This guide accompanies the following article: Caroline Bressey, ‘The Legacies of 2007: Remapping the Black Presence in Britain’, Geographical Compass, 3(3), pp. 903-917 (doi: 10.1111/j.1749-8198.2009.00305.x)
The 1807/2007 commemoration of the bicentenary of the Parliamentary Act to abolish the British trans Atlantic slave trade stimulated a large number of academic and community-based projects throughout the UK. The debates over how these commemorations might be formed were intensely discussed by heritage practioners and across academic disciplines. There were no firm conclusions. These debates and the research and new heritage spaces created from them are still being formed. Geographers may engage with these projects from a number of perspectives. Firstly, geographers might consider how the recovery of the Black presence in Britain impacts upon theories of race and anti-racism, multiple senses of belonging and formations of (the African) Diaspora. In addition, there are new formations of heritage and public geographies that have (or have not) resulted from these histories. What is the role of geographers in bringing these histories into contemporary understandings of place?
This Teaching and Learning Guide provides an annotated list of resources that challenge traditional historical geographies of Britain and support the discussion of such questions. The guide also provides a suggested outline for an undergraduate or postgraduate module and focus questions for seminar discussions. In addition, online resources that provide access to archive material are included as an introduction to those who are interested in conducting their own research.
These sources are a good starting point for reconsidering the Black presence in Britain from both empirical and theoretical perspectives. The list covers classic historical narratives, web-based history projects, literature and theoretical discussions around formations of identity.
1. Fryer, P. (1984). Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. London: Pluto Press.
This comprehensive account of the Black presence (which includes people of Asian decent) remains the classic history of Black people in Britain. Although new research has added to and challenged some of the assumptions made by Fryer, it remains an essential overview. Interesting biographies can provide case studies for discussion and prompts for further research from the Roman conquest and into the 1980s.
2. Visram, R. (2002). Asians in Britain: 400 years of history. London: Pluto Press.
Similar to Fryer, this takes a sweeping look at the Asian presence in Britain including indentured servants and ayahs to princess, professionals, students, anti-colonial activists, soldiers and refuges. Drawing on government documents, Visram also examines the nature of Asian migrations, including official attitudes towards more recent immigrant communities and the social, cultural and political lives of these communities.
3. Sollors, W. (ed.) (2001). The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa: The African written by himself. A Norton Critical Edition (other editions are available). London and New York: WW Norton.
Equiano’s narrative is one of the few surviving records for the millions of men, women and children who crossed the Atlantic during the period of the slave trade. In this sense, it is of interest to those who examine it for its historical content (the authenticity of which was debated at the time and remains unresolved), its literary content and its positionality. It was a document of great importance when originally published at the end of the 18th century. Used as a political weapon by anti-slavery campaigners it went through nine English editions, and was translated into Dutch, German and Russian. In addition to the Narrative, the edition includes contextual information on related public writings, and general contextual information including debates about the Slave Trade. Also included are early reviews and modern criticism.
4. Edwards, P. and Rewt, P. (eds) (1994). The letters of Ignatius Sancho. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Ignatius Sancho arrived in England as a child, given to three unmarried women as a ‘pet’. Eventually, he was able to escape their oppressive hold over his life to become educated and successful. He composed music, appeared on the stage and entertained many famous figures of literary and artistic London. The first African known to vote in a British election; he wrote a large number of letters that were collected and published in 1782, two years after his death. The letters reflect details of Sancho’s domestic life including family gatherings, children’s birthdays and outings, as well as commentaries on British life that reveal tensions and contradictions of race and identity.
5. Featherstone, D. (2008) Resistance, space and political identities: the making of counter global networks. West Sussex: RGS-IBG Series Wiley-Blackwell.
In this book, Featherstone emphasises the importance of examining the geographical connections between people and the development of global networks and protest movements. The book examines global practices of resistance in the past and present, stressing the importance of geographies of connection and solidarity produced because of and through struggle. Among the relationships, he examines is the collaboration between Olaudah Equiano and Thomas Hardy of the London Corresponding Society. In a section on ‘subaltern agency and geographies of connection’, Featherstone also emphasises the importance of the Black Jacobins. He argues that James’ book is a neglected intervention in the relations between and space and politics.
6. Littler, J. and Naidoo, R. (eds) (2005). The politics of heritage: the legacies of ‘race’. London and New York: Routledge.
This book brings together cultural critics including Stuart Hall, Bill Schwarz and Carol Tulloch. The collection of 15 essays analyse both theory and practices of heritage and consider how representations of history and heritage reflect the complex politics of historical geography in Britain. The forms of heritage addressed include football, Holocaust memorials, stately homes and museum exhibits.
7. Wright, M. M. (2004). Becoming Black: creating identity in the African Diaspora. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
In this book, Michelle M. Wright uniquely brings together Black writing from Britain, France and Germany with African American authors and discusses the commonalities and differences in their thinking. She considers conversations between white philosophers and intellectuals of African decent including W. E. B. DuBois, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon and Léopold Sédar Senghor. Wright also highlights the role of feminist writers in challenging the patriarchal theories of Black identity. Here, she examines the work of Audre Lourde and Carolyn Rodgers as well as contemporary British writers such as Naomi King and Andrea Levy.
8. James, C. L. R. (2001). The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. London: Penguin Books.
In 1791, the enslaved of San Domingo began a 12-year revolt to gain freedom and independence. Despite invasions by a series of British, Spanish and French armies, they successfully created Haiti. C. L. R. James’ interest in revolutionary politics connected to his work on Pan-Africanism through his research and writings on Toussaint L’Ouverture. The resulting classic account of revolution in the Caribbean was one of the first publications to challenge the 20th century myth that Europeans were wholly responsible for the liberation of the Africans they had enslaved. First published in 1938, the Black Jacobins placed Africans at the heart of the fight to abolish the slave trade. Its Marxist analysis examines the relationships between class and race and the geographical movement of revolutionary ideas.
9. Selvon, S. (2006). The lonely Londoners. London: Penguin Books.
Set in London during the 1950s (and first published in 1956) The Lonely Londoners is an iconic account of West Indian Immigration to Britain after World War Two. Selvon’s use of a creolised voice in the novel pushed forward a new way of writing about and hearing the city. It reflects the everyday renewals of arrival, hope and rejection felt by immigrants in the city. The novel raises issues of class and identity ‘back home’ and in the ‘motherland’, as well as dynamics of gender, place and belonging.
These online sources are useful research tools and contain rich contextual historical material. They include online exhibitions, original archive material and academic papers that may all be used, independently or together, to develop responses to the focus questions below.
1. Moving Here: 200 years of Migration to Britain – Caribbean
Moving Here is a partnership, led by the National Archives, made up by a consortium of 30 archives, libraries and museums who contributed material to the catalogue of 200,000 items on the website. The organisations involved in this project were: MLA Yorkshire; West Midlands Museums Hub; East Midlands Museums Hub; London Museums Hub; National Museums Liverpool; the Royal Geographical Society; the Museum of London; West Yorkshire Archives Service; the Jewish Museum and the National Archives. The resources made available can be searched by theme (e.g. women, immigration and nationality; Black Power; Muslim League) or through migration histories. The resources include digital copies of newspapers, photographs, posters and pamphlets with contextual essays.
2. Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past (IPUP) – 1807 Commemorated
This project, based at the IPUP University of York, sought to identify and understand how the 1807 bicentenary was commemorated by different agencies and communities in Britain. The project website reflects discussions around the different expressions of national, local and community identities that were evoked. The site includes essays, a discussion forum, readings and interviews with museum practitioners and academics.
3. UNESCO – The Slave Route
The UNESCO Slave Route Project, launched in Ouidah, Benin, in 1994, has three objectives, to: contribute to a better understanding of the causes, forms of operation, issues and consequences of slavery in the world (Africa, Europe, the Americas, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, Middle East and Asia); highlight the global transformations and cultural interactions that have resulted from this history; and contribute to a culture of peace by promoting reflection on cultural pluralism, intercultural dialogue and the construction of new identities and citizenships. The website contains digital archives (text and images) and online publications.
4. Black is Beautiful
This website is a digital version of the exhibition Black is Beautiful Rubens tot Dumas presented by the Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam, July–October 2008. The exhibition drew together over 130 works of art that reflected some of the histories of Black people in Dutch culture from 1300 to the present day. The online exhibition contains works of art, short films and a Research lab, an international and interactive research platform. The website is searchable in English.
Sample Syllabus: Historical Geographies of the African Diaspora
Week I: Introduction – mapping blackness
Lewis, J. (2000). Hey, English! In: Newland, C. and Sesay, K. (eds) IC3: The Penguin book of new Black writing in Britain. London: Hamish Hamilton, pp. 259–262.
Bressey, C. (2008). It’s only political correctness. In: Dwyer, C. and Bressey, C. (eds) New Geographies of Race and Racism. Hampshire: Ashgate, pp. 29–39.
Week II: Mapping Black imaginaries of abolition
Topic: An insight into the historical Black presence, including political (through the writings of Olaudah Equiano for examples) and more ordinary men and women.
Chater, K. (2007). Black people in England, 1660–1807. Parliamentary History 26 (2), pp. 66–83.
Innes, C. L. (2002). A history of Black and Asian writing in Britain, 1700–1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Chapter 2: Eighteenth-century letters and narratives: Ignatius Sancho, Olaudah Equiano, and Dean Mahomed, pp. 17–55.
Week III: The Black presence in 19th century Britain
Topic: Historical biographies and geographies of the Black presence in 19th century Britain or a focus on local region.
Duffield, I. (1993). Skilled workers or marginalised poor? The African population of the United Kingdom 1812–1852. Immigrants and Minorities 12 (3), pp. 49–87.
Marsh, J. (2005). Black Victorians: Black people in British art, 1800–1900. Hampshire: Lund Humphries.
Week IV: The representation of the Black presence in local landscapes and museums.
Topic: Museum visit or local walk
Reading: Webpages/material related to the exhibition or spaces the students are going to visit.
Week V: Mapping blackness
Topic: The practice and problems of researching the Black presence in Britain
Bressey, C. (2006). Invisible presence: The whitening of the Black community in the historical imagination of British archives. Archivaria 61, pp. 47–61.
Steedman, C. (1998). The space of memory: in an archive. History of the Human Sciences 11 (4), pp. 65–83.
Week VI: Historical geographies of the Black Atlantic 1
Topic: Close reading of Gilroy’s Black Atlantic and placing Black historical geographies in the context of Atlantic geographies.
Gilroy, P. (1996). The Black Atlantic. London: Pluto Press (other editions available).
Week VII: Historical geographies of the Black Atlantic 2
Topic: Critical reflections of Gilroy’s Black Atlantic and development of Black Atlantic ideas.
Chrisman, L. (2000). Journey to death: Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, In: Black British culture and society: a text reader. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 453–464.
Williams, D. E. (1998). Rethinking the African Diaspora: A comparative look at race and identity in a transatlantic community 1878–1921. In: Clark Hine, D. and McLeod, J. (eds) Crossing boundaries: comparative history of Black people in Diaspora. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, pp. 105–120.
Week VIII: Bombay Africans
Topic: Examining aspects of the African Diaspora in Britain looking to the Indian Ocean rather than the Atlantic.
Listen to Cliff Pereira, discuss the exhibition on BBC World Service’s The World Today MP3 and view the online exhibition Bombay Africans 1850–1910 at the Royal Geographical Society.
Week IX: The 20th century before 1948
Topic: The Black presence in Britain before the arrival of the Empire Windrush.
Green, J. (1990). Some Findings on Britain’s Black Working Class, 1900–1914. Immigrants and Minorities 9 (2), pp. 168–177.
Week X: Public geographies and public histories
Topic: Considering how Black history is integrated into local landscapes
Dresser, M. Set in stone? Statues and slavery in London. History Workshop Journal 64(1), pp. 162–199.
Kinsman, P. (1995). Landscape, race and national identity: the photography of ingrid Pollard. Area 24 (4), pp. 300–310.
The following questions could be used to guide discussions that relate to broad questions as highlighted in the introduction or be more focused around particular seminars, museum visits and/or web-based materials.
1. How do ‘hidden histories’ impact upon our ability to investigate the Black experience in Britain?
2. How are ideas of an African Diaspora expressed in the writings of Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius Sancho?
3. To what extent are the links between space and time a foundation for the ‘Black Atlantic’?
4. How does the experience of the Bombay Africans impact upon ideas of the African Diaspora and/or the Black Atlantic?
5. To what extent is the Black presence in Britain visible in your local landscapes?
6. How does the integration of the Black presence into an historical geography impact upon contemporary understandings of place?