The Bishops of London, colonialism and transatlantic slavery: resistance
It’s difficult to take on board that we’ve only been telling half the story – David Olusoga
Background to the project
The Church of England was deeply implicated in Britain’s colonial expansion and the transatlantic traffic of enslaved Africans. The Bishop of London, who lived at Fulham Palace, was one of the Church’s most senior figures, having had jurisdiction over the British colonies around the world.
In 2022, Fulham Palace worked together with Adisa the Verbalizer to reflect on the historic links between the Bishops of London, colonialism, and transatlantic slavery, resulting in an exhibition. Adisa, a London-based spoken word artist, explored the theme of resistance in his work, engaging with schools and community groups to creatively respond to the theme and co-curating an exhibition at Fulham Palace.
The exhibition which opened in April 2024 showcases the work of community participants and examines the systems of physical and spiritual resistance that ultimately led to the ending of the transatlantic traffic in enslaved people and slavery itself in the British Empire.
Aims of the project
The project focused on several aims:
- to share and respond to research on the Bishops of London, colonialism and transatlantic slavery;
- to ask local people and people of African and African Caribbean descent to explore the theme of resistance through a creative medium;
- to develop the work of Fulham Palace Trust’s staff and volunteers in this area;
- to plan for future co-curation projects.
The project is part of the Trust’s ongoing commitment to improve inclusive practice in its work.
The project was delivered through a number of activities:
- artist-led workshops with community groups exploring and responding to the theme of resistance;
- an exhibition at Fulham Palace co-curated with the project artist;
- new work from the project artist;
- participants’ creative responses and a film of the creative process were included in the exhibition;
- public programming to include performances of the creative responses and lectures was hosted live and online.
The project was funded through the award of an Arts Council England National Lottery Project Grant of £29,000, £2,500 from the Museum Development Fund London, and in-house resourcing.
The creative process
Project artist Adisa devised and delivered workshops with five schools and community groups. Each session was structured to explore a different key form of resistance and groups explored this actively and experientially through games, physical activities such as dance, song and performance, and reflective activities such as poetry, creative writing, and discussion.
This varied structure created space to experiment, discuss and develop ideas, for Adisa to share information about his creative work, and for participants to build their own response and confidence.
Participants in these workshops were from the following schools and groups:
- All Saints Church of England Primary School;
- EdVenture Seekers Home Education Group;
- Fulham Cross Academy;
- Queen Nzinga Saturday School;
- St Pauls Church, West Hackney
The exhibition showing the project outcomes opened to the public at the end of April 2023 and will stay open indefinitely. The display areas consist of three main spaces in the Fulham Palace Museum – Compton room, discovery room, and Bishop Sherlock’s room, with a visitor response area in the Porteus library. The exhibition route is marked by the Adinkra symbol of Kwatakye Atiko on the floor and on individual object text panels.
The exhibition includes information on the Bishops’ personal involvement with or benefit from the traffic of enslaved Africans. Four key areas of resistance are introduced: resistance through hair (hairstyles to communicate escape routes and plans or hiding food, seeds or fragments of gold), Obeah (African spiritual traditions giving strength to enslaved Africans), song and dance (including hidden meaning in songs and martial arts training). There are text panels accompanied by images, Adisa’s poetry, participants’ responses, and listening posts of spoken word work. The film of the creative process with session footage and participant feedback is shown in a film on a loop in the room.
The exhibition includes four Fulham Palace collection items: Bishop Juxon’s coat of arms, a letter from Bishop Porteus to the governor of Bermuda, the will and probate of Bishop Porteus, and a fragment of clay pipe showing the ‘logo’ of the British abolition movement. A copy of a 1723 letter from an anonymous enslaved person to the Bishop (either the Bishop of London or the Archbishop of Canterbury) is also on display (the original is held by Lambeth Palace Library). Text panels pose questions to link the objects to the theme of resistance.
Visitor comments show people felt encouraged by Fulham Palace Trust’s decision to examine the subject of transatlantic slavery in this way. This was expressed in comparison to other organisations and a perception of them ‘turning a blind eye’ to their historic links with transatlantic slavery. Comments recognise honesty in the exhibition, bringing the story of enslaved Africans side by side with the Bishops and the Palace. Several people commented that this was the start of something with more to come.
this work isn’t finished, it evolves into something greaterexhibition visitor
Creativity has been central to the project; from Adisa’s approach to the project theme, the design and delivery of the sessions, the creation of new work and co-curation of the exhibition, to participant experiences and responses, and visitors’ encounters with new ideas and content. This way of working between Fulham Palace and an artist has created a fresh perspective on both the narrative and archive research, brought different voices forward and developed engaging content in a way that has listened and responded to people’s ideas and input.
The creative approach brought new perspectives on the research and history. People of all ages felt connected to and empowered by the approach and were comfortable to express themselves, try out new ideas and discuss sensitive subjects. Participants enjoyed the creativity of the process and the freedom to be expressive on their own terms. The success of this was down to respectful facilitation, careful modelling and selection of resources and activities to ensure accessibility for learners at all levels.