Atlantic History Representations of Slavery
by
Douglas Hamilton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0135

Introduction

Since the mid-1990s, issues of slave trades, slavery, and abolitions have been represented in museums and monuments and on film, television, radio, and countless websites. They have become central to developments in education curricula and pedagogical resources. This “breaking the silence” on slavery has been a remarkable global phenomenon: displays and memorials in Europe and North America have been matched by contemporaneous equivalents in Brazil and western and southern Africa. In part, this efflorescence has been inspired by developments since the 1990s in relation to restorative justice, reparations debates, and ideas of truth and reconciliation. This surge has been highly politicized, therefore, and many public representations of slavery remain in a national register and speak to local concerns. Scholarly studies often follow suit. In this national mode, representations remain highly controversial. In individual states, particularly in Europe, a series of important anniversaries prompted widespread commemorations, notably in France (1998) and Britain (2007). Yet, it is important to recognize that the representation of slavery has not just been about commemorating abolitions, such as the 2007 bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade, but also about the importance of slavery in societies generally. In this context, monuments and memorials, such as Le Morne in Mauritius or the installation at Anse Cafard in Martinique, speak as loudly and movingly to the place of slavery in society as any major exhibition in Europe or North America. The scholarship outlined below has been inspired by the multifarious forms of representation and it attempts to explore and explain their many meanings. Across the world, representations of slavery have been motivated and appropriated by different groups intent on highlighting either brutal maltreatment and continuing injustice or timely attempts to eradicate it. Some seek to emphasize the relatively “benign” nature of their own brands of enslavement. Increasingly, however, scholars are trying to develop explanations for the global nature of this phenomenon; a number of volumes now seek to compare the experiences of different nations and continents.

Comparative Perspectives and Overviews

While many studies adopt national perspectives, increasingly scholars have worked collaboratively to produce broader studies. These multiauthored collections have attempted to grapple (albeit still incompletely) with both the vast geographical scale of the problem of slavery and the multifarious media through which it is represented. The purpose of a museum exhibition, for example, may be very different from aspirations of an education syllabus or the meaning of a slave memorial. Yet, they are all, as Araujo 2009; Araujo 2012; and Hamilton, et al. 2012 suggest, representations of slavery. These volumes, along with the special edition of Slavery and Abolition (Heuman 2009) and Oostindie 2001, all attempt to move debates beyond Anglo-America, although they do remain firmly rooted in the North Atlantic, with Araujo 2012 and Hamilton, et al. 2012 moving the debates into Mauritius and Nepal. Araujo, et al. 2011 provides a valuable southern Atlantic perspective. Wood 2000 is a still relatively rare single-authored comparison of Britain and the United States.

  • Araujo, Ana Lucia, ed. Living History: Encountering the Memory of the Heirs of Slavery. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is an important collection of essays that considers the memorialization and consumption of heritage in North America, France, and the Dutch Caribbean.

  • Araujo, Ana Lucia, ed. Politics of Memory: Making Slavery Visible in the Public Space. London: Routledge, 2012.

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    The essays in this volume address a range of media—including museums, memorials, accounts, and public performances—to assess the extent to which slavery has become more publicly visible.

  • Araujo, Ana Lucia, Mariana P. Candido, and Paul E. Lovejoy, eds. Crossing Memories: Slavery and the African Diaspora. Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 2011.

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    A series of essays exploring the role of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade in shaping the history and cultures of the African diaspora.

  • Hamilton, Douglas, Kate Hodgson, and Joel Quirk, eds. Slavery, Memory and Identity: National Representations and Global Legacies. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    The essays in this collection cover both historical and contemporary representations of slavery in Europe, North America, Africa, and Asia. They explore themes in history and education as well as in museums and memorials. They suggest that states often represent their experience of slavery in relation to those of other countries or peoples.

  • Heuman, Gad, ed. Special Edition: Remembering Slave Trade Abolitions: Reflections on 2007 in International Perspective. Slavery and Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Societies 30.2 (2009).

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    One of the leading scholarly journals in the field. Its interdisciplinary focus means that work on representations appears in its pages, notably in this special issue.

  • Oostindie, Gert, ed. Facing Up to the Past: Perspectives on the Commemoration of Slavery from Africa, the Americas and Europe. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    An important collection that predates the renewed interest in representations of slavery. Essays by well-known scholars consider the commemoration of slavery on the three continents touched by the so-called triangular trade.

  • Wood, Marcus. Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780–1865. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    A relatively early and still comparatively rare single-authored comparative study. It focuses on historic visual and literary representations of slavery and considers how they might be displayed in museums and galleries. Essential reading.

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