LJMU English’s Michael Morris was delighted to be invited to take part in the seminar ‘Abolition, Memory and Time’ at Hospitalfield House in Arbroath in North East Scotland on 16th April 2016. This amazing venue is currently developing as an Arts Centre, and this, its inaugural seminar, was based around Graham Fagen’s exhibition Scotland + Venice 2015, previously at the Venice Biennale.
Fagen’s exhibition is based around the story of Robert Burns’ near emigration to work as a book-keeper on a slave plantation in Jamaica. Fagen took an abolitionist song ‘The Slave’s Lament’ often attributed (though on fragile evidence) to Burns, and recorded a new version with reggae artist Ghetto Priest.
The seminar opened out the topic of the exhibition to explore Scottish connections with Atlantic slavery and the continuing importance of questions of race in the present. In particular, connections with the North East were emphasised: as Montrose had been a key port in the tobacco and rum trades, slave ships had left from its port.
A centrepiece of the day was a very rarely seen book by Thomas Smith, a sailor from Arbroath, who recounted his experiences on slave ships in 1762. On loan from the archives of the National Library of Scotland Narrative, of an unfortunate voyage to the coast of Africa was published locally in 1813. It contains Smith’s ‘Remarks on the Slave Trade’ which seem to have been made to two abolitionists who visited him to gather evidence for their campaign.
The seminar was well attended and will stimulate further discussion in Scotland and the North East. Its interdisciplinary focus reflects that of Michael’s own work.