Neither ‘smoking gun’ nor ‘alibi’: Imbrications in Durham’s ‘Black’ history

Sep 29, 2023 | Absence/presence of Durham’s Black History, Projects, Transformations (Issue 10)

Neither ‘smoking gun’ nor ‘alibi’: Imbrications in Durham’s ‘Black’ history

Dr Liam Liburd (History), Dr Sol Gamsu (Sociology), Professor Nayanika Mookherjee (Anthropology)

Co PIs Dr Sol Gamsu, Dr Liam Liburd with PVC EDI Dr Shaid Mahmood.

The Development Project Absence/presence of Durham’s Black History: An exploration of institutions, archives, students and pedagogies developed from a synergy between our different research contexts of that of memorialisation (Mookherjee), race, racism, and white supremacism (Liburd) and elite educational institutions (Gamsu). We organised several events in Epiphany term to build upon existing synergies emerging from discussions within Durham’s BAME network and the departments of Anthropology, History and Sociology. We focused on institutions, concepts, methods across disciplines and beyond academia to question the known disciplinary parameters (and impact) on the absence/presence of Durham’s ‘black’ (meaning the politically black) history. Within this context the project was keen to explore the absence-presence of this black history in Durham’s in its black students, its overseas educational institutions, its built structures and archives.

Ms. Morise Ogunyimika (Postgraduate Researcher, Department of Sociology) and BAME network co-chair speaking during the launch of the development programme.

The development project’s first aim was to consolidate the research synergies in the University on this theme. In our first meeting, we explored the expertise and knowledge across the university on the main themes of the project. We engaged with staff from across the university, from across a range of academic departments but also within Professional Services like international office, EDI team and Palace Green Library. Beyond this, we also made connections with colleagues within and beyond academia outside of Durham. The project established an extensive network of Durham and non-Durham colleagues and we have been updating the links, different departments might have to the history of the enslaved thereby allowing us to make connections across the four faculties in the university. The event started with an introduction by our PVC EDI Shaid Mahmood and was followed by a presentation by staff and postgraduate students: Dr Jonathan Bush (Archivist in the University Library and Collections), Morise Ogunyimika (Postgraduate Researcher, Department of Sociology), and Dr Rui Coelho (Department of Archaeology). What emerged in the discussions is the need to look less for the ‘smoking gun’ of pro-slavery sentiment or an abolitionist ‘alibi’, and instead to think about how individuals and institutions were imbricated in systems of domination and exploitation beyond their stated intentions.

Dr Sol Gamsu with speaker Dr Rui Coelho (Archaeology) along with Melanie Earnshaw (EDI unit) and participants during the first workshop.

In our second meeting, we wanted to explore the built structures of Durham Cathedral and its archives to identify how the history of the enslaved was an absent presence. Nayanika had already published reflections on past walking tours in a chapter titled Irreconcilable Times in her recently published volume On Irreconciliation (2022).  Preparation for this meeting enabled us to set up a collaborative conversation with the University’s Chaplain, Durham Cathedral and Durham Cathedral Archives so as to explore the history of slavery in the built structures together.  Given the plan was to do a walking tour of the Cathedral and visit the Archives we had to limit the size of the group to fifteen invited colleagues due to structural restrictions in the cathedral. Our PVC EDI joined us on this walk led by Sean Creighton, a community historian. Colleagues from Project North Star – a project linked to dissemination of history in the schools in the North East – also joined us on this day.  In the Cathedral archives we were also shown the original image of the slavery boat which became important for the campaign to abolish slavery. This historic document was the original from the Papers from the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Carrying out this walk for the first time with Cathedral colleagues has laid the solid foundations for the future in our attempts to memorialise the history of the enslaved.

Co-PI Dr Liam Liburd and Prof Nayanika Mookherjee with Mr Sean Creighton, a community historian leading the slavery walking tour in Durham Cathedral.

The third seminar explored two further dimensions of Durham’s history. Dr Jo Sadgrove (University of Leeds/United Society Partners in the Gospel, USPG) presented her work on the links between the USPG and colonialism and slavery. She discussed the history of the USPG, then the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) and its direct role in slavery through the ownership of two slave plantations in Barbados. The SPG had connections to Durham through the role of the Bishops of Durham (Mookherjee, 2022) and these plantations were left for the establishment of a theological college, Codrington College, which would later have further connections to Durham as an affiliated College. The USPG has just announced a £7m programme of reparatory activities over the next 10-15 years in Barbados. Dr Sadgrove is continuing to develop her work in this area including through her role in USPG and we are continuing conversations about how we could develop this further. Similar conversations are also ongoing with colleagues in Newcastle.

The last seminar also included Dr Ed Anderson’s (Northumbria University) presentation of his work on a group of Indian students who were active in commemorating the life of C.F. Andrews (Charles Freer Andrews), a Newcastle-born activist who became prominent in the Indian independence movement. On his death, to memorialise him, the students compiled a collection of his books previously held in various libraries across Newcastle and organised the installation of a plaque. Dr Anderson’s work and other recent work on the history of Black students in the North-East (Kent, 2021) highlights the need to explore further the presence of Black students in Durham and at the affiliated colleges of Fourah Bay College and Codrington College. Further work with Jonathan Bush from the University Archives will see us develop a comprehensive biographical list of Black students in Durham, with the possibility of an exhibition on this in 2024. Liam and Sol also filmed a short video for Durham Book Festival in September 2023 about the life and work of Peter Blackman, a Pan-African activist, writer and poet who gained a Theology degree from Durham via an affiliated theological college. Linked to this project, The Guardian published Sol’s article on elite UK schools’ financial links to slavery.

As part of the project and with a Laidlaw Scholarship, Penny Zacharatou, a student in languages, completed an analysis and literature review of the relationship between Durham and its affiliated colleges, Fourah Bay College and Codrington College. This will provide the basis for further work examining the role of Durham University in colonial education policy. The role of James Duff, Warden, and later Vice Chancellor at Durham (1937-60), is also worthy of further study, given his prominent role in several government commissions on colonial higher education policy over the 1940s. The visit of Professor Apollos Nwauwa to Durham in autumn 2024 for an IAS international fellowship, will provide a further avenue for work in this area as he has written extensively on colonial higher education policy in West Africa (Nwauwa, 2020).

As part of the project Liam also visited the Bodleian Library in Oxford to consult the USPG archives, discovering original documentation relating to the 1875 affiliation of Codrington College with Durham University and shedding light on the function of this relationship. Liam has been involved in an advisory capacity in discussions on the Horsfall legacy and we have also started our conversations on the Trevelyan legacy. To examine what we refer to as the ‘imbrications’ in Durham’s ‘black’ history this project laid the foundations for a successful application to an EDI fund and we are looking forward to various activities in the year ahead. These include the possible development of a digital platform for the walking tour in collaboration with the Durham cathedral, a curator and with colleagues in history and business school and an interdisciplinary group of experts on the history of the enslaved.


 Gamsu, S. and L. Liburd (2022) The New Great Britons: Peter Blackman – YouTube

Gamsu, S. 2023 Elite UK schools’ financial links to slavery revealed | Slavery | The Guardian

Kent, H. (2021) ‘One Aim, One God, One Destiny’? An Investigation of Black lives in Tyneside 1939-1952. North East Labour History 52: 13-33.

Liburd, L. (2023) ‘The Politics of Race and the Future of British Political History’, The Political Quarterly, vol. 94, no. 2, 244-250.

Liburd, L. (2021), ‘Thinking Imperially: The British Fascisti and the Politics of Empire, 1923–35’, Twentieth Century British History, vol. 32, no. 1, 46-67.

Mookherjee, N. (2022) Irreconcilable Times in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute Special Issue Book series.

Nwauwa, AO (2020) Western education and the rise of a new African elite in West Africa. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History.


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