Professor Coleman explores legacies of slavery from Atlantic to Pacific

Professor Deirdre Coleman sitting at her desk

Our MCR are contributing to work on legacies of enslavement at Newnham College through a lecture series. Following a presentation on Newnham’s recent research, visiting member Deidre Coleman explored the continuation of forced labour across the world after the abolition of slavery, and its legacy today.

In From the Atlantic to the Pacific: Legacies of Slavery and the Question of Reparation, Professor Coleman talked about the practice of ‘blackbirding’ in which south Pacific islanders were tricked or coerced into leaving their homes for poorly or unpaid labour in countries including Australia.

“There is little written about this ‘illegitimate offspring’ of Atlantic slavery, but it had links to the sugar trade and its growth in areas such as Queensland,” she said, in a talk at Newnham College last Friday.

“It operated within the legal framework demanded by abolition, but was forced labour. Islanders were coerced or lied to, told they would work abroad for only a few months then be brought home. Instead they were forced to work for years and then abandoned.

“The practice was driven by myths such as the belief that only black people could cope with working in plantations. And in Australia it fitted with the way aboriginal people were treated.”

Professor Coleman, who is the Robert Wallace Chair of English and Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor at the University of Melbourne and a visiting member of Newnham College, said she wanted to discuss the practice to show the global spread of slavery and its relevance today.

She cited the work of ‘Waskam’ Emelda Davis, a second-generation Australian South Sea Islander, and author of Children of the Sugar Slaves: Black and Resilient. Her project hopes to strengthen the Australian South Sea Islanders’ unique identity as descendants of Australia’s 60 years of blackbirding.

“It’s a past which continues to shape Australia today. [South Sea] Islanders feel a connection between the way they are treated now as inferior migrant labour and the practice of blackbirding,” Professor Coleman added.

Her talk was the second of a series of events that aim to discuss the legacies of enslavement and facilitate conversations.

The Legacies of British Slavery database compiled by University College London has had a galvanising impact on bringing Atlantic slavery into view, she said, not just in Britian but in the newer settler colonies of New Zealand, Australia, Canada and South Africa. While individuals and institutions, such as the University of Glasgow, have shown it is possible to agree reparations.

Professor Coleman has published widely on the intersection of British Romantic literature with antislavery, natural history and colonialism.

Student-led research in 2021 shed new light onto Newnham College and the legacies of enslavement. Although Newnham was founded 40 years after the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, the research showed that money inherited from those connected to enslavement went into the foundation of the College. You can find out more here.