A lasting legacy of racism, oppression and colonialism is laid bare at a powerful exhibition in Cambridge. Confronting it can help us build a more equitable world
Gone and forgotten until it comes around again next October, Black History Month is challenging for those who argue that a people’s history should not be confined to a mere four weeks. Genuine comprehension of history fosters an appreciation for the crucial principles of equality, diversity and inclusivity. All are pivotal in cultivating peace within our societies, and their absence manifests in racism. But racism isn’t limited to a specific month.
Racism encompasses prejudice, discrimination or antagonism directed against others based on their racial or ethnic affiliation, typically targeting minorities or marginalised groups. It stems from the belief in distinct characteristics, abilities or qualities attributed to different races, often to establish a hierarchy of inferiority or superiority.
It is imperative, therefore, to explore all avenues to learn about those of our fellow human beings who may not look like us or come from the same backgrounds. While some advocate for tolerance as the goal, it is my strong belief that tolerance is the lowest common denominator of humanity. Aiming higher is essential – striving for love, the pinnacle in the pursuit of harmony.
It is thus important to explore and embrace all pathways to understand each other. One such is the current exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, at the University of Cambridge.
Black Atlantic: Power, People, Resistance is not merely a collection of artefacts but an odyssey that navigates the murky waters of truth, steering us away from the shores that attempt to rewrite history. This exhibition is the inaugural chapter in a series planned to run until 2026.
Its genesis lies in 1816 when Richard Fitzwilliam, a philanthropic benefactor, bestowed part of his riches, literature and art on the University of Cambridge, yielding the museum. Yet beneath the veneer of benevolence lies a revelation that transcends time – the wealth that enabled Fitzwilliam’s largesse was, in a large part, derived from the transatlantic slave trade. This acknowledgment serves as a key to unlocking new discoveries surrounding the objects he bequeathed, the individuals who curated them, and the cultures from which they emerged.
Drawn from the repositories of the University of Cambridge, with loans from across the globe, this exhibition seeks to redefine the city’s historical role in the transatlantic slave trade. Black Atlantic goes beyond exposing tales of exploitation, embracing those of resilience and liberation. It illuminates the genesis of colonialism and new cultures that persistently shape our contemporary world.
The exhibition juxtaposes historical masterpieces, such as the portrait of Olaudah Equiano, with the avant-garde expressions of modern artists. These contemporary voices reflect on the untold stories concealed in history’s recesses. A kaleidoscope of narratives unfolds here, from west Africa to the Caribbean, South America and Europe.
The works on display prompt us to reconsider the perspectives they shaped. Richard Waller’s 1686 Table of Colours, for example, assisted racist science, bringing racialised language for skin tones and providing yet another platform for slave traders to justify black inferiority. A contemporary take by Keith Piper, the Coloureds’ Codex, reimagines 15 skin pigmentation tones, providing a toolbox for plantation overseers to develop a hierarchy of social division.
The stark reality that accompanies this has shaped global development, dividing the world between the prosperous “global north” and the struggling “global south”.
The four centuries of the transatlantic slave trade shaped the spectre of racism and are woven into the fabric of global development. Threaded through the complexity of socioeconomic disparities is the narrative of the global north’s prosperity – and the global south’s poverty. This is rooted in the 15th century, when European powers, driven by the pursuit of power and wealth, established the massive forced migration of the triangular slave trade route.
African men, women and children – forcibly uprooted from their homes, their identities erased – were thrust into the horrific conditions of ships destined for the Caribbeanand the Americas. Toiling Africans became the backbone of a booming agricultural economy in plantations, yielding immense wealth for Europeans.
The riches amassed became the seed money for the industrial revolutions that catapulted Europe and, eventually, North America into economic ascendancy. Simultaneously, the poisonous seed of ideological racism was cultivated to justify this exploitation.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw the emergence of “scientific racism”, an attempt to provide justifications for racial hierarchies, with Europeans at the apex and Africans at the nadir. Notably, Carl Linnaeus categorised humanity in 1758 using continental geography and a pseudo-scientific colour scheme.
French naturalist Georges Buffon and others, including Johann Blumenbach, contributed to the development of specious theories on racial inferiority. Blumenbach, in the late 18th century, identified five races based on skin pigmentation: Caucasian (white), Malayan (brown), Ethiopian (black), American Indigenous (red), and Mongolian (yellow). He was the first to introduce the term “Caucasian” to describe Europeans. Despite advancements in science and psychology, a belief in racial hierarchy persisted, entwined with theological dogma.
Figures such as Joseph Arthur de Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain propagated pseudo-scientific racist theories in the 19th and early 20th centuries, leaving a lasting impact on societal perceptions. Racist ideologies in the 19th and 20th centuries led to segregation systems and discriminatory policies – apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow laws in the US.
Racism permeated institutions, shaping structures and norms, and the repercussions of such ingrained prejudice are what manifest today in systemic inequalities that afflict the global south.
The legacy of all of this is etched into the geopolitical map. The global north, comprising Europe and its transatlantic descendants, emerged as the epicentre of economic power as the wealth of centuries of exploitation laid the groundwork for technological advancements, educational institutions, and infrastructure, creating a cycle of prosperity.
The global south, the ancestral home of those who suffered under the yoke of slavery, was left grappling with the scars. The economic imbalances of colonisation and exploitation persisted, as former colonies, especially in the Caribbean, struggled to break free from the shackles of perpetual poverty and underdevelopment.
Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher wrote: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Recognising and dismantling global inequality requires a profound acknowledgment of its historical roots, particularly the enduring impacts of slavery and racism. This journey towards a more equitable future involves implementing policies to address historical injustices and fostering a universal commitment to justice, equality and human dignity.
The exploration of these themes, exemplified in works like Black Atlantic, is utterly vital. Art invites us to reassess our complex past, and history offers a vision of a future characterised by repair, hope, freedom and yes … love.