Historical slavery and reparative justice in Nottingham
Dr James Dawkins, Nottingham universities and historical slavery
March 2007 marked 300 years since the abolition of slavery by the British provoking self-reflection from academics across universities in England. Dr James Dawkins points out that whereas in the past, there has been little research or reflection on enslavement, self-liberation and a whitewashing of history, the question of the origins of our institutions is more pertinent than ever. After the University of Glasgow and Saint John’s College Oxford, UoN is the third university to announce that it will be investigating its links to slavery. Dr Dawkins is the principle investigator on this 18-month research project ending in May 2021. The aim is to investigate the history of UoN and Nottingham Trent University (NTU) through the colonial lens, establishing the extent to which universities were founded and developed from profits made from Transatlantic slavery. In particular, Dr Dawkins explores the links between slavery and the garment, hosiery and lace factories which grew off the back of cotton around the city in the 1700s, generating employment and significant fortunes. Some of the cotton was sourced from slave cotton plantations in the US. The main questions are whether the enterprising families which benefited from slavery made donations to the University and, if so, what this would mean for the university: in terms of transparency, an acknowledgment of a past connection with slavery, and proposals for reparation.
The key components of the project include engagement with the Afro-Caribbean community in Nottingham, who are descendants of slaves and often remain on the socio-economic margins, and the development of recommendations for reparation in close collaboration with them as well as with UoN students. Dr Dawkins points out that the Afro-Caribbean community is concerned as to how seriously UoN will take this research in terms of follow up and follow through. In previous interactions with academics, there has been a mining of data from them as research subjects for outputs in terms of publication with little impact on their lives.
The reparation will be commensurate with the benefits accrued by the university and will take a number of forms: visible patrimony, such as a monument or a building named after enslaved people or abolitionists, but especially structural, systemic change that would enable BAME colleagues to access senior positions at UoN. The project will also lead to positive action to actively encourage Afro-Caribbean students to visit, apply, access UoN, with fees waived or subsidised by way of reparation.
Dr Dawkins is in conversation with the Race Disparity Unit over the policy potential of his research in terms of reparative justice to slave descendants in Nottingham. He aims to establish best practices that are inclusive of the voice, agency and decision-making of the Afro-Caribbean community, and that could be replicated across institutions nationally. While Dr Dawkins acknowledges that it is challenging for one university to influence Government, a united front including key partners in the field of reparative justice, including Bristol, Liverpool, Cambridge and other leading universities, would have significantly more impact. The Nottingham Universities and Historical Slavery project steering group, which comprises senior academic members of staff and key stakeholders from the city’s local community, are acutely aware of the chronic underutilisation of local archives by Black and Asian Minority Ethnic people. To encourage and support more individuals identifying as such (particularly those of African-Caribbean heritage) with the exploration of the archives, Dr Dawkins will be working towards establishing a series of archival workshops that local BAME residents can attend to assist with the examination of manuscripts related to Nottingham’s Universities and historical slavery. Dr Dawkins’s work addresses two key Areas of Interest of the National Archives: “What participation, learning and engagement opportunities can we offer around our collections to reach new audiences?” and “Core research challenges: Enhancing representation and diversity in the archive.”