Speaker considers how to address the legacies of enslavement 

Professor Catherine Hall speaking at Newnham College

Professor Catherine Hall gave an overview of suggestions for repair or redress in a talk at Newnham College last week, as part of a speaker series organised by Newnham’s postgraduate students (MCR). 

A former slave, Ottobah Cugoano, was one of the first to call for redress, in the late eighteenth century, she said. And although ‘good white men’ may have campaigned for abolition it was slaves in Haiti who first successfully fought to free themselves. Despite that, in 2007 the bicentenary of abolition was marked in the UK with barely a focus on the two centuries of slavery which went before, she added, a signifier of how skewed the history of slavery had become. 

Professor Hall is Emerita Professor and Chair of the Centre of the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery (LBS) at University College London (UCL). She said that out of that bicentenary and the question which arose about the slave owners and what happened to the compensation they were paid, came UCL research which has grown into the Centre. They are now focusing on the lives of enslaved people in the Caribbean.  

“Our research found just what we might expect: that money from slavery was passed on, the children of slavers were educated at our universities. No one is blaming descendants for their family’s actions but they have enjoyed the fruits of the system over generations,’ she said.  

“Slavery was drenched in violence; unrestrained wealth crime built on exploitation of the enslaved, doing bodily and psychological harm to enslaved people. And that catastrophic history still has a legacy today. You can see that in countries like Jamaica which I have studied. So the least we can do is acknowledge and work to repair.” 

Professor Hall was principal investigator on the LBS project for seven years and in her talk, The wrong of slavery cannot be put right so how should we think about repair? she reviewed considerations of reparative justice in Britain. She posed this question: given that New World slavery is an historical atrocity which cannot be put right, what responsibilities do we have as citizens of a society and members of institutions which benefitted from slavery? 

The first step is to acknowledge what happened and then to work towards repair, she suggested. There are no easy answers but part of the latter can be through universities: in history teaching; focusing on the awarding gap in higher education; challenging eurocentricity in the curriculum. Many departments have taken up these recommendations she said, citing Warwick University History department. 

“What does decolonising mean in this context? Tackling structures; reflecting on how discrimination has become part of everyday thinking; finding a usable past prior to colonisation where possible; improve diversity and address racism,” she said, and added that researching and narrating a different history requires self-reflection. 

She summarised a series of texts that have informed her own research, including: 

  • Report on Reparations for Transatlantic Chattel Slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean The Brattle Group 
  • Deny and Disavow Alan Lester 
  • The Fraud Zadie Smith 
  • Capitalism and Slavery Eric WIlliams 
  • The Black Jacobins CLR James 

Professor Hall’s new book Lucky Valley: Edward Long and the history of racial capitalism will be published in the New Year. 

For more information about the start of work on Legacies of Enslavement at Newnham College, please consider reading this article on the College’s website. More information about the University’s Report can be accessed here 

Thank you to Julia Sisk-Reynes, PhD Candidate at Newnham College, for curating this speaker series.