Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Freedom: Hull and the Abolition of the Slave Trade

This installment of the City of Culture blog looks at the issue of 'freedom' through the lens of the end to slavery. The 23rd August hosted the International Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed on 25 March 1807 that outlawed the British Atlantic slave trade and in 1833 Britain passed the Abolition of Slavery Act, ordering the gradual abolition of slavery in all British colonies. However, it was not until 1888 when slavery was finally abolished, Brazil being the last country in the Western world to do so.

Part of the Slavery Collection at Hull History Centre

Hull as a city will be forever associated with the abolition of the slave trade primarily due to William Wilberforce’s leadership in the parliamentary campaign. Wilberforce was of course not Hull’s only Member of Parliament to address the slavery issue. David Hartley (MP for Hull 1774-1780 and 1782-1784) formally brought the slave trade to the attention of the House of Commons and in 1776 introduced a debate “that the slave trade is contrary to the laws of God and the rights of men”.

Until emancipation, slaves were considered the property of their owners, which meant that they were subject to the whims of their owner and local slave laws. Families could be split up, and people could be sold, gifted and inherited as property. The sale and trading of human beings as property seems an incomprehensible act. And yet at the History Centre we have found deeds and mortgages within our collections that show property and people grouped together as if they are one and the same thing.

Mortgage of an estate in Westmoreland, Jamaica, listing c.300 slaves [C DDX/35]

A collection that is currently being listed and will soon appear on our online catalogue at reference C DDI consists of deeds relating to properties in Antigua, Jamaica, Barbados and elsewhere. Held within the collection is a mortgage for £3,000 for the repair of damage caused by a hurricane to a plantation in the island of Barbados. This gem of a document also provides details of the slaves working on the plantation, giving their name, sex, employment, country, age, and in some cases even their date of birth. Similarly a mortgage is held at reference C DDX/35 that includes a list of approximately 300 slaves at a Lincoln estate in Westmoreland, Jamaica, which provides their names, colour, age, whether African or Creole, and in some cases it even gives the name of their mother.

Documents such as these are of international importance; they not only enhance our understanding of the slave trade but record the very existence of individual slaves. At the Hull History Centre we also house a special collection of over 1100 books relating to the history of slavery and its abolition from 1492 until 1888. It is important to remember the past in order to have the wisdom to prevent the same mistakes in the future.

Laura Wilson, Librarian/Archivist

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