Slavery Family Trees Exhibition hopes to transform the future by facing the past

Poster advertising the exhibition and graphics depicting black slavery

A call for local people to visit a Lancaster city centre exhibition telling the story of the area’s link to transatlantic slavery has been made.

The Slavery Family Trees Community Research Exhibition was launched in October 2022 at Lancaster City Museum and runs until February 26, 2023.

It is a collaboration between Lancaster Black History Group (LBHG), Lancaster University, University of Central Lancashire and Lancaster Museums.

The LBHG project ‘Slavery Family Trees’ was led by Dr Sunita Abraham, Geraldine Onek, Professor Alan Rice, Professor Imogen Tyler, Jamie Reynolds and Dr Nicholas Radburn.

Funded by Necessity, the project worked with local schools, university students, voluntary organisations, community and faith groups from across the district to research and record some of Lancaster’s most prolific merchant families involved in Atlantic slavery.

The Slavery Family Trees exhibition was curated in partnership with Sophie Merrix, a doctoral student in the History department who is working as an intern with Lancaster Museums.

“In facing the past more honestly, it is our hope to transform the future,” says Prof Imogen Tyler.

She adds: “Between 1700─1800 at least 122 ships sailed from the port of Lancaster to the coast of Africa where Lancastrian merchants were involved in the capture of an estimated 23,000 African men, women and children.

“These enslaved Africans would go on to be sold in the Caribbean and Americas, and while their lives often involved hard labour on plantations, they continuously resisted the violence, torture and degradation they experienced at the hands of European colonists.”

Sophie Merrix highlights that wealthy merchant families spent the profits from slavery and slave-produced goods on building houses, investing in trade, enterprise, and infrastructure.

“They bought luxury goods and commissioned portraits of themselves,” she adds. “To secure their wealth they formed strong business partnerships and married off their children into each other’s families.”

They participated in two types of trades ─ the triangular transatlantic slave trade and direct trading of goods with the West Indies (Caribbean) and Americas.

The effects of this trade are still evident in Lancaster, in the architecture, road and place names, and graveyards. The legacies of this period persist also in the enduring racism experienced by many Black British citizens today.

Members of the community research project have gone on to collaborate with Lancaster University Library, Sewing Café Lancaster, Lancashire Archives, Lancaster Priory, Lancaster Judges Lodgings Museums, the Decolonising Lancaster University Network and Lancaster Museums.

Sewing Café Lancaster (a community group) collaborated with LBHG to design and create the slavery banner artwork that highlights the lives of 18th century Black Lancastrians.

Members of the Sewing Cafe contributed more than 1000 hours towards the project. This ‘travelling’ slavery banner was first exhibited at Lancaster University Library in November 2021 and has since moved to the Judges Lodgings Museum before coming to the City Museum.

The community research inspired Lancaster University Library to create ‘Glocal Collection’ (global stories with local links) which focuses on texts associated with Lancaster, Lancashire and Atlantic slavery, which through the new Library community lending card is freely accessible to all members of the local community.

The University’s library has recently won a national award which acknowledges their collaboration on the Slavery Family Trees Conference which was hosted in the library in November 2021, their work on the Glocal collection and the development of the community lending card – all initiatives that are linked to the Slavery Family Trees Community Research project.

The exhibition is an example of how Lancaster university has supported staff and student-led initiatives while also encouraging an array of engagement opportunities with the local public and various local organisations and community groups.

“If you have not already visited the exhibition, please do come along!” adds Dr Abraham.

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