Facing the Past, Transforming the Future: Doing Reparative History with Communities in Lancaster

A Necessity Funded Community Research Project with Lancaster Black History Group (Beginning in January 2021)

The website for this research project can be found here

Lancaster Black History (LBH) is a new grassroots community group of local residents working to fight racism through education. This project working on slavery family trees in Lancaster will collaborate with 7 groups within Lancaster district to research 5 family trees of key slavery families. We will work with schools, university students, voluntary organisations, community and faith groups from across the city to produce to record community stories and learning that will allow local people to work together to face the past, and in doing so transform the future.

Between 1700-1800 at least 122 ships sailed from Lancaster to the coast of Africa. Lancastrian based or born merchants were involved in the capture and selling of an estimated 30,000 people, and many more Lancaster slave ships and crew left from Liverpool. The establishment of Brockbanks shipyards in the early 18th century saw the building of slave ships to order for slave traders in Lancaster, Liverpool and beyond. Lancaster slave traders and merchants developed extensive commercial networks in the West Indies and Americas, importing slave-produced goods such as mahogany, sugar, dyes, rice, spices, coffee, rum, and later cotton for Lancashire’s mills, from plantations, and exporting back fine furniture, gunpowder, woolen and cotton garments to the colonies. We can now scrutinise the records of Lancaster ships in the trans-Atlantic slave ship database (run by a Lancaster University historian Dr Nicholas Radburn, who is a member of LBH) to track some of these voyages.

It is difficult to find a Lancaster elite from the 18th and 19th century whose wealth and power wasn’t derived in part from what is often euphemistically referred to as the West-Indies trade. Young men from Lancaster slave-trading families worked as agents and factors across the West-Indies. Over generations, these families accumulated land, property, plantations and slaves. Slave traders and their descendants dominated local political life in Lancaster ‘as aldermen, mayors and councilors’. Some of these men invested their inherited fortunes in the development of local mills and businesses. What we can see in Lancaster, if we trace these histories, is how the profits from slavery and the slavery business in the West Indies and the Americas, financed the industrialisation of the city and the development of its civic infrastructure, welfare estate and later universities. While some of the historical research exists, much hasn’t been fully explored, like the Slavery Voyages database (https://www.slavevoyages.org), or is very new such as the recent research of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership database (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/), and the Runaway Slaves in Britain Database (https://www.runaways.gla.ac.uk). Our aim in LBH is to bring these and other new historical resources to life, to identify and connect the missing pieces, and create new stories working with and within our local community.

One of the problems with how we learn history at school and beyond, is that it is often segregated into distinct blocks – that is we might study the Atlantic slave trade or the history of the industrial revolution at school, but we tend do so separately. What we miss is the crucial connections between different aspects and legacies of our histories in shaping the societies we live in today. This segregation creates gaps and silences. We believe making these connections can revolutionise the ways people think about place, community and belonging in the present. These omissions, silences, secrets and gaps are particularly evident in how we learn about local history — if we learn about it at all. As chair of LBH Geraldine Onek recently reflected, she learnt about the slave trade while studying at Secondary School in Lancaster but was never taught that the square she was walking through every day on her way to school, Lindow Square, was named after a slave trader. William Lindow lived in a house near the site of the school, the same house, built and lavishly furnished from the profits of slavery business, a house we know also now was also home to a Black servant called John Chance. There is currently no way of “seeing” this history. This absence of knowledge of local history can create shocking oversights.

There is an urgent need for public education about these connected and connecting histories and legacies – we need to not only understand the history of our city better, but to make that history locally, to do history within the community. New research, databases, digital resources, make such a task possible in new ways—as do new ways of doing history in the community- not in silos but in inter-connected ways, as pioneered by Black and minority scholars – and as seen in the work of pubic historians such as David Olusoga, and his Black and British: A Forgotten History, and House through Time television series, the work of Professor Corinne Fowler and the Colonial Countryside project, and the work of organisations such as the National Trust.

The project will be led by Dr Sunita Abraham for the Lancaster Black History Group, supported by the Lancaster University Social Action Research group, and Professors Imogen Tyler (Lancaster Sociology), and Alan Rice (Co-Director of Institute for Black Atlantic Research) and Dr Nick Radburn (Lancaster History) who have subject expertise in this area, and are members of the Lancaster Black History Group core collective, supported also by organisations such as Lancashire Archives and Lancaster and Lancashire Museums.

This project from the LBH group aims to work on slavery family trees in Lancaster. Over the next 12 months (starting fully in January 2021), Dr Sunita Abraham, an independent researcher and community activist will collaborate with 7 groups within Lancaster district on researching family trees of key slavery families, building on existing historical resources and research (such as the work of Melinda Elder, Michael Winstanley).

Collaborations include school children and teachers, refugees and asylum seekers, university students and staff, members of voluntary groups/charities/trusts/local government. Groups from these communities will undertake historical research, work with pubic databases, local museums and other resources to produce our family trees.

This family trees project will kickstart (pilot) what we envisage is a bigger and longer project of work, and our hope this co-produced research will form the basis for large bids, but will also as a public resource allow other artists, teachers, activists and more to develop their own reparative local history projects.


Lancaster Black Lives Matter Protest in Dalton Square June 2020

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