Gaining new insights into history

Isabel Sykes attends Insight Lectures to find out more about the history of black slavery in Caribbean.

17th October 2016

A talk by Professor Catherine Hall on black slavery and white freedom took place on Thursday 13 October, being the first instalment of the Insights public lecture series, to be held throughout the year.

Hall’s lecture focused on the relationship between black slavery in Jamaica and white freedom in Britain. Her unique perspective suggested that British history tends to focus on the abolition of the slave trade in 1833, meaning we ‘forget’ the years of racial slavery that preceded it.

Hall, Professor of Modern British Social and Cultural History at University College London, has been the principal investigator at the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council (AHRC/ESRC) project ‘Legacies of British Slave-Ownership’ since 2009.

Hall began her lecture with the words: “My talk is a part of Black History Month, but this is not a celebratory talk.”

Her discussion focused on a case study of the Pennant family, who featured in her research as one of the most prominent slave owning families in Jamaica in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Gifford Pennant moved to Jamaica in 1655, and by the 1770s had five estates in Jamaica, owning more than 2000 enslaved men, women and children.

Hall followed the progress of this family back to Wales, where descendent Richard Pennant turned his attention to slate quarrying, employing 900 men in the Penrhyn quarry – all working in dangerous conditions for low pay.

By the time of his death in 1808, he had accumulated a huge wealth, but in his home - the 300 room Penrhyn Castle - there is hardly any indication of the prosperity derived from the enslavement of others.

When asked how the public had responded to the research, Hall answered that some descendants of slave owners, particularly in Jamaica, felt threatened by the project.

She added that others were extremely helpful in gathering material on their family history.

The lecture was closed with Hall’s insightful comment that exploring the inextricable link between colonial slavery and white prosperity is “the telling of a new kind of history”.

She added: “Knowing this history is a way for people to begin taking responsibility for that history.”

In addition, the subject fits in well with the events being held for black history throughout this month.

Black history month falls at an especially important time for Newcastle University, as it coincides with the launch of the Freedom City 2017 programme. The project will focus on the life and career of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.., as a celebration of the 50th anniversary of his receiving of a honorary degree from the University.

The next lecture in the programme is “Eyes: windows to the soul and mind control” and will be held on October 18 in the Curtis Auditorium, Herschel Building.

The full schedule of upcoming lectures can be found online.

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