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In conversation with Nuffield College

As announced in November 2020, as part of the firm’s ongoing commitment to addressing racial inequality, Freshfields is sponsoring independent historical research that will focus on the role of the City of London and its ecosystem in relation to the transatlantic slave trade.

The research will be undertaken at Nuffield College, Oxford University, over a three-year period, led by Dr Hunter Harris, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Nuffield. It is anticipated that this research will address the unexplored intersections between the history of the British economy and the history of slavery in the broader context of empire.

In October 2021, as part of our internal Black History Month programme, Dr Harris came to our London office to discuss his research project with our colleagues. Dr Harris spoke to Liam Symonds, one of our associates and a member of our global Black Affinity Network, about his background, interest in the project and the research areas of focus. An extract of the discussion is included below.

Liam Symonds (LS): Dr Harris, could you talk us through your journey into academia?

Dr Hunter Harris (HH): I’ve always been interested in history. What really draws me to the subject are the big changes or long-term processes that transformed the past into our contemporary world. I studied history as an undergraduate and then spent a few years working before I decided to do a PhD at the University of Michigan, where I trained as a historian of colonial America and the British Empire in the 17th and 18th centuries. Within history circles, my area of study is known as “Atlantic history”- the study of the movement of people, goods, and ideas around the Atlantic world from roughly the time of Columbus’s voyages to the age of revolutions in Latin America.

As a graduate student I became interested in legal and economic history and put together a dissertation project that drew on both of those fields. I wrote about commercial disputes between British merchants around the Empire. Using the merchant communities of New York, Glasgow, and Kolkata as case studies, I looked at how merchants used the law to structure and organize their affairs and to resolve problems once they inevitably arose. I looked at issues such as partnership and agency, credit and financing, bankruptcy – these topics were just as important in the 18th century as today but the tools available to manage them were different, and many areas of commercial law were still developing, especially for the challenges of doing business across jurisdictions, even within the British Empire.

LS: Is there anything unique about this project which particularly attracted you to it?

HH: I had for a long time been interested in working on the financial and commercial nexus of London. An early proposal for my dissertation included London, but that was unworkable because during the 18th century London was so much bigger and more important than every other British city. Also, some of the sources I wanted to use had been lost. So, when I saw the announcement for this position at Nuffield, I was immediately attracted by the opportunity to do a “deep dive” into London’s history.

On another level, I was already very interested in some of the legal tools used to promote the development of slave plantations in the West Indies. For example, in the 18th century English law prohibited foreigners from owning real property. London merchants and lawyers came up with a solution to this problem: foreign mortgage-holding was legalized for the West Indies, where the mortgage holders would be unable to seize the land directly but instead could only sell it through an auction. This is just one example, but I found other instances of colonial interests working with metropolitan lawyers and policymakers to foster the growth and development of the slave economy, and I think this dynamic is an important one for understanding both how the British Empire worked and how it promoted the expansion of slavery in the Americas.

I think Freshfields has taken a unique approach in sponsoring research by an independent academic professionally trained in historical research. Doing so avoids bias and helps to ensure the work is done in an objective and accurate manner. I also think it says a lot about Freshfields that it has sponsored a research project on the City more widely, not just on its own institutional history. I think this project presents a unique opportunity to address higher level issues than just ‘who was doing what’, such as ‘what was the context’, ‘what were the effects’, and ‘what legacies remain with us today’, important questions that are both more nebulous and harder to answer.

LS: How do you intend to structure your research over the next three years?

HH: The way I’ve decided to approach this project is to think about the City of London as one large ecosystem of people and inter-connected lines of business and financial activity. During this period the City was still predominantly a trading centre, with the finance and service sectors growing up alongside these more traditional activities. The slavery economy touched many aspects of life in the City, but the groups most strongly connected with it were Slave Traders, Plantation Owners, Merchants in Slave-Produced Commodities (West India, Chesapeake merchants), Service Providers (shipping, finance, insurance, legal), and Traders in adjacent goods (textiles, foodstuffs, weapons, iron bars & chains). We can’t just look at these groups in isolation and then put the results together, as these were not hard-and-fast categories. Movement between them was, in some cases, frequent as merchants extended their activities into new business lines and even became banking houses. To that end, I am structuring my research project around four questions:

Scale: How large was the City of London’s involvement with the slave economy?
Scope: How far and wide did this involvement go?
Leadership: Who ran the City and how interested were they in the slave economy?
Influence: What policies did the City of London’s slavery interests put in place?

I think this approach will allow me to analyse the City’s most significant functions, institutions, and individuals during this important era. Looking at any one area without the other will miss an important part of the story. It’s not just a question of who was involved with slavery, but really a question of what form that involvement took and how it affected other areas. I also think it’s worth underscoring these were critical decades for the development of the functions and institutions that would define the City in the 19th and 20th centuries: banking, brokerage, insurance, and the law were all reaching levels of maturity and institutional development in the mid-18th century so that they would be familiar to us today, which marks a true transition from the more embryonic forms that predominated a few decades previously.

LS: What do you see as the key outputs from your research and the related findings?

HH: In terms of academic output, I plan on publishing articles and hopefully a book. But really one of the most exciting aspects of my position is the ability to help advance the wider public’s knowledge. I think my work can help with action on acknowledgment of historic slavery and education on its impact, which remains with us today. It is important to recognize how widespread linkages with slavery were and thus how many contemporary institutions have historical connections to it. The point of that isn’t to call out “bad actors” historically but to show how constitutive slavery connections were to the creation of the City as a global financial centre of this century.

I hope people will come to take away the centrality of the imperial experience and slavery in shaping the institutions that have defined Britain in the past three hundred years or so. The British Empire wasn’t only over the horizon, it had a very real and vibrant presence at home and imperial connections shaped the development of the Britain in which we now live.

At the same time, I hope my findings will, as I have said, be used for action on education. A good example of that is through talking to non-academic audiences and I want to continue doing events like this. I’ve found that there is a great deal of interest in history, although sometimes it is latent and needs to be drawn out. Once we reach that point, though, people respond quite enthusiastically.

For more information contact:

Miranda Ward
Global Lead, External Communications
M +44 7860 783051