Reflections on Black History Month

Earlier this year I travelled to Ghana, the birthplace of my maternal grandfather, for a family holiday. It incidentally coincided with Ghana’s ‘Year of Return, 2019’, whereby Ghana was inviting the world to celebrate the resilience of all the victims of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade who were scattered and displaced.

This was very poignant to me as a descendant of those who had been colonised and enslaved; my father was a Jamaican who had travelled to the UK in the 1960s.  I visited three of the 32 slave forts and castles dotted along Ghana’s coastline and, although I have worked in a library dedicated to the study of race and ethnicity for over 13 years, I was still overwhelmed by what I experienced in those dungeons. I couldn’t imagine how anyone had survived these inhumane conditions, which marked the beginning of a horrific journey.  I was told that a significant proportion did not.  I was bewildered by the sight of churches built directly on top of the dungeons holding captured people. Whilst at Cape Coast, a fort occupied by the English from 1664, I did as the Ghanaians had invited me to do and Returned through ‘the Door of No Return’.

Door of No Return at Cape Coast Castle
Cape Coast Castle

Black History Month is a time to educate about Black History, to look at the connections between Africa, the Caribbean and Britain and to discuss the legacies of slavery – a history that has shaped and financed the Britain that we know today.  I recently attended a conference at the University of Manchester where researchers discussed some of the beneficiaries of slavery and their links to universities across the UK.

The University of Manchester was linked to Benjamin Heywood, who was a philanthropist and abolitionist.  Before either of these things he was a slaver, taking part in over 100 voyages involving 37,000 slaves.  He became rich from slavery and donated money to the John Owens building and Mechanics Institute, the predecessors to the University of Manchester.  Whilst studying for my Master’s degree, I had come across references to Benjamin Heywood as a Unitarian and philanthropist, but not as a slaver.  These conversations have been missing from British history for far too long. 

I recently learned that slave owners were paid the modern equivalent of £17bn in compensation for the loss of their human property and that the amount of money borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act was so large that it wasn’t paid off until 2015. This means that living British citizens have contributed towards the repayment of the loan – I and many other descendants of enslaved people have helped to compensate slave owners, the same slave owners that enslaved our ancestors.  

It’s no wonder that these facts have been buried.  But in order to move forward and address inequality and structural racism we need to have open conversations. Black History Month can serve as a starting place for this.

Plaque at Elmina Castle

Follow the links below for further information about university connections to slavery.

University College London, Legacies of Slave-ownership database

University of Glasgow, Slavery Studies

University of Cambridge, Legacies of Slavery Research Project