Matthew Smith - looking forward

It is with great pleasure that I begin my directorship of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership. The Centre and its associated projects have made incredible achievements in the field of British and Caribbean historiography. Through the weight of intellectual rigor and empirical insistence, and with its publications and public outreach, the Centre has demonstrated unequivocally that the history of slavery and its legacies must be understood as part of the past and present in Britain. The LBS database has become a significant resource for the study of British slave-ownership, with more than one million users to date.

Ours is a monumental, ongoing project for which we have relied on the sterling contributions of an intrepid team the core of which are Nick Draper, Catherine Hall, Keith McClelland and Rachel Lang, our past members, our colleagues in the History Department at University College London (UCL), our funders, students, and the many friends of the project who have engaged closely with us and shared findings and ideas that have significantly enhanced our work.

Much of this success is due to the guidance and leadership of our Chair, Catherine Hall and our inaugural director, Nick Draper. The solid foundation Catherine, Nick and the team laid has opened the space for a new and exciting future for the Centre. It is my honour to lead the Centre into that future.

I am deeply mindful that my directorship begins at a time of intense transformation around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has had considerable consequences for all of us. It has brought into high relief our responsibilities as global citizens and also the uneven distribution of resources among countries and social groups. Lower and middle income countries have battled valiantly to protect their citizens against the virus. We cannot ignore the disproportional impact of the virus on Black and other ethnic communities in the UK and elsewhere. These shocking data have impelled serious consideration of the ways current health crises reflect larger historical legacies of oppression.

Against that backdrop we have experienced the eruption of a global protest movement in support of the human rights of principally Black and minority ethnic populations. The ignition of this activity was the recent horrific murders of unarmed Black US citizens climaxing with the brutal killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis on May 25th. The anger, pain, and determination for meaningful and symbolic change that Floyd’s death has sparked widely among communities from Minneapolis to Mexico, demands a reinvigorated discussion on racism and the powerful injustices that have defined humankind for centuries. It is both the brutality of racial violence and the everyday pressures of racial prejudice on Black and minority ethnic people that must be confronted.

At the heart of this discussion is the legacy of the bondage of Africans and their descendants who have for centuries been unfairly and violently marginalized. Awareness of this fact has provoked public action that reaches far into the past. Recently, the toppling in Bristol of the statue of Edward Colston, a notorious trader of enslaved Africans, underlines the historical import of these events. Many of the threads of the international protest are part of a longer project of reckoning with the legacies of forced labour and abuses of Africans and their descendants.

It has been our mission to encourage a fulsome understanding of what centuries of Black enslavement has meant for nations, societies, and peoples. The shadows of the history of slavery follow us all. The present moment demands that we maintain active and informed dialogue on the roots of that history and its manifold endurances. This is an unshakeable aspect of the intellectual commitment of the work of our Centre, and one that we intend to advance through new research, public engagement, and activities with our community of collaborators within and outside the UK.

I close with gratitude to all our stakeholders for the support you have given our work over the years. I am excited to journey with you as we enter a new phase in the life of the Centre. Over the next few months, I look forward to sharing our plans and vision for the Centre.

Matthew J. Smith Director 12 June 2020