Revisionist Biographies: Forgetting and Remembering Slavery

Biography as a research method has been central to the ‘new transnational histories’ of the last two decades. As well as those beneficiaries listed in the LBS database who can be shown to have travelled to Swan River, further links can be identified via family, business or broader associations operating across metropolitan and colonial networks, members of which were active both within British slavery in the Caribbean, and in its new colonies. Who were these people, and what were their life stories, at Swan River and beyond? What implications does this context have for theories of colonisation, then and now?

Imperial Networking

Complicated transnational networks helped maintain systems of slave trading and slave holding within and beyond the British Empire. The deep and enduring links between British ports, West African slave forts, and Caribbean plantations, for example, are well documented. Through similar mechanisms, the financial and intellectual legacies of slave ownership were conveyed from the West Indies and the United Kingdom throughout the British Empire. Informed by the literature on imperial networks and trajectories, and their conscious development and extension in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, biographical data about WA recipients of compensation will be used to explore how connections between the Caribbean, India and the southern settler colonies were enhanced and utilised. Taking advantage of the relatively small database of WA recipients of slave compensation, this project will marry prosopographical (collective biography) analysis with digital mapping techniques to represent imperial networks graphically. Applied in the context of Australia, this extends the existing LBS resources, where digital mapping is limited to the static depiction of Caribbean estates and the known addresses of British recipients of compensation.

Picturing Citizenship featured image

Sugar cane in the garden of Strawberry Hill, residence of A.P. Burt, Adelaide Terrace, Perth (photograph by Alfred Hawes Stone, 1862, State Library of Western Australia, 6923B/182). 

Unfree Labour

Given WA’s unique use of juvenile, convict, and Aboriginal labour, was British slavery influential in shaping its distinctive labour history? The ascendant anti-slavery movement insisted upon the distinction between ‘black’ slavery and free ‘white’ labour. Regulated but free white labour was constitutive of the settler colony. However, this created acute labour shortages leading to experiments in Asian labour, transportation of juvenile offenders from 1842, and convicts between 1849 and 1868. From the 1870s, Western Australia also sought to address its labour shortage through Aboriginal and child labour. The pastoral and pearling industries in the North West became notorious sites of 'blackbirding'. New research examines the significance of WA’s ‘late’ frontier in revealing the intersection of labour exploitation, violence and modernity, arguing that because WA remained under British governance until 1890 it therefore offers a clear picture of British policy throughout this period.

Digitally Mapping Slavery Networks

A key component of the overall project will be its contribution of new information to the People Australia authoritative online database maintained by the National Centre of Biography at the Australian National University. Through network analysis, new connections will be revealed linking Australian connections to the history of slavery. The project will produce an online exhibition to communicate research results to Australian and global audiences in an accessible way and for educational purposes. This will include visualisation and digital mapping of slavery networks to understand the legacies of British slavery in Western Australia in the broader historical context of slavery from past to present. Links will be made with the Legacies of British Slavery (LBS) database at the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership at University College London.