Phantoms of the Past offers a unique opportunity to travel across the Atlantic Ocean, visit the United Kingdom and participate in a transatlantic research project. It was one of the highlights of my time as an undergraduate and I will never forget it!
During Reading Week in February 2019, I travelled to the UK with a group of Huron faculty and students as part of the Phantoms of the Past project. As a fourth year History major, this was an exciting opportunity for me to examine how Canada and the United Kingdom remember and commemorate the histories of transatlantic slavery and anti-slavery through a week-long research trip.
Much like the annual Department of History trip to Oberlin College, exploring the sites of memory offered a unique learning opportunity that could not be replicated in a classroom environment. While any lecture could point out how the city of Bath, England, grew on the back of the transatlantic slave trade, visiting Beckford’s Tower and the homes of slave owners allowed for a firsthand account at how Bath’s colonial past lingers throughout the urban environment.
As the research essay I was completing focused on the transatlantic visual culture of Josiah Henson, I found the differences in how Canada and the United Kingdom remember and commemorate Henson the most striking aspect of the trip. While Henson is visible in Canada’s memory of slavery and anti-slavery, his identity is contested with “Uncle Tom” due to the fact that his slave narrative is believed to have inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).
However, throughout our travels in England, it was difficult to find any traces of Henson or other black abolitionists, as they did not fit in with the English government's method of commemoration that focuses on the efforts of the English parliament in ending the slave trade. The closest connection I found was a statue of Uncle Tom and Eva in the M Shed Museum in Bristol, but the item’s description made no mention of Henson or any other black abolitionists. Instead, the description emphasized that the English Parliament abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in 1834, and many members of parliament participated in the abolitionist movement. Even though Henson and other black abolitionists frequently travelled to the United Kingdom to talk about their experience as slaves and their efforts in the abolitionist movement, they have been largely forgotten about in British public memory.
If any student (not just History students—it is an interdisciplinary project with English students!) wishes to examine how the histories of transatlantic slavery and anti-slavery are remembered in the United Kingdom or Canada, I would highly recommend applying next time the Phantoms project runs. It offers a unique opportunity to travel across the Atlantic Ocean, visit the United Kingdom and participate in a transatlantic research project. It was one of the highlights of my time as an undergraduate and I will never forget it!
By: Thomas Lang (History’19)