In June 2022, Dr Ffion Mair Jones of the University of Wales Centre for Welsh and Celtic Studies (CAWCS) was awarded a small grant by the Wales Innovation Network (WIN), to examine an account of West Africa, created by Thomas Pennant as part of his manuscript ‘magnum opus’, ‘Outlines of the Globe’. Housed at the National Maritime Museum, volume 11 of the ‘Outlines’ subtitled ‘Nigritia’ (or, elsewhere, ‘Nigritian Africa’), is one of three volumes relating to Africa, in which Pennant takes a coastal journey anticlockwise in a full circle around the continent. Volume 10 begins the journey in North Africa, following the Mediterranean coast from Alexandria in Egypt, via the islands of Madeira, Canary, and Cape Verde to St Louis, Senegal. In volume 11, Pennant continues the journey ‘from the river Senegal to Cape Negro; … Prince’s Isle, Isle of St. Thomas, Isle of Ascension, and that of St. Helena’. His third African volume, entitled ‘Ethiopian Africa’, traces a journey from ‘Cape Negro to the Cape of Good Hope, … mouth of the Red Sea … as far as the Isthmus of Suez’, also visiting notable islands, including Madagascar and the Seychelles.
All three accounts were copied in the hand of an amanuensis (a different hand for the earliest, volume 10) into large folio manuscripts and decorated with a rich offering of engraved prints, drawings, maps, nautical charts, and original watercolours. Volume 11, the centrepiece of this project, has a particular focus on issues relating to the heated debate in Britain and other European countries towards the end of the 1780s about the abolition of the transatlantic trade in enslaved people, a debate reflected in both Pennant’s textual account and in his choice of images. Considered alongside contemporary deliberations about equality and inclusion within communities in Wales and more widely, this has been an important point of discussion for the group of academics and curators who met online during June and July 2021 to begin a process of considering the manuscript’s historical context and its ramifications for our own times. The group consisted of Dr Aaron Jaffer, National Maritime Museum (NMM); Professor Olivette Otele, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London; Professor Andrew Prescott, University of Glasgow; and Professor Bettina Schmidt, University of Wales Trinity St David. We were also joined on one occasion by Professor Chris Evans, University of South Wales; and in a one-to-one discussion by Dr Alexander Scott, International Slavery Museum (ISM).
As a result of considering the difficult questions which arise from the history of enslavement, an association was established with an artist from African heritage, Mfikela Jean Samuel. Born in Cameroon, Mfikela now lives and works in Bangor, Gwynedd, and is a champion of young people of African descent, whom he supports on their creative journeys as artists, with an infectious positivity about their (and his own) African heritage.
Workshop on ‘Slavery, Abolition, and beyond: Thomas Pennant’s account of Western Africa’
The academic and curatorial and creative strands of the project were brought together at an online workshop held on 1 December 2022 with an invited audience, including Dr Azim Ahmed, Cardiff University; Manon Humphreys, National Museum Wales; Dr Aaron Jaffer, NMM; Professor Aled Gruffydd Jones; and Professor Bettina Schmidt, University of Wales Trinity St David. Speakers from the academic world were featured in the morning session, divided into two sections and chaired by Professor Mary-Ann Constantine, CAWCS.
Thomas Pennant, ‘Outlines of the Globe’
Firstly, Dr Rhys Kaminski-Jones and Dr Ffion Mair Jones of CAWCS spoke about Pennant’s ‘Outlines of the Globe’. Dr Rhys Kaminski-Jones, currently exploring Pennant’s ‘Outlines’ as Caird Fellow at the National Maritime Museum, highlighted how Pennant’s ‘imaginary’ view of the world was viewed through the eyes of imperial agents; how, fascinatingly, his prevailing ideas changed according to the region described and reflected the prejudices of his sources (with the account of West Africa featuring the question of race more clearly than any other); and how he identified as a Welshman with the colonialization of India, enacting over it an ‘overlaying of Welshness’. Describing the ‘Outlines’ as a problematic and disturbing text, Dr Kaminski-Jones drew attention to the way in which Pennant, assuming a depersonalized, universal authorial voice from his introductory passages onwards, smoothed over the imperial background of his informants and the ‘grubbier’ business in which they were involved, with the sheen of the Enlightenment era’s intellectualism.
Dr Ffion Mair Jones’s presentation was an introduction to volume 11 of the ‘Outlines’, highlighting its engagement with the abolitionist voices prevalent in Britain from around 1788; showing its condemnation of the historical involvement of Britain in the enslavement of African people; but also displaying Pennant’s love of the discovery of the natural world, enabled only through the work of naturalists employed by the trade in enslaved Africans.
Abolition and the transatlantic trade
Secondly, the discussion moved to historical perspectives. The abolitionist politics of the 1780s and 1790s were discussed by Professor John Oldfield, in a paper sensitive to Pennant’s place in the context of the reform agenda of these decades. He spoke of the establishment of the first anti-slavery society in May 1787, under the title ‘Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade’. In spite of the difficulty of objecting to slavery and the slave trade, viewed as necessary adjuncts of empire (a sentiment present in Pennant’s account of West Africa), the society created a constituency for anti-slavery. Professor Oldfield built a picture of the techniques employed by this group (whose members, many Quakers and / or businessmen, included Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, and the bookseller James Phillips) as they developed their agenda for abolition: their use of literature and prints; and their determination to create a network through travels on horseback to talk to groups in the provinces and ensure a co-ordinated effort between local committees and the London society. Central was the use of petitioning as a political weapon through the campaigns of 1788 and 1792, the latter attracting 519 signatories, the largest petition ever sent to the House of Commons. In Wales, petitions were sent from Cardiff, Swansea, Pembroke, and Haverfordwest, together with Wrexham in the north-east. On the Welsh borders, Shrewsbury and Bridgenorth sent petitions; Chester did not, but its diocese had petitioned parliament against the slave trade in 1788. Pennant, it was suggested, would have been aware of this surge of action.
Professor Chris Evans spoke of the place of Wales within wider Atlantic slavery. Beginning by citing evidence for the huge scale and chronological span involved in slavery between Africa and the New World (between 12.5 million Africans loaded on ships and 10.7 million landed in the New World between 1520 and 1866), he pointed out the particular prominence in the trade of the Caribbean and Brazil (45% of total) and the lower rates for North America (4 to 5%). Britain became a major player in the eighteenth century, and was dominant until the abolition of slavery in 1807. Major databases enabling the interrogation of evidence for transatlantic slavery were cited: Slave Voyages, and Legacies of British Slavery. No transatlantic voyage originated in a Welsh port; the absence of a rich hinterland to provide substantial capital for such ventures was a prohibiting factor. However, Welsh ‘things’ were in play: from the late seventeenth century, woollen textiles originating in southern Merioneth and western Montgomeryshire (as Pennant remarked in his Tours), and copper produced by Welsh industrial works from the early eighteenth century. Wales, like other places on the fringes of the Atlantic world was part of a vast hinterland involved in slavery and, as such, was ‘depressingly normal’.
The representation of slavery: Curatorial views
The afternoon session, chaired by Professor Andrew Prescott, moved focus to questions centred on the representation of slavery involving West Africa and the Atlantic world, with curatorial issues at the forefront of presentations and discussions. Dr Alexander Scott, assistant curator at the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool (ISM) outlined the history and evolution of the museum. He discussed how the museum originated in 1994 as the Transatlantic Slavery gallery within the Merseyside Maritime Museum, before opening under its current name in 2007. Dr Scott also looked ahead to the museum’s current National Lottery-funded transformation project, to be completed by 2026 (https://www.heritagefund.org.uk/projects/hha2019-international-slavery-museum-igniting-ideas-and-action). The transformation project will be based on a community-led model, aiming to empowering people and organisations to be agents of their own change. It also addresses the current situation in which Liverpool’s Black communities feel disconnected from ISM, some thirty years after its initial establishment. Dr Scott explained the concept of ‘co-production’, displaying how it addresses power imbalances by supporting greater public involvement exhibition design. As an example of this, he discussed a community research project on connections between Liverpool museum collections and the Sandbach family, whose wealth derived from plantation slavery. An output of this project has seen a pair of ankle shackles designed for use on enslaved people during transportation installed on permanent display in the Walker Art Gallery’s sculpture gallery. Dr Scott finished by mentioning the use of contemporary art as explored in a 2014 National Lottery Heritage Fund’s Collecting Cultures programme, Challenging Histories: Collecting new artworks project.
Adiva Lawrence, a PhD candidate at the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, University of Hull, and now a colleague of Alexander Scott’s at ISM, spoke of her research on the uses of contemporary art in the exploration of transatlantic slavery and offered reflections on how her discoveries might be used in her post at ISM. Centering her discussion on the French overseas territory of Guadeloupe, her reading of Minia Biabiany, ‘Qui vivra verra, qui mourra saura’ (2019), presented at CRAC Alsace, focused on the processes by which history was erased on the islands, with aspects of knowledge among the African-heritage population not transmitted from generation to generation. Speaking of the unequal balance of historical documents and art pieces on display at Mémorial ACTe: Centre Caribéen d’Expressions et de Mémoire de la traite et de l’esclavage in Guadeloupe, a centre located in Guadeloupe, she drew attention to the difficulties of counterbalancing dry historical narrative with contemporary art, the latter designed to trigger an emotional response. Her research feeds into her work at ISM, where she seeks methodologies for making the work of artists intelligible for a diverse public without questions becoming lost in apparent complexity; and queries the level of guidance on pressing issues of our day explored in artworks at the museum (e.g. human trafficking).
The final speaker was the artist Mfikela Jean Samuel. His vision of Pennant’s West Africa account differed in its focus and lies behind the title of the workshop: ‘Slavery, Abolition, and beyond’. He questioned the general view of Africa which he encounters in his new home in Wales as inextricably linked to the history of slavery. Africa is so much more, and slavery is only one small part of its story. He explained that this was his outlook as he engaged with over 130 images from Thomas Pennant’s manuscript account of West Africa and made a selection from them on which to base his work as a creative artist for this project. Showing us work in progress, he displayed drawings reacting to the manuscript’s preoccupation with enslavement but also spoke of plans for a more positive view of Africa in further drawings. To read more about the exhibition featuring Mfikela Jean Samuel’s work on Pennant’s West Africa manuscript account, see here.