According to the most recent Global Slavery Index (2014), there are approximately 35 million slaves in the world today. Around the globe, people are held against their will and forced to work for no pay. For many of us, this presence of slavery confounds our understanding of history: wasn’t slavery brought to an end? Weren’t the slaves emancipated?

The Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation (WISE) at the University of Hull is leading a new AHRC-funded project which will apply the successes and failures of antislavery movements of the past to help contemporary campaigners end the enslavement of people today. ‘The Antislavery Usable Past’, in collaboration with scholars at the University of Nottingham and Queen’s University Belfast, will create new digital resources, exhibitions, publications, advisory documents, networks and seminar programmes to offer a usable past of antislavery examples and methods, intended to translate these lessons into effective tools for today’s abolitionists and policy makers.

Our educational resources will collect primary material for use in future antislavery scholarship and teaching, including the first online collection of contemporary slavery imagery; an extensive collection of contemporary slave narratives; and an exhibition of photographs from Congo for use by local antislavery groups there. The University of Hull will host ‘Remembering Slavery’, a digital archive of UK projects from 2007 which focused on the bicentenary of abolition of the British slave trade in 1807. We will be working closely with the heritage sector to collect information and resources from the churches, schools, community groups, theatres, museums, galleries, archives, local authorities and other groups which chose to remember abolition in 2007, many of them funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. To be launched during 2017 as part of Hull’s City of Culture celebrations, the archive will explore the relationships between commemorations and memory, how representations of slavery and abolition were revised and contested during 2007, and how the legacies of enslavement underpin so much of the UK’s wider heritage. Teaching resources and background essays on the site will uncover the potential lessons from this commemorative effort.

The project as a whole will offer knowledge exchange workshops with museum partners, such as Wilberforce House in Hull and the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool. In its focus on thinking forward through the past, and what the persistence of slavery means for how we remember and commemorate moments of emancipation, we hope that project resources will encourage shifts in how heritage partners tackle the topic of slavery, and offer potential changes in how the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire is approached in 2033. The project’s key message is that there is a dynamic relationship between our antislavery past, our current antislavery efforts, and the goal of future freedom.

Follow the project on twitter

Text by Mary Wills, WISE, University of Hull

Image: Activities led by Durham University Library in 2007 focused on working with local schoolchildren to recreate the cramped conditions on the slave ship ‘Brooks’, reproduced with permission from Durham University Library

Leave a Comment