Remembering Slavery, Again

By Susan GillmanFebruary 7, 2016

Remembering Slavery, Again

IN 2015, A YEAR OF DEBATE over the Confederate flag and intense meditation on the meaning of race in the United States, it would be a shame to miss the equally public memories of race-slavery in Britain. Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, a two-part BBC documentary, publicized the Legacies of British Slave-ownership (LBS), a University College London database of all the slave owners in Britain who were awarded compensation when slavery was abolished on August 1, 1834. A Broadway musical, Amazing Grace, dramatized the story of the British slave-ship captain John Newton, who wrote the hymn that would become associated with African-American culture and civil rights struggles — and which President Obama sang during the eulogy for Pastor Clementa Pinckney, killed in June 2015 by a white supremacist who shot six other members of the AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. British novelist Caryl Phillips published The Lost Child, partly a prequel to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, in which he draws on the long critical speculation that Heathcliff, brought from the slave port of Liverpool to the Yorkshire moors, is black. It appears that both the United States and the United Kingdom are witnessing one of those moments when we confront what Toni Morrison said in an early interview about Beloved (1987), “something that the characters don’t want to remember, I don’t want to remember, black people don’t want to remember, white people don’t want to remember. I mean, it’s national amnesia.”

Aside from the fact that these are actually two cases of national amnesia — one British, one American — what is striking is how much people keep remembering, and, more, how often the same icon is remembered repeatedly, with all the power of the first time. The hymn “Amazing Grace” plays as the signature music in both the BBC’s Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners and an earlier documentary, the 2009 independent film A Regular Black: The Hidden History of Wuthering Heights, which speculates on Heathcliff’s racial identity in the context of Yorkshire’s historical connections with slavery. Amazing Grace is the title of both the aforementioned musical about the moral awakening of Captain (later Reverend) John Newton and a 2006 film about William Wilberforce, who led the successful fight in Parliament in 1807 to abolish the slave trade throughout the British Empire (but not slavery itself, which happened much later, in 1834). Yet, despite the circulation of these four productions across the Atlantic, it is safe to say that most Americans would not recognize the British roots of this black spiritual — and that few readers anywhere would recognize a “black” Wuthering Heights. Looking at 2015, a year of transatlantic memories of the New World racial past and its legacy in the present, may therefore give us insight into national amnesias, plural — how two nations continue to grapple differently with their intertwined histories, and the global institution of 19th-century slavery.

The history of slavery is of course neither new nor unknown, its afterlives repeatedly rediscovered, and erased, at particular moments in time. As the voluminous work in the field of memory studies shows, some of these coincide with obvious anniversaries, such as the 2007 bicentenary of the British abolition of the transatlantic slave trade (which was marked by the Wilberforce Amazing Grace), and, vice versa, the legacy of slavery is subject to periodic erasure of different kinds, in public memory as well as in literary and academic discourse. In the United States, seeking roots can be tantamount to rejecting them: Henry Louis Gates Jr., host and executive producer of the PBS series Finding Your Roots, has been embroiled in controversy over its capitulation to actor Ben Affleck’s request that the program not reveal his ancestor’s slaveholding history in a 2014 episode. (PBS put the series on hold after determining that the episode violated its editorial standards.)

In Britain, we find other kinds of remembering and strategic forgetting. Both slave owners and black slaves were part of the population in 18th- and early 19th-century England, yet euphemisms abound today in the heritage plaques on mansions occupied by “West India merchants” or “planters,” never identified as slave traders or slave owners. Even after the abolition of slavery, some Africans were kept on as farmhands in Yorkshire, and gossip circulated about iron rings and chains on cellar walls of certain manor houses. It is said that today, in the Yorkshire village of Dent — not far from the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge where the Brontë sisters were sent, and home of one prominent farming family, the Sills, whose fortune came from Jamaican sugar — the locals still do not like to talk about slavery. The village church and museum demonstrate reluctant acknowledgment. The church memorializes the uncle from whom the Sills inherited their money with a plaque that reads “to the Memory of John Sill Esq of Providence in the island of Jamaica” and nothing more related to his slave-owning past, while the Dent Village Heritage Centre includes (in a basement corner, near a model railroad) a small display on slavery, featuring a fugitive slave advertisement from a Liverpool newspaper in 1758 placed by one Edmund Sill of Dent. The homepage of the Dent Museum website features “The Sill Family — Slave Traders!” among the listings of “The Dentdale Story,” but the description under the “Slavery” heading is more equivocating: “Although many record[s] of the slave trade were destroyed with the abolition of slavery in 1807 there is evidence that it continued in the Dale in to the 19th century […] It is possible that Edmund Sill built Whernside Manor through the profits produced by [the] Slave trade.”

The Sills inherited Providence, a sugar plantation in Jamaica with about 200 slaves, from Edmund's brother, John Sill (1724–1774), “Gentleman from Jamaica.” Here is a photo of the monument in St Andrew’s Church, Dent, “to the Memory of John Sill Esq of Providence in the island of Jamaica.” (Photo and caption courtesy of

In the push-pull of remembering and forgetting, Britain’s island geography conspires with culture to allow slavery to be seen as something that happened thousands of miles away, and the national hero worship of William Wilberforce as abolitionist of the slave trade also makes less visible the longer history of slavery itself in the empire. David Olusoga, the Nigerian-born historian who narrates Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, calls the Wilberforce story the “figleaf behind which the larger, longer and darker history of slavery has been concealed.” Different but equally troubling tendencies are at work in the United States during the supposedly post-race Obama era, where the “Black Lives Matter” movement takes on more and more momentum while, at the same time, race remains paradoxically “unspeakable” according to the principles of a self-professed colorblind society. Toni Morrison uses a play on words in her essay “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature” (1988) to capture the contradiction of “race’” itself, which, “in spite of its implicit and explicit acknowledgment […] is still a virtually unspeakable thing,” “either inevitable or elaborately, painstakingly masked.”

To track degrees of social visibility requires that we do more than answer “yes” or “no” to the questions of whether Britain’s slave owners are forgotten or Heathcliff is black; it requires trying to determine when and why these particular hot-button issues become visible. The question “Is Heathcliff black?” has been asked more than once and the “hidden history of Wuthering Heights” shown well and repeatedly, by the 2009 documentary A Regular Black, for instance, and all the prior scholarship on which it draws. The British case study gives us a chance to compare different ways to confront national amnesia — ways to identify when and where, how and why historical conditions enable, encourage, or force us to remember what we already know.


Wuthering Heights is the perfect example of how the traces of slavery are not new news and can be found in seemingly unusual sources. Wuthering Heights has, for years, been read as a literary classic, and yet, although arguably a historical novel of slavery, it has been overlooked as a historical source. Wuthering Heights was published in 1847 but set earlier (it opens in 1801, and the story extends back to the 1770s), that is, before the 1834 abolition of slavery in Britain. A historical novel under the mask of the Gothic, it is notoriously veiled in its representations of slavery in Yorkshire. Scholars have periodically debated whether and how the footprints of slavery can be tracked in Brontë’s classic, sometimes by relying on the same few enigmatic lines as textual evidence of Heathcliff’s blackness. (Most often quoted: Mr. Earnshaw uses the pronoun “it” when he arrives from Liverpool with Heathcliff, “as dark almost as if it came from the devil.”) The contextual evidence was first laid out in the 1980s by scholar Christopher Heywood’s “Yorkshire Slavery in Wuthering Heights” (1987), a landmark essay frequently cited, the standard-setter documenting the evidence for slavery around Dent, the region of Yorkshire that provides the key geographic context for Emily Brontë’s knowledge of slavery in Britain. Heywood’s research points to all the black afterlives of Wuthering Heights, including Phillips’s novel and two films, the 2009 A Regular Black, with commentary by Phillips, and Andrea Arnold’s 2011 Wuthering Heights, with a black actor as Heathcliff. All of this harks back to the original text, Wuthering Heights, and prompts the question: why would Brontë in 1847 have set her novel in late 18th- to early 19th-century England, when slavery had not yet been abolished, and then veil its presence?

The LBS database of the Slave Compensation Commission provides the best answer. This extraordinary list of slave owners, including 46,000 names of the famous super-rich and the ordinary middle-class, and their 800,000 slaves, is nothing less than a record of the “price of emancipation” in Britain, in the words of Nicholas Draper (The Price of Emancipation: Slave-Ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery). Compiled by scholars at University College London and launched in 2013, the searchable database traces the legacies of British slavery and, in particular, the afterlife of the £20 million — £17 billion in today’s money, and the equivalent of 40 percent of all annual government spending at the time — paid to slave owners in compensation for the loss of their “property” upon the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834. The roll call of slave-owner names includes the famous — ancestors of George Orwell, Graham Greene, David Cameron, and William Gladstone — and the ordinary, women as well as men, large plantation owners and those who held only a few slaves. The sheer scale is best visually measured by the map of Britain displayed in the companion BBC documentary, Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, with red pushpins marking the locations of all individual slave owners, 3,000 of whom lived not in the colonies but across the British Isles.

Among the 91 entries for Yorkshire is Ann Sill, the only daughter and last living heir of the family — whose names and history were linked by their Yorkshire proximity to the Brontë sisters — who inherited the Jamaican sugar wealth from her uncle John Sill, owner of the plantation called “Providence.” She was compensated for 174 slaves to the tune of £3,783, and the LBS compilers note: “The Sill family have been proposed as the model for the Earnshaw family in Wuthering Heights.” By the time Brontë wrote her novel in the late 1840s, the earlier Emancipationist campaigns against slavery had morphed from attacks on the plantation economy and slaveholding elites to a critique of the local industrial economy, the new factory owners and the working class they exploited. The argument: slavery had reasserted itself in the factories and mines of Britain. The public recognition of the continuation of slavery in another legal form following abolition (akin to W. E. B. Du Bois’s view of wage labor as a second slavery) brings the past of the Sills and Yorkshire slavery into Brontë’s present. To avoid seeming to traduce the reputation of a prominent family, including Dent resident Adam Sedgwick, their trustee and executor and famous Cambridge geologist, or criticize the supposedly democratic world of post-emancipation Britain, Brontë created the elaborate structures of concealment and veiling of place and character in the novel.

But the presence of the novel in the LBS database, simply as one of the notes to the Sill entry, is enough to historicize it: Wuthering Heights, set among the people of the rural hinterland beyond the slave trade of Liverpool and Lancaster, demonstrates, first, that slave ownership was spread across the British Isles, by no means confined to the old slaving ports, and included men and women of varied ages and classes, ranging from the aristocracy and gentry to sections of the middle classes; and second, that slavery did not end with emancipation but continued in other forms of unfree labor. Brontë touched, in her engagement with the slavery-industrial complex, on virtually every major one of the LBS legacies in the first decade of the 21st century, including empire — the circuits of Britons as investors, administrators, and settlers in colonies beyond the slave colonies, and their part in the uneven development of the modern capitalist world-system. Brontë herself is not a datapoint in the vast LBS archive, and her novel never names the slave-owning Sills of Dent, yet it is precisely as an ultramicroscopic, veiled, and barely visible presence that slavery appears in the novel, and the novel appears, as a speculative note, on the Ann Sill LBS entry.

Brontë’s novel should be better known not as a literary classic but as a source of the hidden history of black Britain. This work of fiction and its film adaptations document the process of alternating visibility and invisibility that shapes slavery's history in Britain and beyond. The names of British slave owners have long been known, but the records of the Slave Compensation Commission languished in near invisibility until conditions became favorable for racial visibility. This moment of national self-reckoning, for both the United Kingdom and the United States, not for the first or last time, confronts the long fetch of New World race-slavery in the everyday lives of ordinary people.

2015, Again and Beyond

What are the advantages of telling this specific story as a transnational history of the triangular slave trade from two national perspectives? The LBS database on slave owners brings to the fore the issue of reparations, which is currently being debated in the United States and beyond: the political stakes of reparation are differently and unequally shaped depending on how scale is conceived, individual versus collective, public versus private. There is a well-known history of legal cases in which ex-slaves themselves sued for reparations — and won. The Belinda Royall 1783 petition and Brom & Bett v. Ashley, brought by Mum Bett (Elizabeth Freeman) in Great Barrington in 1781, were adjudicated in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at a liminal moment, in the transition to a new nation, and demonstrate the power of the individual, in both cases women, over the state in completing the process of reparative justice, as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out. In the United States today, the locus of debate is a group of academic institutions (including Brown, Yale, Harvard, William & Mary, Princeton, and Columbia, as well as the University of Virginia and the University of Alabama) that have publicly acknowledged their legacies of slave ownership, if not deciding how to make restitution for them. By contrast, efforts at the national level have been stymied: Congressman John Conyers Jr. from Detroit has for the past 25 years called in every session of Congress for congressional study of slavery and recommendations for remedies; the bill, now called HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, has gone nowhere. In the United Kingdom, on the other hand, the state itself is the locus of the reparations movement, with an explicit emphasis on public rather than private initiatives for reparative justice. So, for example, in April 2015 the National Trust announced that it would trace slavery monies that supported Britain’s heritage houses under its aegis. An ongoing project on “Race and the Curriculum” at the University of Oxford, which includes a Slavery and Reparations Workshop, will bring together leading figures from the Caribbean (Sir Hilary Beckles), the United Kingdom, and the United States (Henry Louis Gates Jr.) in a series of high-profile public events to debate reparations.

What should we conclude? The LBS website includes a specific critique of its own method, voicing the concern that by putting emphasis on individual slave owners, the case for reparations by the state is weakened. The takeaway here is a scalar question: how to balance the macro and micro, the collective and the individual, public and private — very much a living political issue shaped by a national context. The United States and the United Kingdom have systematic differences in approaches to pressing social problems, on issues from healthcare to taxation to education to guns. Nationalize or privatize? Reparations also have a well-known international face, from South Africa’s truth commission and Germany’s compensation for Holocaust victims to the recent histories of Chile, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, and elsewhere. Like so many of our national debates on race and (in)equality, income, housing, and education, the reparations question could benefit from looking at these differences. The United Kingdom and the United States, long partners in a special micro relationship, are especially intertwined in the macro history of New World slavery and its global afterlives.


For a longer, scholarly version of this essay, see the current issue of Caribbean Quarterly, vol. 61, no. 4 (December 2015).


Susan Gillman is the author of several books and many articles on race, literature, and culture.

LARB Contributor

Susan Gillman is the author of Blood Talk: American Race Melodrama and the Culture of the Occult (University of Chicago Press, 2003), Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson: Race, Conflict and Culture, co-edited with Forrest Robinson (Duke University Press, 1990), Dark Twins: Imposture and Identity in Mark Twain's America (University of Chicago Press, 1989). She also co-edited States of Emergency: The Object of American Studies with Russ Castronovo (University of North Carolina Press, 2009) and W. E. B. Du Bois and the Gender of the Color Line with Alys Weinbaum (University of Minnesota Press, 2007). She teaches at UC Santa Cruz. She is working on a book on the strange career of the term “American Mediterranean.”


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