Published on 06/10/2021
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Birmingham's industrial links to the slave trade - image of statue overlay on runaway slave advert
  • Industrial pioneers who helped slave traders included steam engine inventors Matthew Boulton and James Watt, along with gunmaker Samuel Galton
  • Factories in the West Midlands also provided slave chains and neck collars
  • New digital archives reveal newspaper adverts that tell touching stories about runaway slaves

A research project that examines digital archives around slavery and its subsequent abolition has revealed Birmingham's past involvement in the shameful trade.

The studies led by Dr Joseph Yannielli, a lecturer in history at Aston University, show how the 'workshop of the world', as Birmingham was known, contributed to the global slave trade during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Dr Yannielli spoke about his research in the latest episode of the 'Society matters' podcast series, presented by journalist Steve Dyson.

The academic, who previously worked at the Yale and Princeton universities in the USA, continued his research projects involving digital history on his arrival at Aston University.

He said: "I was really surprised when I got here how deeply Birmingham was involved in the slave trade because, traditionally, it isn't seen as a hub for the slave trade. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was the so-called workshop of the world so there was a lot of industry.”

He explained how Birmingham’s famous steam engine inventors Matthew Boulton and James Watt were “involved in the slave trade” and how they had “attempted to ship steam engines to Caribbean slave holders”. He said that Birmingham’s huge gun-manufacturing sector was also involved, with firearms sold and used to help capture and subdue slaves.

Dr Yannielli said: "The gun trade in Birmingham became controversial. One particular gun manufacturer in Birmingham, Samuel Galton, was caught up in this and so we look at his stories in our classes.”

Further research into digital archives discovered that neck collars made by the Hiatt company in Birmingham were used to imprison slaves, while chains made in the city and Black Country served a similar purpose.

Dr Yannielli said: "There is a big statue of Horatio Nelson in the Bull Ring, Birmingham, and what I discovered with my students is that it's actually a sister statue of one that was erected in Bridgetown, Barbados and, very explicitly, by slave holders."

Nelson was known to have supported the slave trade and was opposed to the abolition movement, and this formed another of Dr Yannielli’s classroom-led research assignments.

He said: "I have had my students investigate this and had them update the Wikipedia page for the Nelson statue in Birmingham to include this information.”

Dr Yannielli said another particular interest for him was digital archives of old newspapers showing adverts for runaway slaves.

He said: "They are advertisements for runaway property, people, who escaped their enslavement. They show up everywhere touched by the slave trade. Each ad tells a story in microcosm, such as one about Romeo and Juliet, two runaway slaves who lived on different plantations in Virginia. In a way, this tells a love story that otherwise would have been lost.”

Dr Yannielli was previously involved in the Princeton Slavery Project which developed at a time of increasing student activism in the US and UK. This has since led to him teaching Aston University students about issues such as colonialism and removing statues.

He said slavery had existed for thousands of years going back to biblical times, and the legacies of the slave trade are still with us today.

Dr Yannielli added: "The reason the history of slavery seems so urgent right now is because the process of emancipation is still incomplete. The battles over statues and street names and university campuses are a symptom of this struggle and a sign we are moving in the right direction.

"We have established a placement opportunity here at Aston [University] for our students to dig into Birmingham's industrial history and heritage, and how it’s remembered and taught today. Because we can’t change the future unless we understand the past.”

Series 2, episode 2 of the ‘Society matters’ podcast and all previous episodes can be found here:
Notes to editors

About Aston University

Founded in 1895 and a University since 1966, Aston is a long established university led by its three main beneficiaries – students, business and the professions, and our region and society. Aston University is located in Birmingham and at the heart of a vibrant city and the campus houses all the university’s academic, social and accommodation facilities for our students. Professor Alec Cameron is the Vice-Chancellor & Chief Executive.

Aston University was named University of the Year 2020 by The Guardian and the University’s full time MBA programme has been ranked in the top 100 in the world in the Economist MBA 2021 ranking. The Aston MBA has been ranked 12th in the UK and 85th in the world.

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