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Black Lives Matter

Olivia Wyatt: Power. Whiteness. Resistance. Challenging the ‘facts’ of the archive

23 August marked the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. Harewood openly acknowledges its past, and to mark this anniversary we have commissioned a series of blog posts to explore what this means for Harewood and Leeds today.

In this blog, Olivia Wyatt – researcher and Harewood volunteer – challenges the ‘facts’ of the archive.

Image: ‘Nat Turner and his confederates in conference’, 1831 published 1863. Whilst this image is not associated with the Tobago conspiracy (1801), it does convey the atmosphere surrounding it.

Power. Whiteness. Resistance. Challenging the ‘facts’ of the archive.

‘The report of the Committee,’ wrote John Robley, Lord Harewood’s attorney for Tobago, ‘I think your Lordship will find highly interesting & satisfactory’. This letter referred to a slave conspiracy in Tobago which was foiled in December 1801. One of the two principal conspirators, Anthony, belonged to the Lascelles-owned Mesopotamia plantation. The committee of which Robley wrote was convened to investigate the conspiracy, and they concluded that a few ‘artful’ individuals intended to lead intoxicated ‘ignorant negroes’ into open rebellion. Whether or not the rebels agreed with this summary of their conspiracy is a mystery; therefore how can we interpret the resistance of enslaved people when we can only conceive of it through the lens of their oppressor?

This is why Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote of the need to analyse the power behind the process of historical production, which silences some narratives and empowers others. Those who are not considered ‘victors’ are often unable to present their perspectives in the historical material. This helps explain why Orlando Patterson advocated for historians to ‘stop defining slavery through the experiences of slaves’. Rather, slavery should be understood as a system of social death which attempted to use violence to alienate and dehumanise Black people for profit. Examinations of resistance are therefore, perhaps, as Vincent Brown posits, more useful than attempts to reconstruct the condition of slavery. The efforts of enslaved people to reshape their world reveal their politics, their dreams, and their dissatisfaction with their environment. Far from rendering enslaved people as docile and unfeeling, examinations of resistance could give them the voice they were denied. Nonetheless, this task becomes difficult when their resistance is presented through the mediums of their oppressors. I will therefore dissect one of the portrayals of Anthony in the archive, to show that there are ways to look beyond the oppressors’ attempts to further subordinate enslaved people through their control of the narrative.

Image of part of the Witness Statements from the Trial of Anthony, Fortune, Dublin, Pompey and Frank belonging to Mesopotamia (1802). Photograph taken by the author.

Nearly 200 Black people and some free-coloureds were arrested and interrogated, and Anthony pleaded not guilty during his trial. According to witness testimonies, the plan was to ‘put to Death all Whites’ but ‘preserve the White Women for their Wives’. This desire to form intimate and legal bonds with White women could suggest that the conspirators glorified Whiteness. The ‘negro’ embodied backwardness; a ‘heathenish’ and ‘dangerous kind of people’, according to the Barbados slave code. Not only was Blackness therefore presented as undesirable and inhuman; but, as Stuart Hall posited, Black people experienced themselves as the ‘Other’. Their being was in conflict with their inclination to conform to the norm and improve their standing through the main medium of power in the Caribbean: Whiteness. Whiteness became a tool of power for many Black people because it enabled them to escape the ‘trappings’ of Blackness. In order to elevate his status, as Frantz Fanon illustrated, the Black man dons a ‘white mask’ and ‘becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle’. Marriage to a White woman would improve Anthony’s status, but in a society which was supposed to be rid of White people in order to ensure slavery’s demise, surely Whiteness would no longer possess such power? This could instead reveal how ingrained the desire for Whiteness was. It suggests that Anthony’s resistance to slavery was not necessarily resistance to White supremacy because it still positioned Whiteness as the ideal. Such beliefs fuelled the degradation of Blackness and upheld the racial hierarchy which governed the Caribbean; a hierarchy which, with its intersections with gender, positioned dark-skinned Black women at the bottom. The conspirators’ positioning of White women as the prize for their resistance demonstrates that when Black men resisted oppression, they did not necessarily resist for all.

Yet this is not the only interpretation which can be made. This supposed desire also capitalised on White men’s fears of Black men’s sexuality and the need to protect ‘their’ women and White purity. Could these witness testimonies therefore reflect these fears, instead of the conspirators’ internalised anti-Blackness? Torture and other extreme methods were undoubtedly used to extract information from the prisoners and, as K O Laurence admitted, this could make their accounts suspect. The governing council also declared martial law and the military conducted many of the interrogations. Indeed, the ruthlessness with which the Brigadier managed the situation encouraged the council to demand that the conspirators receive a trial. The objective to kill the White inhabitants often emerged in the testimonies, but the desire to save the White women appeared less so. This could indicate that this desire was confined to the principal conspirators, though it is also plausible that this was a dubious claim. Indeed, the other chief conspirator, Roger of Belvedere, questioned whether he ‘was present when this plan was settled’, presumably because it was unbeknownst to him. Given the conditions under which some witnesses were interrogated, the fact that Roger challenged this claim casts further doubt on the testimonies. If witnesses had been pressured to testify about a threat to White women, this would have further demonised the principal conspirators. Indeed, the council stressed their desire to make examples of only the leaders. The committee’s report was therefore characterised by disdain for the ‘manipulative’ conspirators who were ungrateful for the ‘luxuries of life’ which they had been granted as ‘principle people on the estates’.

We must therefore question the reliability of these testimonies and whether they suit the council’s pre-established agenda. As Saidiya Hartman has done, we must press at the limits of the archive and imagine what could have been in order to challenge what seemingly was. To speculate about which interpretation could be the ‘truth’ is to undermine what I set out to demonstrate. The multiple possibilities of one line in one source allow us to question the power behind the written word. We must also strategise how to exhibit this complexity within museums. The archive alone is not enough to represent marginalised people; though perhaps re-imagination, as evidenced by my second interpretation, is one way forward.

Olivia Wyatt, 2020

Article bibliography >>

Joe Williams: Memorialise those who sacrificed everything

23 August marked the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. Harewood openly acknowledges its past, and to mark this anniversary we have commissioned a series of blog posts to explore what this means for Harewood and Leeds today.

In this blog, Joe Williams – who leads the Leeds Black History Walks – asks:

How should we memorialise the contributions of those who sacrificed everything after losing so much?

We are purposefully ill informed about great African civilisations, so you may be forgiven for wondering what this opening question could possibly mean. As we try to explain, please also consider there is a memorial in London to animals who fought in British wars … as there should be … of course.

Memorials to ancestors, martyrs and heroes are often solemnly represented in the west by impressive stone obelisks. Actual authentic megalithic Nile Valley obelisks from the time of the Pharoahs can also be found displayed proudly in major western cities, including London, Washington and, surprisingly St. Peter’s Square, Rome. Why would Christian nations go to such great lengths to transport several tonnages of ‘pagan’ symbolism from Africa’s ancient past?

Read about obelisks >>

At Heritage Corner and on our Leeds Black History Walk, we acknowledge Africa’s humanity mainly through telling our audiences about the amazing civilisations of the Nile Valley, of West Africa’s great trading empires and of the continent’s resistance to enslavement. We also explore how newer civilisations traditionally build on top of ancient ones, often by suffocating the narratives of those who came before.

The Sphinx, Egypt >>

For example: the monument we know as the Sphinx, in Egypt, has nothing whatsoever to do with Greek mythology. Nothing. The famous monument depicts the body of a lion with a human head, looking toward the constellations. It was originally built to honour the awesome stories created by the peoples of the Nile Valley – stories through which their influential studies of the stars were passed down through generations, over many millennia.

The Greeks started 2,000 years of European obfuscation of African heritage and history. The words pyramid, Egypt, sphinx and obelisk are all Greek, diminishing the original richly significant meanings. The Greeks chose words to suit their domination. The Romans followed suit – they literally scorch-earthed Carthage in North Africa, their main competitors in Mediterranean trade, after initially modelling themselves on the inspirational state.

Like the Greeks, Rome established treaties with the queens of powerful matriarchal nations such as Ethiopia and Nubia. African allies became part of the Roman Empire and there was a visible contingent of black Africans from many levels of Roman society here in Yorkshire, particularly in Eboracum (York). These included merchants, priests, soldiers, slaves, gladiators and others – even emperors.

‘The remains of a Roman woman known as the Ivory Bangle Lady have helped archaeologists discover that wealthy people from across the Empire were living in fourth century York.’

Ivory Bangle Lady >>

Sadly, it is the obfuscation and misrepresentations that have stuck with us today and not the positivity of past achievements. A lucrative relationship with Islam created three trading empires that were larger than Europe in size and productivity: the Ghana, Mali and Songhai Empires blossomed from around the 9th century. The Malian Empire produced the richest man in world history, Mansa Musa, who lived in the first half of the 14th century. He was a benefactor of Timbuktu’s well-established university. Timbuktu’s number one source of income at that time was not their gold or salt, it was books. Yes … books.

Mansa Musa >>

The Songhai Empire ended in 1591, after losing in the European supported Battle of Tondibi against Morocco. This gave Britain access to West Africa’s gold… and a reversal of fortune.

Yorkshire had visitors of African origin who spoke out passionately and vigorously against the horrors of slavery: West African born Olaudah Equiano, 1791; Frederick Douglass, 1846; Sarah Parker Remond 1859 and Dr Martin Delaney, 1861. There were many others too, whose activism should have permanently laid to rest the argument of Africans having inferior intelligence, but the opposition was fierce.

Transatlantic Abolition >>

American and West Indian plantocracy used imbalanced and prejudicial social algorithms to measure the relative intelligence of different races and used this ‘false news’ to justify slavery. They used violence to root out independent intelligence, appropriated and obfuscated African culture when it suited them and brutally attacked every aspect of the African character, manufacturing arguments of lesser intelligence to asphyxiate African aspirations both during slavery and after emancipation.

In 2006, a Leeds professor (as well as a London-based journalist called Boris Johnson) made statements about the lesser intelligence of Africans compared to Europeans. Without any robust scientific evidence the claims of these privileged cowards were reported around the world and repeated again as recently as 2019 by a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. What comes across in such reporting is an implied message: this must be true but we haven’t heard much about it because it isn’t a ‘politically correct’ idea. Thus, the lies are left to linger as truth.

Just four years earlier, in 2002, a cache of colossal monuments, created as tributes to the 25th Dynasty of Kemet in ancient Egypt, were discovered by archaeologists. These hugely significant black Nubian/Kushite Pharaohs’ artefacts had been smashed and buried in a pit. Their discovery still carries the power to contradict the racist myths that are so regularly peddled and repeddled. Sadly, the archaeological discovery was not reported worldwide with the same enthusiasm as the false claims.

The Kingdoms of Kush >>

Africa has an extraordinary ancient heritage and has made immense contributions to today’s civilisations, a heritage and humanity that has been systematically denied. Like the life of George Floyd, we observe it snuffed out before our eyes, a different species, not a part of the human family … and therefore of no loss to anyone.

How do we today, a nation of British lions as we like to see ourselves, adapt to recognizing that Africans also portrayed themselves as awesome lions? Having claimed the obelisk as part of its identity, would Britain allow a mega-obelisk structure to be erected in honour of African contributions? Such a monument could also address child slaves in industrial Yorkshire and enslaved people all over the world today.

Promoting Africa’s humanity means we can also protect Britain’s heritage, environment and history, together, to deepen responsible citizenship and belonging. African philosophy is not an alien concept to Britain – it existed here in Yorkshire 2000 years ago with the Romans. Africa’s esoteric symbols, such as the obelisk and pyramid, are already established in a Britain that has also benefitted from Africa’s gold, labour and the immense sacrifices of its peoples for the British economy.

Prolonged denial and malicious ignorance of history can only be destructive, but to openly show love for a much abused and missing historical narrative is a testament to our common humanity. There is more that connects us than divides us. Empowering narratives can be imparted through a monument that celebrates our shared humanity. In the spirit of William Wilberforce, wouldn’t it be grand if Yorkshire got there first … again?

Joe Williams, 2020