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The important roles played by Africans in the abolition of slavery to be explored in Leeds public talk


A Leeds Beckett University academic will explore Black history and the anti-slavery movement in the 19th century at a free event held in Leeds.

Dr Rob Burroughs

Taking place on Wednesday 4 October from 12.30-1.30pm at the Leeds Central Library, Dr Rob Burroughs will discuss the roles played by Africans in exposing atrocities in King Leopold’s Congo at the end of the 19th century.

This conversation explores black contributions to humanitarian history, and the ways in which these efforts have sometimes been obscured by attention to the heroics of white anti-slavery activists.

The event, which takes place during Black History Month, is part of Leeds Cultural Conversations – a series of free lunchtime talks organised by the Centre for Culture and the Arts at Leeds Beckett University.

Dr Burroughs explained: “It is increasingly well-known among historians and students that Africans and people of African descent played an important role in the abolition of slavery and slave-trading in the 19th century: not only by rebelling against it but also by participating in humanitarian campaigns against it. However, popular re-tellings of the history of slavery - for example the recent British films 'Amazing Grace' and 'Belle' - continue to emphasise the heroics of white patrons and leaders of the anti-slavery movement. Enslaved Africans sometimes feature in these kinds of texts as passive, often silenced, recipients of white charity, or as ghost-like figures encouraging guilty white slave owners to atone for their past sins.

“If slavery is to be taught in Black History Month then it is vital to avoid these negative representations. But if Black History Month is about recovering the stories of marginalised historical figures in the making of regional and national histories and heritage, then it is important to take a closer look into the history of slavery and the anti-slavery movement, and to recover from its margins the roles of enslaved and formerly enslaved, individuals and groups in ending systems of forced labour.”

In this talk, Dr Burroughs will examine problems in popular representations of slavery, tracing these back to the early 19th century, before turning to some little-known examples of African agency in the fight against forced labour.

Dr Burroughs added: “My examples are from King Leopold II of Belgium’s Congo Free State. Founded in 1885, Leopold’s Congo is rightly remembered as a place of mass murder and terrible atrocities. In my forthcoming book, I reveal for the first time the role of West Africans and Congolese people in bringing evidence of this violence to light. The evidence of Congolese people as to their own oppression played a definite role in ending Leopold’s rule in 1908.”

Dr Burroughs’s book African Testimony in the Movement for Congo Reform will be published by Routledge in 2018. Another volume, The Congo Free State across the Cultures of Fin-de-Siècle Europe, is forthcoming with Liverpool University Press. He has published several articles on imperialism and humanitarianism in the 19th century, as well as the books Travel Writing and Atrocities (paperback 2015) and The Suppression of the Atlantic Slave Trade (paperback 2017).

Upcoming talks within the Leeds Cultural Conversations series include: ‘An appetite for cookery and lifestyle’, presented by Dr Melanie Chan on Wednesday 7 November at Leeds Central Library; ‘Asbestos in Leeds: A history of transnational contamination’, by Dr Jessica Van Horssen on Wednesday 6 December at Leeds Town Hall; and ‘Dystopia, apocalypse and contemporary women’s writing’, by Professor Susan Watkins on Wednesday 7 February at Leeds Town Hall. All talks run from 12.30-1.30pm.

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