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Museums to Explore Connections Between Railways and the Slave Trade

A consortium of museums in the UK has said it will work with three major universities on a new research project that will investigate any links that may exist between the slave trade and the railway network. Sheffield University, as well as the universities of Leeds and York, will take the lead with the project, named ‘Slavery and Steam: steam power, railways and colonialism’. It is understood that the research will examine the sort of economic and social infrastructure that was enabled by the expansions of the railway, in particular how the development of steam-powered locomotive technologies in the late 19th and 20th-centuries may have been possible, in part, from slavery.

The National Railway Museum in York teamed up with the Leeds Industrial Museum plus Manchester’s Industry Museum to approach academics on the subject. Curators from all three cultural institutions initially made contact with the University of Sheffield’s slavery research hub and then the entire project expanded to include academic teams at the Universities of Leeds and York. After a project leader had been appointed, Professor Jonathan Finch of the University of York, the full scope of this large research project was agreed upon with the other institutions involved.


Professor Finch said that there has been some research into the history and development of the railway under British colonialism but that it did not provide the in-depth answers people working on slavery were after. In other words, despite considerable research into the history of rail technology, the context of slavery was one that had, thus far, hardly been covered. Perhaps this is because the relationship between the expanding global trading system and steam power in the 19th century is one that is already viewed by historians as complex. Adding the specific issue of slavery into that mix can only add to such complexity.

Despite this, Finch pointed out that steam engines had been replacing wind power throughout the Empire in that period. “[Steam and water-power was used]… on plantations and in textile mills in Britain,” he said. The professor of archaeology also pointed out that steam-powered cargo ships were also used to transport raw materials and goods around the world at that time.

“Critical to the expansion of European colonial power, railways were built across both Asia and Africa,” the Finch said. He also pointed out that they were essential to the ‘opening up’ of the interior of the United States where slavery continued to be legal until 1865. Noting that railways were primarily built after slavery had been abolished in the UK in 1834, the professor claimed that wealth generated in British colonies before it ended had served as a stimulus to all sorts of industrialisation processes, including the development of the railway system at home and overseas. “[This occurred]… long after the abolition of slavery,” he added.

Steam Power

Dr Kate Pangbourne, who works for the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds, was selected to lead her academic institution’s contribution to the research. Confirming her role in the project, she said that there is a clear connection between steam power and the transatlantic slave trade that is shown in the world’s geography. “It can be seen in our ports and railways as well as in the industrial landscapes of the world,” she said. “It deserves closer examination.”

According to the White Rose University Consortium, an institution that connects the three northern England universities in joint projects, a year’s worth of funding has been set aside for the project. According to the museums that asked for the research to take place, it is hoped that the funding will help to increase awareness of the connection between slavery and trains, something that the museums can then contextualise and use to educate the public. Dr Oliver Betts, of the National Railway Museum, said that projects like this one meant that museums would be better placed to examine Britain’s colonial past to look again at the voices they represent.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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