Atlantic History Public Memory and Heritage of Slavery
by
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 December 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0130

Introduction

The study of public memory and heritage of slavery emerged during the 1980s. In various former slave societies, the rise of the public memory of slavery and the development of specific projects to highlight the multiple facets of its heritage were carried out by social actors who identify themselves as descendants of the victims of the Atlantic slave trade and who attempted to denounce the present social and racial inequalities. Since the 1990s, especially in West Africa, an increasing number of venues sought to “crystallize” the public memory of slavery in more permanent forms, including monuments and memorials. These initiatives were associated with cultural tourism and sought to attract tourists to countries with severe economic needs. Institutions played an important role in this process. Launched in 1994, the Slave Route project of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) developed numerous initiatives, which contributed to a growing interest in public memory and heritage of slavery among scholars. Three events played an important role in promoting the study of the memory and heritage of slavery in Europe, Africa, and the Americas: In 2001, France passed law number 2001-434 recognizing slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity; in 2007 and 2008, Britain and the United States, respectively, commemorated the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade. These celebrations resulted in numerous public activities, which, in turn, created a growing scholarly interest on how slavery was remembered in the public sphere. Despite this growing interest, several regions remain to be covered. Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America remain largely understudied. In Europe, Portugal and Spain have not yet developed initiatives to remember slavery and the slave trade in the public space. Moreover, the need is urgent to study the memory of slavery in East and West Central Africa, as the latter regions exported the largest number of Africans. The study of public memory of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade faces particular challenges. First, the slave trade and slavery lasted more than three hundred years, affecting various regions of the world. Second, the witnesses of these crimes against humanity are not alive, and in most regions of the Americas, except for the United States, and Africa where slavery was a central institution their testimonies were not systematically collected. Third, there are competing memories in the public space. Whereas the descendants of the victims formulate demands to redress inherited social, economic, and racial inequalities, the descendants of the perpetrators also attempt to make their past officially recognized.

Data Sources

Several online resources focus on the public memory of slavery in Europe and the Americas. These Internet resources include visual records (L’esclavage par l’image, Handler and Tuite 2011), museum exhibitions (Slavery in New York), heritage sites (Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello), and documentary films (Mattos and Abreu 2007, Mattos and Abreu 2005b, Cicalò 2010) made by scholars, which are available online.

  • Cicalò, André, dir. Memories on the Edge of Oblivion. Documentary film, 2010.

    This documentary film explores the public memory of slavery in the port area of Rio de Janeiro.

  • Handler, Jerome S., and Michael L. Tuite Jr. “The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record.” Charlottesville: Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 2011.

    This online database provides hundreds of images of slavery in the Americas and Africa.

  • Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello.

    This online exhibition explores slavery at Mulberry Row on Thomas Jefferson’s estate, Monticello (today a National Historic Landmark), located in Charlottesville, Virginia.

  • Mattos, Hebe, and Martha Abreu, dirs. Memórias do Cativeiro. Documentary film. Gragoatá, Brazil: Laboratório de História Oral e Imagem/Universidade Federal Fluminense, 2005b.

    This documentary examines the memories of descendants of slaves in the region of Paraíba Valley, Brazil. In Portuguese, but also available with English or Spanish subtitles.

  • Mattos, Hebe, and Martha Abreu, dirs.. Jongos, Calangos e Folias: Música Negra, Memória e Poesia. Documentary film. Gragoatá, Brazil: Laboratório de História Oral e Imagem/Universidade Federal Fluminense, 2007.

    This documentary explores the music and dance tradition of jongo, calangos and fest of kings, in the Paraíba Valley, Brazil. In Portuguese, but also available with English subtitles.

  • Slavery in New York. New-York Historical Society, 2005.

    Online version of the groundbreaking exhibition “Slavery in New York,” presented at the New-York Historical Society, New York, in 2005–2006.

  • Traites négrière, esclavage et abolitions, pour un inventaire muséographique. Paris: Comité Pour la Mémoire de l’Esclavage, 2006.

    Developed in France, this project aims create an inventory of artifacts associated with the Atlantic slave trade in the French museums.

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