The legacy of slave trade and slavery in the capitals, port towns and hinterlands of former European empires and colonies

Date: 1 September 2017, 01:30–06:30

Venue: Corvinus University, Fővám tér 8, room 336


Please note that there is a break from 3.30 pm - 4 pm.


The Atlantic slave trade and plantation slavery was the economic and social core of European empires with colonies in the Americas and forts in Africa and was connected also with colonies beyond the Atlantic world, with the necessity to sell Indian cloth and Chinese goods to African rulers to buy slaves for the Caribbean plantations. A long time, the impact which slave trade and plantation slavery had on European societies was discussed in academic circles (at least since Eric Williams “Capitalism and Slavery” or with Sydney Mintz “Sweetness and Power”), but it was no part of national, regional and local histories. In the last three decades this has changed, but it at very different rhythms in the former Metropolises. The 200th anniversary of the prohibition of slave trade in Great Britain (2007) and the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in France (1998) opened the debates to the broader public and, with an important participation of the Afro-Caribbean communities, museums and memorials were established like the International Museum of Slavery or the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery in Nantes, and the involvement of port-towns in the traffic of slaves is told in the municipal museums as in Bristol, Nantes and Bordeaux. In Spain and Portugal the process to include the remembrance of slave trade and slavery in local and national history develops more slowly, particularly as very little is known in the broader public about the importance of Spain in the illegal slave trade of the 19th century. In Barcelona a first step is done with a walk remembering the role of the town in the slave trade, and there is at least a digital memory of Lisbon a slave trading and slave holding town. But at many places where a commemoration should be present, there is none or little, like in Madrid (with a total missing of the topic even in the Museo de América) and Cádiz. In the former colonies there was often a gap between the official remembrance of the abolition of slavery or slave resistance, and to admit personally that one is a descendant of slaves. But a slow change from being ashamed to have slave grand-grand-parents to be proud of the African ancestry is on the move.

This panel will be part of (g)local histories of Empires and will look at the legacies of Empires in local places. The papers may refer to monuments, museums and itinerary expositions, to the actual use of historical sites like plantations, big houses and slave barracks, slave cemeteries etc., but also on virtual places of memory or medial/ literary/ artistic forms of remembrance. Besides the analysis of the lieux de mémoire themselves the papers should treat historical and recent political contexts, social and cultural agency and conflicts around the representations of the slavery past.

The tentative planning refers to colleagues who have worked on Atlantic slavery and Empires. In the process of opening for individual papers we would also welcome comparative views on other slave trades/ slaveries or systems of forced labours/ Empires, particularly connected with (South)Eastern Europe.


Ulrike Schmieder (Leibniz University of Hannover)

Christian Cwik (University of the West Indies Trinidad and Tobago)


Ulrike Schmieder (Leibniz University of Hannover)

Christine Chivallon (French National Center for Scientific Research Paris)

Christian Cwik (University of the West Indies Trinidad)

Arno Sonderegger (University of Vienna)



Ulrike Schmieder: Introduction: The legacy of slave trade and slavery in the capitals, port towns and hinterlands of former European empires and colonies

This introduction gives an overview of the panel ideas (see general panel description) and the development of memories on slave trade and slavery. It discusses the historiography and the concept of lieux de mémoire and its application to this topic using the examples of Catalonia and Cuba.

Christine Chivallon: Counter-memories, counter-knowledges: Slavery and the 1870 Insurrection in Martinique through the words of the today witnesses

Current debates about the memory of slavery in the French West Indies have argued that such memories are spontaneously invented rather than transmitted. Taking these debates as a starting point, my purpose will analyse the question that it provokes about memories and cognitive knowledge or traces of slavery. Is there an inter-generational dissemination and circulation of slavery memory? This question refers to the anthropological debate in societies where both sedimented and living memories about slavery have long been deemed absent (“an absence of ruins”). Using research carried out on an historical event that revives the framework of the original master/slave conflict, namely the 1870 insurrection in Martinique, I describe the memory processes this generated. The collection of accounts from descendants of the rebels gives the testimony of family knowledge which has been transmitted until this day, using specific forms related to the consequences of the repression of the rebellion and based explicitly on a shared “primal scene”. Without having lived this event, today’s generations continue to be identified by it and to identify themselves through it. This knowledge calls into question the identification of “souvenirs remémorés” – remembered memories - that the philosopher Paul Ricoeur sees as the result of cognitive experience: something which has been lived in the past, which has left an imprint, and which is recalled through imagination. The subsequent interpretation leads us to review the question of collective memories of slavery through the notions of explicit/implicit knowledge; incorporated/verbalized memories and counter-memories.

Christian Cwik: The legacy of English Slave Trade and Slavery in Bridgetown, Port of Spain and Kingston

The port of Kingston replaced Bridgetown as most important slave port of the English Caribbean during the 18th century. After the decline of Jamaica as sugar-colony during the first decade of the 19th century Port of Spain replaced Kingston as most important slave port of the English Caribbean. Hence these three ports communicate the history of slave trade and slavery against the background of three different centuries. The legacy of both is reflected in urban and rural areas of these island such as plantations, roads, canals, railways and in particular harbour facilities. This paper would like to compare the legacy of English Slave Trade and Slavery by economic and cultural indicators regarding these three ports.

Arno Sonderegger: Remembering & Representing a West African Slaving Port: Ouidah through the Eyes of Bruce Chatwin and Werner Herzog

From the 1670s to the 1860s, Ouidah was the principal commercial center in what Europeans called the slave coast of West Africa. An estimate of 11% of all slaves exported to the Americas (well over one million people) were sold to European merchants at Ouidah which was occupied by Dahomean forces in 1727 becoming, both in size and relevance, second only to the kingdom's inland capital Abomey. Ouidah lost much of its relevance under colonial and postcolonial conditions. Today the town counts roughly 40.000 inhabitants, while the formerly lesser town of Porto Novo (now Benin's capital) has grown to the extent of being home to ten times as many inhabitants, and Cotonou with its international harbor and well over one million inhabitants is Benin`s commercial center.

Benin being a people's republic reigned by Mathieu (Ahmed) Kérékou from 1975 to 1990, there started several fruitful attempts to exploit Ouidah's historical role in the Atlantic slave trade and promote specific monuments, old buildings and past routes in terms of cultural tourism only in the 1990s. In memory of the slave trade, UNESCO, for instance, erected a “Porte du Non Retour” at the beach in 1995, French film maker Elio Suhamy produced the ARTE documentary “La Côte des esclaves” in 1992 giving Ouidah a prominent place, as did the BBC2 production “The African Trade” in 1997 and the episode on “The Slave Kingdoms” in the BBC2 TV series “Into Africa with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” in 1999. The touristic use of various building sites, Vodun shrines and a historical museum – which began in the early 1990s – is still an important source of income.

However, such reinvention of Ouidah for touristic purposes has roots leading back into the times of Kérékou's regime – roots, in fact, which have much to do with exotic and pejorative Western views of Africa in general and Dahomey in particular. In the early 1970's British writer Bruce Chatwin traveled to Benin (then still called Dahomey) and developed an interest in the country's past and present. This led him to write a historical novel called “The Viceroy of Ouidah” published in 1980 which was made into the movie “Cobra Verde” by his friend, German director Werner Herzog in 1987. In their respective works, both indulged in strange mixtures of colonial racist clichés and nostalgia for a lost past. By (mis-)representing the Dahomean past of Ouidah, they created a specific mental lieu de mémoire of the slaving port that is still with us.

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