The British Society for 18thC Studies held its 2016 Annual Conference on 6-8 January and the next one will be early January 2017, both at at St Hugh’s College in Oxford. As always there was a wide range of topics on offer with parallel panels and round-table discussions as well as plenary talks and a final session of discussion about the Conference.
The bold experiment at the Conference of the ‘Tolerance’ debate, launching a book on the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris, was very intense and difficult to assess.
It was timely, not just because of the growing fear and intolerance being built up over here and in Europe and the danger of the erosion of civil liberties, but because it took place in Oxford in the midst of Rhodes statute campaign.
Earlier in the year I was asked to support the campaign. I declined arguing that if we demolish memorials to men like Rhodes we contribute to desanitising history and that improved contextualisation was needed. I pointed out that my father had been a Rhodes scholar from Canada, and that there had been many black Rhodes scholars over the years. I was told: ‘With respect, your social status should humble you in deference to these students' demands.’
It was therefore reassuring to read David Olusoga’s article in The Guardian on the last day the Conference arguing that the Rhodes and other memorials should be retained with proper contextualisation.
‘Am I not a Man and a Brother’ image
As I pointed out in the Abolitionists panel there was an argument from 2007 that the ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother’ visual of the slave trade/slavery abolitionists should not be used because it was demeaning and patronising. I was one of those who supported the view that we cannot wipe out of history the visual memorials and images we do not like. Nor can we understand abolition without the visual impact of the kneeling slave and the Brookes slave shop diagram.
These debates are a reminder of the importance of the Conference idea of how the 18th Century reverberates today, as in the Toleration and Remembering Waterloo panels. But it also was raised in the Legacies of British Slave-ownership (LBS) debate linked to the continued non-recognition of the importance of slavery business in academic books, and for the reparations debate. The way in which history has been taught through the decades in Ireland surfaced at both the Flexing Irish Identities panel and the Waterloo session.
There were many valuable aspects of the Conference. There were several papers that interlinked with my own interests and past research work.
Abolition and Black History
Mary-Antoniette Smith (Seattle University) outlined her research into abolitionist visuals especially the kneeling ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ image made popular by Wedgewood. It has been my view since being Archival Research and Mapping Officer of the Tyne & Wear Remembering Slavery project in 2007 that the Wedgewood design was based on a more complex one by Thomas Bewick. My discussion on this can be read at http://historyandsocialaction.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/did-thomas-bewick-design-kneeling-slave.html
Laura McKenna discussed Tony Small and his family, Small being the servant of the Earl of Fitzgerald who was executed during the Irish Rebellion of 1798. She shared her findings which add to what we already know about Small in Sheila Tillyard’s book Citizen Lord: The Life of Edward Fitzgerald, Irish Revolutionary (1999). As McKenna’s research has been carried out in connection with a novel she is writing, I have suggested that she offers an entry on Small to The Dictionary of National Biography. This has an increasing number of entries submitted on black personalities mainly by non-academic historians like Jeffrey Green and Stephen Bourne.
Then there were all the papers I could not get to hear: political thought in Mozart’s Magic Flute, Colourful Nabobs, newspaper editing in the 1790s, Sheffield’s radical press, Ned Ward’s trip to Jamaica, the English Provincial Fair, the 18thC world turned upside down, snuff, Thames watermen, anti-colonialism, the Kentucky Frontier, the Montagus, British Jacobin orators, and musical professionals.
In the final panel discussion several debating topics were raised: the issues involved in digitising resources, academics engagement with public history, and the issue of the balance of political and social history on the one hand and cultural history on the other.
As a contribution to the debate I explained that I had tried to set up a roundtable discussion on digital humanities for the Conference. One of the reasons I wanted this issue to be explored is the fact that once project funding ends digital resources often disappear off the web. This was the case following the closure of the Centre for Research into Freemasonry at Sheffield University with the loss of a wealth of material that had been put up by Professor Andrew Prescott (now Digital Humanities at Glasgow) with whom I had worked on freemasonry in the Wandsworth areas, black freemasonry and in advising the English Grand Lodge’s Museum, Library and Archives, on its work to make material on slavery and abolition available on the web. I had also been concerned about the long term life of the LBS database now that the research council funding has ended. Fortunately, as Nick Draper explained at the LBS panel, UCL has agreed to continue to employ him and keep the database maintained.
Public History Engagement
In discussion on the issue of public history engagement I gave as an example how Penny Corfield’s pamphlet Vauxhall: Sex and Entertainment, which I published, emerged from talks she gave in Festivals I organised in Vauxhall because of the interest in the history among the Friends of Vauxhall Park which covered part of the area of the historic pleasure gardens.
As part of the LBS project’s outreach work Nick has given talks I have organised as Convenor of the Croydon Radical History Network in the last two years of Croydon’s Heritage Festival, while Brychann Carey took part in an event on black abolitionists in this year’s one. The team also put together a display for both Festivals. The most common feedback at such events is ‘I must re-think my understanding of British history’, which is a key aim of the wide range of academics and non-academics involved in work on British black history.
At the LBS panel Nick had mentioned the problem of ensuring that the public and community history work undertaken at local level on slave ownership can become reflected in academic books.
Having organised that panel I was pleased by the positive feedback from those who took part and the fact its public history dimensions were highlighted in the closing panel discussion. My paper at the Conference on Canadian-British connections partly drew on the work of the LBS team showing how many of those who controlled the economy and political decision making in the ‘Canadian’ colonies were involved in the slavery business. The paper developed out of one on black history connections between the two countries I gave at the Canadian Black Studies Association Conference in May at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, organised through its Chair Professor Afua Cooper, whose work includes The Hanging of Angélique. The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal (2007). It was attended by academics, archivists and black community activists. My talk was then further developed in a paper as joint speaker with Afua when she was in London in November, at an event which the Institute of the Americas included at short notice in their seminar programme.
There are many approaches to public history. I have used the current exhibition on Black Georgians at Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, curated by the independent black historian and fiction writer Steve Martin as a way to discuss Croydon’s Black Georgians, published in Croydon Citizen on the last day of the Conference: http://thecroydoncitizen.com/culture/catching-glimpse-croydons-black-georgians
The Relationship between Academics and Non-Academics
Interaction between non-academics and academics operates in many ways. As a result of attending BSECS I was invited to give a talk on Activism and Learning: The Lit & Phil and Slavery & Abolition at the 2010 Consuming the Past: Library Resources for Postgraduates Interdisciplinary Conference and Training Day held in Newcastle organised by Helen Williams and others and chaired by Dr (now Professor) Mathew Grenby. Professor Malcolm Chase, who co-ordinates the annual Chartist Day conference and newsletter, gave me pre-publication access to his chapter on the Canadian Revolts of 1837 and 1838 to share in my talk at Dalhousie.
Impressed by her BSECS Conference talk by Penny and I organised a talk by Cassie Ulph, (then a PhD student at Leeds University), on Hester Thrale, the Streatham Muse: women writing in the 18th Century as part of the Wandsworth Heritage Festival. We wanted to run it under the name of BSECS. At that stage the BCESC Committee had not decided on how such things could be given sponsorship recognition or even whether branches could be set up. The room was packed and the local audience very appreciative of Cassie’s excellent talk. There is clearly much more scope for this type of activity in the future.
Roundtables for BSECS 2017
As well as a roundtable on digital humanities I think it would be well worth trying to put together one on engagement in public history. The third roundtable I would like to organise is one that allows articulation of the tensions between political and social historians on the one hand and cultural historians on the other over how to interpret 18thC texts writing and images. My attempt to organise it for this year’s failed to identify anyone wanting to join in debate with Frank O’Gorman and Brycchan Carey.
If anyone wants to offer to be a contributor in one of these three roundtables please contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Panels for BSECS 2017
There is no shortage of ideas for potential panels for the 2017 Conference . It would be interesting to have a paper on the role of the national Sunday collections in churches for persecuted Protestant s in Europe or to free English people enslaved by the North African pirates. This idea emerged from a discussion I had with another Conferenc e delegate.
Rebecca Shuttleworth analysis about the key role of Dissenting women in Leicester and their networks in the abolition movement, paralleled the findings of the 2007 project on Tyneside. In her further research she is going to see if there were any links between the Leicester and Tyneside women activists. The Leicester women were particular involved in door-to-door gathering of signatures for petitions.
I have been arguing for some time that we need a digital project that makes available the information on the wide range of petitions to Parliament, and the use of petitioning at local level. The latter was highlighted in the North East Popular Politics Project (2011-13) for which I was Archival Mapping and Research Co-ordinator, and which can be seen in Topics 5-17 on its database http://ppp.nelh.org.
It would be good to have more papers examining the eighteenth century at regional and sub-regional level. I attempted this in my 2012 BSECS Conference talk The Politics of Landscape and Environment in the North East. If time allows in the coming months I would like to work up my 18thC material to offer a paper titled ‘Wandsworth – an 18thC Powerhouse’ which will feature Sarah Duchess of Marlborough, Robert Walpole, South Sea Company Directors, those involved in the slavery business, black servants, the Mayor of Garratt, Johnson, Voltaire and Sheridan, the Clapham Sect and the Hibberts, and the economic importance of the Wandle Valley.
My final thought for 2017 picks up on a plea by someone in the closing session for more participatory activities. It would be fun to run one of the dinners as a late 18th/early 19thC radical dinner with songs.
The Toleration Book
This book is published by Open Book Publishers and is in various formats. See http://www.openbookpublishers.com/product/418%20