Interview with James Walvin

Photo of James Walvin

Professor James Walvin is at the forefront of the historical research on the subject of Britain and the slave trade. Throughout the bicentenary year he's assisted in a variety of museum displays, lectures and publications. In this interview he describes his work during 2007 and the role of the government in shaping and informing the marking of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. The interview was conducted on the 12th of June 2007 between Professor James Walvin, Geoff Cubitt and Helen Weinstein, identified respectively as JW, GC and HW throughout this edited interview.

GC: We wanted today to ask you to talk about the role of the government in shaping the bicentenary. What kind of a role has it been?

JW: Well government I think came late in a way, I think government came to it after parliament itself, if that makes sense. My initial involvement, and therefore the way I see it, came about with my involvement through the Houses of Parliament and the decision to have an exhibition organised by Parliament in Westminster Hall. That I think generated growing interest amongst the politicians for what was going on, and also getting feedback from local constituencies that 2007 was looming and something had to be done about it. From being asked to be the historical curator for the Parliament exhibition I was then put on a committee that John Prescott then deputy Prime Minister organised. The Deputy Prime Ministers office organised an advisory committee of interested parties of various groups, of NGOs, community leaders and spokesmen. It was chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister, part-time chaired occasionally by other ministers when he wasn't around, really to monitor what was going on, and I think from that committee, that became a kind of engine in a way within government itself for other activities. The real mover and shaker I suspect, and this is me just reading into it, was David Lammy in the Department of Culture. I think the Ministers and MPs either of West Indian origin or West Indian constituencies realised that here was an opportunity to go high-profile on something that was not merely historical but also had a kind of contemporary resonance to it.

GC: Could you say a little bit more about how that came about. Who within Parliament for example had this idea and wanted to run with it?

JW: It actually goes back before this particular commemoration, it really starts with an old York graduate, in fact, Tony Banks, who had been MP. He was a Junior Minister and Chair of the House of Commons I think. Parliament has a fantastic collection of art; paintings, drawings, paper items. I mean it's huge, almost 7000 items apparently. And Tony Banks said, 'let's make these available to the public, let's have them in some kind of public display.' That coincided as I remember, as I've heard it told, with Lord Putnam's report on accessibility to Parliament itself, to the physical buildings, and the proposal that there should be greater public access. My first involvement was, I was giving a talk in Bristol, to a very big gathering at the British Commonwealth and Empire Museum. A lady stepped up from the audience afterwards, and said would you be interested in talking to us further about Parliament, and that was Melanie Unwin, who's the professional curator for the Commons, for Parliament, and we talked, talked some more, and I then talked to her seniors and then they signed me up.

GC: And that was when?

JW: That would have been 18 months before the opening, perhaps two years. I've certainly been involved actively for 18 months, I suspect that the initial discussions were some months before that.

GC: What was the kind of knock on from that to a governmental interest in this?

JW: I think it began to get more and more high profile because of the bureaucratic complexities of this, which are simply fantastic. I asked them to draw up a line of command for me at one point. I said if I do something wrong, who sacks me? And it was quite extraordinary, I've never seen anything like it, labyrinthine isn't the word. It's all to do with who governs what, but basically they put in place an advisory group of members of both houses, the Lords and the Commons, to oversee what that committee was doing for the exhibition for 2007. Once you've done that you've then got MPs on board, and then you have the Lords on board, so you have both sides, and once you had those on board you then had, and you also had to try and think who would be the most appropriate people to represent the two houses in terms of ethnic backgrounds and gender. At that point it becomes highly politicised, and I think at this point the government became very interested. It creates a kind of parallel interest in the government machinery.

GC: So that advisory group is quite distinct from the later advisory group which is chaired by John Prescott?

JW: Yes, that's a governmental advisory group, this was a parliamentary advisory group, an advisory group of both houses, as I recall it.

GC: And then when was the advisory group chaired by John Prescott set in place?

JW: Not a clue. That would be an interesting question. I was just a member, I was invited and I turned up.

HW: When you went to that first meeting, who was there?

JW: A lot of people I knew from museums I've worked with.

GC: Were there people there from faith groups?

JW: Yes, there were indeed.

HW: And were there other historians there?

JW: I was the only historian; well, I was the only one there. Others may have been invited, but I think I was the only academic.

HW: And, do you remember from that meeting who were the key speakers, what did they say you were there for?

JW: Well, the first thing that struck me was what an active role John Prescott played. He was very good at going round the table, getting people to introduce who they were, what they had to say, what they thought they could say give.

GC: Was that discussion very much premised on the assumption that government ought to take some sort of role if not in co-ordinating at least in some way shaping a sort of bicentenary commemoration?

JW: Oh I think that it was pretty clear.

HW: What did you say at that meeting?

JW: I just said who I am, what I do, what I've done. I think we were asked to think about what we thought 2007 should be. And there I've got a kind of a mantra really; its not just the history of it, this is not just about the slave trade this is actually an opportunity of rethinking important issues in British history and the relationship between Empire and the heartland. And that, actually became a very interesting thing. Two meetings down the line, the Minister of Education, Johnson, the other Hull MP, was chairing. He really picked up interest when I said this whole this isn't just about black history, it's not about black people, it's about white people, it's not just about the West Indies or Africa but us, it's what made us what we are. I think that information that flowed in and out of these discussions, and parallel discussions, has influenced the Department of Education in terms of the development of the curriculum.

GC: Is that the first time you felt that it was on the agenda? Curriculum change?

JW: I never thought of it like that. But it was the first time it struck me that actually something was going to happen.

GC: Was there talk at that meeting or at later meetings about possibilities of a particular kind of commemorative day, perhaps an annual thing?

JW: Oh yes. That floated in and out, and of course there are days already. August the 23rd, that was raised a number of times, how it could be institutionalized in the calendar. And then people say well we have one already, then well shall we use that, shall we transfer it to somewhere else, should we make it a different day, and of course at that point you've got all kinds of agendas kicking in...

HW: Could you describe some of those?

JW: Well, the reparations brigade, although they've been pretty marginal on this committee, there were people who popped up occasionally, who give you a much fiercer spin on what this is about. How we should really be giving money to Africa, or giving every black person £15, that's never far from the surface.

GC: Do you think that sort of view has had any way of making contact with Governmental thinking, during this planning period or even subsequently?

JW: Oh it has, I think it has. I think it's actually been taken on board, in a really important way. The Commission of Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips has said he wants to talk about the issue, not of reparations, but of actually using that concept in a very positive way. He said he'd like to go to those institutions that actually have some direct link with the slave trade, and talk not about guilt or anything like that, but about joining together to create a fund which creates a scholarship scheme and education scheme for the deprived kids of the black community.

GC: Moving away from Government, what do you think the role of faith groups especially the Church of England have had in shaping the way this bicentenary is seen more generally within society.

JW: I don't know, I really don't know. They've had these big set piece commemorations at York Minster and Westminster Abbey. The one at Westminster Abbey was extraordinary. I think that it must have made a big impact. I do know its the honest foot soldiers of the movement that have made this, people like Linda Ali who have put in a huge amount of work, you know, pushing this across the country and addressing churches and popping up like Clarkson, that's where the impact has been made.

GC: I'm just asking your opinion really on the way the Archbishops behaved particularly over questions about apology and thinking about apology, do you think that's very much been a response to the foot soldier activity. Or is it something that's coming more from the top down?

JW: I think its a mix of all those things. Archbishop Williams and Archbishop Sentamu are both very cerebral things, and they've given a lot of serious spiritual thought to this. And I think they've genuinely thought of this as a kind of moral issue.

HW: And as you've been meeting members of advisory groups, members at various events over the last couple of months, what kind of things have they been talking to you about? Has it been what you've hoped or expected?

JW: My sense is that almost everyone is surprised by how much interest there's been. By how much publicity it's generated. I think most people have said it's been really surprising and anyone like me who's been on the road a lot have been very surprised by the number of people turning up. I've never had such numbers of people turning up, big crowds and full houses. I'm not just saying that's me, all my friends are saying they've not had these crowds. Interestingly the crowds have been white not black, even within cities, the exceptions would be at churches.

GC: What sot of messages do you think is there particularly for white audiences attending these talks?

JW: I think it's the darker side of British history in a way. You still do get the opinion that we should be remembered as abolitionists, but I always reply, well what happened two hundred years beforehand. I think the pointing out the preface to abolition is something that to a lot of people comes as a revelation, that we were the great slave traders before the great abolitionists.

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