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Sweet Tooth: Slavery and Atlantic Crossings

Sweet Tooth
Sweet Tooth
Sweet Tooth
Sweet Tooth

How do we make sense of slavery? How can we represent its legacies? This project draws together a historian, a vocalist, along with a choreographer and other musicians to work on ways of exploring the past and its residues for public audiences.


November 2013 - August 2016

The Team

Lead: Dr Christer Petley, Senior Lecturer in History, University of Southampton


Elaine Mitchener, vocalist

Dam Van Huynh, choreographer

Jason Yarde, saxophonist

Sylvia Hallettt, musician

Mark Sanders, percussionist

Partner Organisation: Turner Sims

Funders: Arts Council England, Aldeburgh Music, University of Southampton, St George’s Bloomsbury, Centre 151, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and Bluecoat.

Sweet Tooth in performance
Sweet Tooth in performance

The project

How do we make sense of slavery? How can we represent its legacies? Routinely, as scholars, we try to do those things through the acts of writing and speaking, all via strict ritualised channels of communication. But how could the work of bearing witness to the part-hidden histories of enslavement, forced movement, suffering and renewal be transformed by other modes of performance?

New ways of confronting the past

Moving the writing and speaking of a historian with other types of sound and movement, we are working towards opening up new ways of confronting and feeling and past that continues to groan and shift, restlessly in our present.

Context and aims

The project builds on a collaboration that has been building over the past two years. Elaine Mitchener initially contacted Christer Petley in November 2013 about her new project Sweet Tooth, which explores the links between Britain and Jamaica through sound and dance.

An evolving collaboration

Mitchener was initially interested in finding out about the history of slavery, but through several meetings and conversations over the past two years a collaboration with Petley has emerged, drawing in the research I am currently doing on slaveholding Jamaican sugar planters at the end of the eighteenth century.

Archive Breathing

Working with Dam Van Huynh and Jason Yarde, Mitchener presented work related to the Sweet Tooth project at an event entitled ‘Archive Breathing’, curated by the sound artist and writer Professor David Toop and held at The Platform Theatre, Central St Martins, London, 4 April 2014.

Mitchener secured a prestigious residency with the Aldeburgh Music (Aug 2016) involving the project team that resulted in a public performance.

Connecting to research

This project connects to Petley’s research project on Simon Taylor, a wealthy Jamaican slaveholding sugar planter, which makes use of hundreds of Taylor’s letters, written between 1765 and 1813, as well as other documents relating to him and to Jamaican slavery during a period characterised by revolution, war and the eventual end to Britain’s transatlantic slave trade.

Soundscapes of plantation life

So far the collaboration has helped Petley think in new ways about the soundscapes of Caribbean plantation life and about the different ways in which slaveholders ‘performed’ their mastery over enslaved people. His work on Taylor has resulted in two peer-revised research articles and will form the basis for a book to be published within the next three years.

Extending audiences for historic research through the arts

One of Petley’s main concerns as a historian of slavery is how researchers can help the widest possible audiences to understand this institution and its legacies. It is also apparent that traditional academic performances (even done via typical forms of popular ‘edutainment’: I.e. magazine articles or TV/radio documentaries) fail to convey its deepest realities and effects. By contrast, Steve McQueen’s discomfiting and daring cinematography (those long, linger, drawn out, persistent shots) in Twelve Years a Slave offered a historically informed artistic interpretation that transcended those limitations. Our aim with this project is to use other art forms - vocals, music and movement - to do similar types of work.

It is envisaged that this work will later provide the basis for performances and presentations at other public venues across the UK.

For more information, visit the Slavery and Revolution blog


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