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The complex world of slavery tourism


If you visit the McLeod Plantation in Charleston, at the end of a drive flanked by tall oaks, you will find a grand house with an awning held up by ivory columns. It’s worthy of a Hollywood film; an elegant timber-framed manor in the Georgian style. It also just so happens to have been built using money generated from the slave plantation that surrounds it. The southern states of America are full of these historic plantations, many of which are open to the public.

Visitors to the Oak Alley Plantation in Louisiana, the Pebble Hill Plantation in Georgia, the Evergreen Plantation; or any other historic US plantations can, for the price of a ticket, embark on guided tours, which – in some cases at least – seek to educate visitors about the history of slavery in America. But, as I say, not all historic plantations have been so willing to acknowledge the true history of these sites. Back in 2019, several historic plantation tours were criticised for pandering to a white-supremacist nostalgia, with guides focusing on the beauty of the house and gardens, while completely ignoring the blood beneath the soil.

Speaking to NPR in 2019, one plantation tourist recalled a tour in which he was shocked to find the site’s connection to slavery left completely unacknowledged: “I’ve taken three plantation tours; the third that I took was a real eye-opener,” he commented. “It was led by a retirement-age white woman volunteer. She led a group tour and spoke about the history of the ‘important’ family that lived in this home. She dwelt on the opulence and luxury and also laboured over descriptions of the ‘excellent living conditions’ and ‘freedoms’ that were afforded the slaves. She was a straight-up racist, pining for the days when owning other people was the norm.”

Many argue that these plantation tours allow white supremacist tourists to relive a period of American history in which Black people were powerless. For some, the idea that plantation tours memorialise white racial dominance feeds into the larger debate surrounding the commemoration of slave traders and confederate generals in major cities across America and Europe. When the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol, an important question arose: are we to remove such statues altogether or adapt them in such a way that the brutal history they represent becomes more obvious? The same question may be asked in regards to tourism. Do tours of the Antebellum South, for example, need to be reimagined so that they no longer memorialise white supremacy, and if so, how?

Hundreds of plantation tours in the US have failed to fully acknowledge the reality of slavery. As historian Lacey Wilson told NPR, it wasn’t until 2019 that the Owens Thomas House in Savannah added the ‘and Slave Quarters’ to its name. When asked why, Wilson responded: “Because that’s something our tours were leaning towards talking more about in my understanding. We wanted to make that as obvious as possible for people who were seeking that out”.

Ensuring that plantation tourists are given the full picture is, for many, an important battle in the fight to stop America’s history from being ‘whitewashed’. This in itself is part of an ongoing culture war surrounding attempts to teach Critical Race Theory in US high schools. The murders of George Floyd and Derek Chauvin in 2020 sparked a project to expose the racist heart of American society, with individuals speaking out about racism in their work, the institutionalised racism of the police force, and the white population’s complicity in racial injustice. At this time, people began calling for US high schools to adapt their syllabuses to include Critical Race Theory.

The Oak Alley Plantation in Louisiana. (Credit: Michael McCarthy)

However, this call for a more nuanced telling of America’s history was met with significant backlash. Those who oppose the teaching of Critical Race Theory insist that they don’t want their children learning about the brutal and bloody history of slavery. As political science professor, Christopher S. Parker, told The Guardian in 2021: “When you start re-examining the founding myth in light of evidence that’s been discovered in the last 20 years by historians, then that starts to make people doubt the founding myth. There’s no room for racism in this myth. Anything that threatens to interrogate the myth is seen as a threat.” If using plantation tours to tell the truth about slavery is a question of coming to terms with America’s founding history, then the desire to keep them as they are can be seen as an attempt to hang on to a version of history that panders to white fragility.

The UK tourist industry shares this same willful ignorance. While the British often point to America as an example of a nation that refuses to reckon with its roots, the UK isn’t much better. Places like The British Museum and the V&A very rarely mention slavery at all, and, if they do, it’s usually in reference to one of the white politicians who fought for its abolishment. London’s National portrait gallery is a fitting example; the walls of which are lined with portraits of William Wilberforce and the like, reinforcing the idea that Britain is somehow blameless simply because it helped to make slavery illegal, which, incidentally, was only possible because of the massive payoffs given to the nation’s slaveowners. By refusing to paint the full picture, cultural sites such as these continue to evade culpability and promote a mythologised version of the British slave trade.

So, what might a city that truly acknowledges its dark past look like? Well, Liverpool is a good place to look for an example. While the city entered the slave trade a little later than London and Bristol, by the year 1740 it was the centre of the British slave trade. Where London had 22 transatlantic slave ships and Bristol had 32, Liverpool had 131. Indeed, that famously haunting cutaway illustration of a slave shipped packed with bodies is based on a Liverpudlian slave vessel. As Laura Pye, director of National Museums Liverpool, told Maya Wolfe-Robinson in 2021: “Liverpool is absolutely a city that is built on transatlantic slavery. You see in our architecture, you see it in our street names, you see it everywhere you look.” It was for this reason that, in 2007, Liverpool opened the International Slavery Museum. Located at Albert Dock, where, in centuries past, ships set out for Africa, the museum makes it perfectly clear who suffered and who gained from the flesh trade.

But not everyone believes that sites with ties to slavery should be defined by their past. Jeff Neale, Director of Preservation and Interpretation at Middleton Place – which still describes itself as a “historic garden” rather than a plantation – told the BBC: “If you talk just about the brutality – which you should, alright – but if that’s all you talk about and you leave out the perseverance, the strength of these people, I think slavery becomes a very hollow vessel”. But, Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum does more than explore the history of the transatlantic slave trade: its exhibitions seek to rekindle those identities which were fragmented and stolen during the slave trade, while also opening up dialogues about race and racism in today’s world. What’s more, the ISM describes itself as a “campaigning museum” that works towards ending modern forms of slavery. With that, it is the only museum where individuals can report a hate crime. In this sense, Liverpool’s Internationa Slave Museum is not only dedicated to telling the full truth about the transatlantic slave trade but also to addressing its legacy. We still have a lot to learn, but it looks like Liverpool is leading the way.

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