Activism in Seaham
By: Matt Martin
The dilemma is how to cultivate the positive potential of folk cultures while resisting...
"The dilemma is how to cultivate the positive potential of folk cultures..."
8th April 2020 / Article
'wi' nowt but dialeck for democracy': Bill Griffiths' Cultural Activism in Seaham
By: Matt Martin
In ‘Our Mongrel Selves’ (1992), Stuart Hall highlights how ‘strengthening of ‘local’ allegiances and identities’ might erode ‘‘centred’ nationalisms of the west European nation state’; this development could enable greater co-operation across national boundaries, but risks ‘re-valorisation of smaller, subordinate nationalisms’ based on these local allegiances. Hall warns against temptations ‘to produce a purified ‘folk’ and to play the highly dangerous game of ‘ethnic cleansing’. His fears are informed by genocide and forced migrations that, while he wrote, were accompanying the break-up of Yugoslavia; however, his caution might also apply more widely:
“Here, the real dislocated histories and hybridised ethnicities of Europe, which have been made and remade across the tortured and violent history of Europe’s march to modernity, are subsumed by some essentialist conception of national identity, by a surreptitious return to ‘tradition’ […] that recasts cultural identity as an unfolding essence, moving, apparently without change, from past to future.”
The dilemma is how to cultivate the positive potential of folk cultures while resisting an essentialised, purist approach that could develop into fascism. One figure who grappled successfully with Hall’s problem is Bill Griffiths, a poet, Old English scholar, archivist, prisoners’ rights activist, classical pianist and sometime Hell’s Angel who stands out among the British avant-garde of the late 20th and early 21st centuries for his folkic methods, developing friendships with peripheral communities and letting their voices inform his writing. Even his earliest poems, written in the 1970s, incorporate idioms from prisoners, biker gangs and Roma. In 1990, Griffiths’ folk interests gained new focus when he moved from London to Seaham, a fishing and mining town in County Durham. He remained based there until he passed away in 2007.
Griffiths shares Hall’s appreciation of ‘real dislocated histories and hybridised ethnicities’ in any culture’s genealogy. This understanding of ‘folk’ is international, interracial and transcultural, remaining open to ongoing change. For Griffiths, ‘folk’ offers not a conservative force, but potential for radical resistance. This essay considers how these values impacted the folk-oriented research that Griffiths initiated in Seaham, including extensive work alongside long-term residents to celebrate North East dialect in the face of hegemonic, centralised Englishness. This all fed into his poetry, which periodically deployed dialect throughout his time in the region. The linguistic texture and poetic stakes show in the opening of the poem ‘On Vane Tempest Provisionally Shut, 23 October, in the Afternoon, 1992’:
While the bishop that tawks to the pollis that bray’d the miners woz marchin’,
wiv a thrang, weel-hair-comb’d mob, tiv address a petishun
til their Lord
whe lives mony a sunny mile frev here,
Satan, wiv a singular bat o’ his gristly neeve
tew’d Vane Tempest sarely, aal but drav it
clean belaw ti the sea. 
Vane Tempest was the last of three collieries around Seaham to shut. ‘Thrang’ means ‘busy’ or ‘crowded’; to ‘bray’ and ‘bat’ mean to ‘hit’ or ‘beat up’; to ‘tew’ is to ‘trouble’; while a ‘neeve’ is a fist.
The poem demonstrates how dialect enables closely worked sound patterns. A series of subtle, often unstressed rhymes and pararhymes runs through the passage – ‘wiv’, ‘tiv’, ‘frev’, ‘wiv’, ‘neeve’, ‘drav’ – that disappear with the standard English ‘with’, ‘to’, ‘from’, ‘with’, ‘fist’, ‘drove’. Likewise, dialect pronunciation and vocabulary introduce puns that accentuate meaning. With ‘pollis’, pronunciation of ‘police’ approaches the word’s Greek root, πόλις (‘polis’) or ‘city’, aligning law enforcement with the poem’s city, either Durham (home of the local bishop, with ‘Lord’ suggesting God) or London (seat of the government whose policies led to the mine’s closure). Either way, the city represents power distanced from local concerns.
Griffiths’ engagement with North East dialect originates at his moment of arrival in Seaham. Shortly afterwards, Griffiths wrote to poet Eric Mottram: ‘I have only been here a week or so, but the difference to the tensions of the London Borough of Hillingdon is already striking, and I look forwards to making many good friends here (when I have learned the language).’ From most people, the parenthetical remark would seem a throwaway quip, but Griffiths meant it. He began researching local dialect, self-publishing books on the subject, as he had long done for his poetry; initially there was an anthology of
dialect texts, Durham and Around: A Dialect Reader (1993), and a lexicon, Durham & Around: Dialect Word List (1994).
It is worth noting that, for Griffiths, issues of language (dialect or otherwise) are intensely political. As early as 1974, he distributed to friends the mimeographed pamphlet Notes on Democracy, where he ruminates on the coercive power of language and outlines a programme for abolishing government itself:
Present govts seem scared to minimize change. Paradox: instability precipitates govt, but govt is limited by its own ambitions and creation from dealing with total reality. Events, populations, resources, are non-stable. So we have no continuous govts but a series of attempts. Each time a govt’s failure or corruption is exposed, and the concept of authority comes under scrutiny, we are told the only solution is an intensification of authority. Consider this in relation to English prison policy in the 1970s.
Griffiths’ politics feel like anarchism, though he prefers the term ‘democracy’, holding that no British government has yet implemented democracy in its true sense. His principles extend to this text’s circulation, with a conversation or negotiation envisaged between writer and reader. He provides a wide margin on each page, as medieval scribes and early modern printers often did so that readers could add marginalia and initiate their own conversations with a text. The pamphlet concludes: ‘You are invited to use the space at the right of each page or any extra paper, to make your own comments and further points upon. You might like to return the annotated copy to Bill Griffiths, 107 Valley Drive, London NW9 9NT.’ Indeed, throughout his career, Griffiths leaves his texts open to continuing transformation; his editor, Alan Halsey, describes how ‘in some cases this involves revision in the commonly accepted sense, in others it is more a case of re-vision – the text reproduced verbatim but in a different page space and/or variant setting’. What would this democratic, anarchistic poetics of constant renegotiation mean when actually enacted in a community, though? A few months after arriving in Seaham, Griffiths wrote A Pocket History of the Soul (1991). This essay describes how political hierarchies derive from a pernicious theology in which the human soul, with authority over the body, is in turn policed by God. Griffiths proposes that hierarchies of religion, nationhood, landlordship, colonialism and capital should all be dismantled, replaced by systems more accountable and responsive to the people they serve. This requires cultivation of skills and heightened participation in local culture by the residents:
Without participation there can be no meaningful ‘democracy’. […] Participation is thus something quite different from token consultation at a General Election, or token opportunity to put objections to some local scheme devised elsewhere by planners at county or country level. It is the opposite of social engineering since no grand theory is involved but only local conditions are taken into account.
Griffiths actually came close to a position where he might have implemented his localism on a larger scale, and though he did not quite succeed, he nevertheless leveraged benefits for his neighbourhood. The inciting incident was an announcement of ‘grandiose plans for dockland redevelopment and new executive housing’, as his friend, historian Bill Lancaster, recollects:
This ‘wash and brush-up’ of Seaham was seen by Bill as the gentrification of his coastal village and a personal threat as the demolition of his home was part of the scheme. Although new to Seaham he organized and led the protests against the plan, which culminated in him standing as candidate for the council. Labour’s hold on Seaham was traditionally watertight and their candidates were usually elected unopposed. He came within a few votes of winning the seat, a shock to Labour who wisely revised the plan and left Bill’s area as it was.
Griffiths saw even the Labour Party, traditional ally of North Eastern mining communities, as too distant from Seaham’s local concerns. Campaigns for regional devolution have long been active in the North East: in the 1970s, poets Colin Simms and Basil Bunting were on the committee of the Campaign for the North; a successor organisation, the Campaign for a Northern Assembly, was active but unsuccessful in 2004’s referendum on devolution for the North East; and recently, Newcastle-based scholar Alex Niven has persuasively argued for regional devolution across England. None of this would satisfy Griffiths, for whom even the Durham County Council’s fiefdom is unwieldy and dehumanising. For him, the town is the level at which local democracy and culture should operate.
Griffiths’ election bid was in May 1995; the following November, Durham County Council published Turning the Tide, a report proposing removal of mining spoil from beaches between Seaham and nearby Easington. In a journal article the following year, Griffiths explained that the plan would accelerate coastal erosion, and questioned whether some spoil should be ‘tipped into Hawthorn Quarry […] making one site (the coast) pretty and another site (the abandoned, renascent quarry) ugly’. He argued that the County Council’s participation in a ‘cult of the restoration of the past is necessarily delusory, unavoidably a fantasy’, betokening a ‘myth of a return to former Aryan glory’. Evoking
white supremacist ideology, Griffiths parallels Hall’s wariness of seeing folk culture as ‘an unfolding essence, moving, apparently without change, from past to future’, as well as the link between this and ‘ethnic cleansing’. Griffiths, unlike the Council, shows willingness to celebrate the unexpected, notionally ‘impure’ materials that history may present.
These conflicts all manifest in the poem about Vane Tempest. The piece was published posthumously; in his computer files, Griffiths grouped it with dialect poems published in 1992–93, but it must postdate these, as it portrays later events. After the description of the mine closure, the narrator receives mail:
[…] a letter cam hoy’d thru me door axin’ if we’d mebbe like
the toon-cooncil abolisht, like? Kas oor views might metter. An’ wad we like the toon-centre jis pulled doon too,
while thor at it.
This refers to the gentrification scheme, and to a referendum that preceded Griffiths’ election bid, concerning the possible abolition of Easington District Council so that its functions could be centralised at County Council level. Despite reservations about the District Council’s track record, Griffiths abhorred this attempt to appropriate power, as did many of his neighbours, to judge by referendum results which saw the District Council retained.
The poem continues; Satan reappears. An arch-Thatcherite, he urges Seaham’s miners to use their redundancy payments to buy shares in a newly privatised Hell – a post-
regeneration vision of Seaham where the Devil will ‘landskip ye aal in kak’. This alludes to the County Council’s scheme to infill nearby Hawthorn Quarry with spoil from the beach – a near-literal landscaping of the area with excrement. Griffiths reflects:
An’ Aa stud in a stiumor. For whe knaws, i’ true, What’s plann’d?
An’ leave us wi’ nowt
But dialeck for democracy.
Buying shares in privatised industries, like the parliamentary phantom of democracy, bestows merely illusory control over the world – Seaham’s future is already ‘plann’d’ and ‘sittled’ between the Council and its corporate allies. ‘Dialeck’ remains the one area where some measure of personal choice can persist in defiance of such forces. Though it, too, is under siege by a hegemonic culture industry enforcing standard English, its potential remains far from trivial. It is in the aftermath of his political and environmental campaigns of 1995 and 1996 that Griffiths’ dialect activities truly took wing. While they may seem indirect actions compared to, say, running for office, in fact it was in dialect research that he was able to bring his political poetics most completely into practice.
Through the mid-1990s, Griffiths continued his dialect research in partnership with his friends Gordon Patrickson and Trevor Charlton. By 1998, there was enough local interest to establish the Durham & Tyneside Dialect Group, a larger-scale project to catalogue the region’s distinctive vocabulary. This ran along collectivist lines, with Griffiths
taking the title ‘Co-ordinator’ rather than becoming leader per se. In a 2006 interview, recorded during wider research into North Eastern dialects by B.B.C. Radio Newcastle, Griffiths is interviewed alongside the Group’s Secretary Tom Richardson and colleague Nichol Hopper. The conversation gives a valuable insight into their decentred methodology and organisational structure.
The interviewer asks about the trio’s experience of using or hearing local dialect terms. What’s noticeable about Griffiths’ contribution is his diffidence. He happily supplies findings from the group’s research, or etymology from his medieval studies, but lets his friends handle all the questions about personal use of dialect. It is refreshing that, despite his accomplishments, he does not impose himself as spokesman; instead, he behaves as a specialist within a collective whose other members may have expertise more pertinent to certain questions. Even when the interviewer requests an account of the Dialect Group’s methods, Griffiths asks ‘Shall I do that?’ and waits for agreement from the others before proceeding. He then describes opening project to even wider participation by soliciting dialect words from the region’s wider population.
Griffiths: […] in 2001 we put out a questionnaire, quite a simple one, and that got a lot of responses, about 500 came in, and we built on that to build up a dictionary, which is published now. And that’s a mix of words from previous publications and all the words that were sent in. And, ah, people was very keen on it. We get words coming in every week, certainly, if not every day. There’s a lot to collect still. […] One I hadn’t heard before was ‘pagged’ for ‘tired out’.
Richardson: That one’s been in common use for as long as I remember, yeah. But you’ve just added it to the list, haven’t you?
Griffiths: That’s the first I heard it.
Richardson: Yeah, maybe you should get out more, Bill?
Griffiths also built a website with a feature that allowed contributions to be submitted internationally. Dozens of co-authors were thereby welcomed into what eventually became A Dictionary of North East Dialect (2004; second edition 2005).
By collecting input from living speakers in this way, the Dialect Group documented speech that speech that is no mere ‘essence, moving, apparently without change’, but that constantly adjusts to its environment. For example, numerous ‘dialect terms seem to have survived by a process of doubling-up, whereby the unfamiliar term is linked into a self- explanatory compound’ – for example ‘guissy-pig’, where ‘guissy’ itself means ‘pig’. Also, established dialect words have taken on new meanings:
canch (stony ridge) now used for ‘kerb’
charver (young person) now used for ‘club-goer’ duds (clothes) now used for ‘boxer shorts’
dut (bowler hat or cap) now used for ‘small woolly hat’ midden (rubbish tip) now used for ‘dustbin’
skeets (boots) now used for ‘football boots’ sneck (latch) now used for ‘catch on a yale lock’
and from earlier sources: settle (bench) used (1938) for ‘couch’.
Both the Durham & Tyneside Dialect Group, and North East dialect itself, hence epitomise Griffiths’ anarchistic, democratic poetics. Like one of his ‘re-visioned’ poems, or the provisional text of A Note on Democracy, dialect words’ meanings can change when introduced to new contexts, and are subject to renegotiation through conversation. The Group exemplifies democratic participation of the kind imagined in A Pocket History of the Soul, where success depends on locally specific knowledge, and on willingness to concede
the floor when one’s own knowledge is less pertinent to particular circumstances than someone else’s (as does Griffiths in the B.B.C. interview). Most notably, just as Griffiths rejects the idea that the Durham coast ever had a supposedly ‘pure’ past, the Group celebrates (in Hall’s words) the ‘dislocated histories and hybridised ethnicities’ of their region. This manifests not only in the modern dialect’s constant flux, but in the fact that the dialect has never not been in flux. The Dictionary of North East Dialect is painstaking in cataloguing etymologies; not only are there abundant legacies of the Anglian and Norse languages (which Griffiths suspects of having creolised together to a degree during the early medieval period), but loan-words are borrowed from throughout nearby regions and nations, as well as from peripatetic communities like the Roma (the abovementioned ‘charver’ has Romani origins). Griffiths also rejects the racist trope that ‘dialect signals ethnic descent.’ It is impossible to read the Dialect Group’s research and come away, as Hall puts it, ‘subsumed by some essentialist conception of national identity’ for the North East. A good dictionary may be the best antidote to fascism.
Griffiths’ cultural activism in Seaham, particularly around dialect research, remains a testament to the possibility of local resistance against the totalising influence of the nation – either the existing nation-state, or the ‘new nationalisms’ of locality. Likewise, in Griffiths’ poetry, dialect is how a marginalised community voices opposition to the individuals in power, highlighting the latter’s actual helplessness to grant freedom from the structures that bestow this power. In contrast, proposing one’s own structures, as Griffiths and his allies attempted through political, environmental activism, and via linguistic research, may well distribute power more equitably. The poem on Vane Tempest concludes:
Aa had me environmentalist badge alang wi’ me, and howk’d it oot, and confronted him wi’it,
an’ Satan bowked oot an awefu’ pump, and lowped inti the hole
the pit wiz yance,
an’ the sun cam spanglin’ oot, an’ someone somewhere
gov the bishop a thanks
as tho’ any wun man can de owt thru power
ti release ye.
- Stuart Hall, Selected Political Writings: The Great Moving Right Show and Other Essays, ed. by Sally Davison et al. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2017), p.276.
- Hall, p.278.
- Hall, p.278.
- Bill Griffiths, Collected Poems Volume 3 (1992-96), ed. by Alan Halsey (Hastings: Reality Street, 2016), p.144.
- Griffiths, A Dictionary of North East Dialect (Second Edition) (Newcastle upon Tyne: Northumbria University Press, 2005), p.173, p.19, p.9, p.170–171, p.122.
- Griffiths, Letter to Eric Mottram, 9 June 1990; London, King’s College, MOTTRAM 5/100/1–36.
- Griffiths, A Note on Democracy (London: Pirate Press, 1974), n.p. Typographical errors corrected.
- Griffiths, A Note on Democracy, n.p. Griffiths’ italics.
- Alan Halsey, ‘Pirate Press: A Bibliographical Excursion’, in The Salt Companion to Bill Griffiths, ed. by Will Rowe (Cambridge: Salt, 2007), pp.55–71: p.55.
- Bill Griffiths, A Pocket History of the Soul, n.p.; section 40.
- Lancaster, ‘Bill Griffiths Northern Days’, Lancaster, Bill, ‘Bill Griffiths Northern Days’, Journal of British and Irish Poetry, 6.1 (March 2014), 13–26: 16.
- Colin Simms, ‘A Glimpse of the “Inly-Working North”: A Meeting of the Campaign for the North’, in Northern Review, 6, Spring 1998, 69–70; Alex Niven, New Model England: How to Build a Radical Culture beyond the Idea of England (London: Repeater Books, 2019).
- Griffiths, ‘Coastal Strategy in Co. Durham: Turning the Tide or Losing the Beaches?’, in Northern Review, 4, Winter 1996, 100–104: 103.
- Griffiths, ‘Coastal Strategy in Co. Durham’, p.103, p.101.
- Alan Halsey, notes to Griffiths, Collected Poems Volume 3, pp.512–513.
- Griffiths, Collected Poems Volume 3, p.145.
- Griffiths, A Century of Self-Service?: Aspects of Local Government in the North East with Special Reference to Seaham (Seaham: Amra Imprint, 1995), n.p. (section 1).
- Griffiths, Collected Poems Volume 3, p.146.
- Griffiths, Collected Poems Volume 3, p.147.
- Durham & Tyneside Dialect Group: 2005-03-22T12:00:00 (archived website): London, British Library.
- Durham & Tyneside Dialect Group.
- ‘‘Conversation in Seaham about Accent, Dialect and Attitudes to Language’, B.B.C. ‘Voices’ Recordings, 2005: London, British Library, 00:01:07.
- ‘Conversation in Seaham…’, 00:01:09.
- Griffiths, ‘Words with Edges’, Northern Review, 11, 2002, 41– 51: 49.
- Griffiths, ‘Words with Edges’, p.49. Griffiths’ underlining.
- Griffiths, A Dictionary of North East Dialect, p.xiii; p.30.
- Griffiths, ‘Words with Edges’, p.44.
- Griffiths, Collected Poems Volume 3, p.147. A ‘pump’ is a fart – Griffiths, A Dictionary of North East Dialect, p.136.