Strangers’ Hall: Black History Month

Cathy Terry, Senior Curator of Social History

As part of Black History Month we at Strangers’ Hall, along with the other museums of Norfolk Museums Service, are celebrating Black history, heritage and culture. In the spirit of this year’s theme DIG DEEPER, LOOK CLOSER, THINK BIGGER. We’re looking at how Black history is represented in or collection and what we’re doing to acknowledge, address and improve how we collect and share these stories.

As social history curators we look at objects in our collections to ‘ take a long view’ on present day issues to gain insight into how these same issues were approached in the past. One pertinent example in Norfolk is the long fight against enslavement and human trafficking. Museum collections contain many objects relating abolitionism (the campaign to abolish slavery and the slave trade), from an anti-slavery sugar bowl to this ‘dissected puzzle’ (jigsaw puzzle). Published around 1815 by  E. Wallis of Skinner Street, London, a maker of numerous instructional board games and puzzles, it tells the story of coffee growing and processing in words and pictures, concluding with an abolitionist message in support of enslaved people upon whose labour the whole coffee enterprise rested.

The caption reads,

“How comfortably these good people are seated round the blazing hearth, and how little, probably, are they thinking of the misery of those poor negroes, who, stolen from their native land, and separated from their children, and all they loved, are driven by blows, and too often by greater cruelties to their daily task, without hope of deliverance, till death”.

We might guess that such games were a persuasive means of gathering support in a subtle way among the Norfolk gentry and middle classes.

Most people in Norfolk have heard of the prominent white figures from the region who actively campaigned against slavery and the slave trade in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Less well-known are the Black speakers who inspired them such as Ottobah Cugoano, Oludah Equiano and later Moses Roper who toured Britain giving talks about their experiences of enslavement. Many Norfolk towns welcomed Black speakers and some speakers even visited smaller village venues such as Shelton and Saxlingham Nethergate.

‘The Interesting Narrative of The Life of Olaudah Equiano’

 In1794 a public subscription from numerous Norfolk worthies paid for publication of the eighth edition of book The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa,, The African, written by Himself. Over the next few decades the groundswell of public opinion grew as numerous ant-slavery public meetings were held in Norwich and across Britain. A petition of over 17,000 signatures was collected at St Andrews Hall in 1828. The road to ending slavery was a long one with many setbacks, but victories were eventually secured in the Abolition of the Slave Trade 1807, the Slavery Abolition Act in1833 and the ending of slavery in America in 1865.

Moses Roper

Despite its abolition nearly two hundred years ago the legacy of slavery has perpetuated racial injustices to the present day. Whereas formerly the work of white abolitionists often took centre stage, current historical investigation seeks to recover the broader transatlantic perspective of the abolitionist campaign, to make the lives of formerly enslaved people more visible and highlight the role they played in initiating protests and inspiring support in Britain by adding this information to museum documentation and interpretation.

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