Slavery, Evil Deeds, and Re-thinking the Past: A basis for discussion

Co-presented with the Department of History, SOPHI, the University of Sydney

Professor James Walvin
16 March, 2011

Why you should listen

In 1781 a British slave ship, the Zong, left West Africa carrying 442 Africans, arriving in Jamaica with only 208. Many had died in the crossing, but 132 had been thrown overboard by the crew, whose aim was to claim for the Africans on the ship’s insurance. But why should the crew deliberately kill people they intended to sell for a profit? And what transformed an ordinary group of sailors into mass-murderers?

There has been a recent and expansive interdisciplinary literature inspired by the history of genocide and mass killings. In the process, scholars have turned their attention to the concept of ‘evil’ as a historical force: What is it, what brings it about, what makes ordinary people do terrible deeds? Can historians begin to rethink Atlantic slavery in the context of this debate? And what do we learn from the example of one single slave ship, the Zong in 1781-1783?

Professor James Walvin

James Walvin is Professor of History Emeritus at University of York. He is a world renowned scholar of the Transatlantic slave trade, and a pioneer in the unearthing the history of Black Britain. James is the author or editor of thirty books. This includes Black Presence: A Documentary History of the Negro in England (1971), Black and White: The Negro and English Society, the winner of the 1975 Martin Luther King Memorial Prize and was described by the New York Times as one of the ` 'Notable Books of the Year'. Recent books by James Walvin include Making the Black Atlantic: Britain and the African Diaspora (2000), Britain's Slave Empire (2000), The People's Game. The History of Football Revisited (2000) and The Only Game. Football in Our Times (2001), English Urban Life: 1776-1851 (2006), The Trader, the Owner, the Slave: Parallel Lives in the Age of Slavery (2007) and a Short History of Slavery (2007).

James Walvin has visited universities in Barbados, Australia, Britain, Africa and Yale, where he has held various fellowships, including a recent one at the Yale Center for British Art. In addition to academic positions, as Professor of History and Provost, he has actively pursued a career as a public historian, largely in museums and galleries as an advisor and consultant for exhibitions. He was the British government advisor for the abolition celebrations in 2007 and he has recently been instrumental in developing a collaborative seminar with the Gilder Lehrman Center and York's Department of History for educators in the US the UK and West Africa to explore the history of the Middle Passage.