Hidden Connections: Introduction
Marking the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade
The Hidden Connections exhibition is at the centre of a wider programme to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807.
It is little wonder that William Wilberforce, the principal parliamentary architect of that victory, was reduced to tears by the praise of speaker after speaker as eventual success came after twenty years of parliamentary struggle.
Slavery had existed throughout the world, and in Ireland, in previous eras. The modern slave trade developed on a new and massive scale following the discovery by colonists that the Caribbean climate was particularly suited to sugarcane cultivation, also a labour intensive crop.
This opened the floodgates to an insatiable demand for African slaves to work the plantations. A notorious triangular trade developed in which ships from Britain and Europe carried goods to West Africa, exchanged them for slaves, who were then shipped in appalling conditions to the West Indies, with the ships then returning home laden with sugar and other plantation produce.
This is a history in which Ulstermen and women played a distinguished part in the campaign against slavery. It is also one in which others owned slaves and plantations, and the rising prosperity of Belfast (including that of antislavers), even though it did not involve directly trading in slaves, depended substantially on trade with the slave colonies.
Slavery was not finally abolished in the British Empire until after 1807, and in the United States until later still. Even today slavery emerges in new forms. Hidden Connections is concerned with honest exploration of Ulster’s links with this trajectory.
As with so many aspects of our history, there are difficulties and complexities to be addressed, but in this case they run across our conventional divisions. Evangelical zeal and biblical endorsement was central to the antislavery impetus, but supporters of slavery also found biblical justification. Daniel O’Connell was a determined opponent of slavery, while his ‘radical’ Young Ireland rival, John Mitchel, was a leading advocate of the institution.
Our journey has been made possible by the generous support of the Heritage Lottery Fund. Hidden Connections has depended on a major partnership between the Linen Hall Library and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.
Thanks are also due to a wide range of other institutions and individuals for the loan of items and images including: the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, Armagh County Museum, Belfast City Council, the Bridgeman Art Gallery, the Cowper and Newton Museum, Gerry McLoughlin, Gordon Flanagan, the National Library of Ireland, Nini Rodgers, Trinity College, the Ulster Museum, and Wilberforce House.