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The University of Southampton

Slavery explored through sound and movement

Published: 10 August 2016
Elaine Mitchener and Sylvia Hallett
Elaine Mitchener (left) and Sylvia Hallett. Credit: Roger Thomas.

A University of Southampton historian is collaborating with a group of musicians to stage a unique event examining slavery and its legacies.

Dr Christer Petley is working with renowned vocalist Elaine Mitchener to create a performance which blends sound and movement and draws on his research into slavery in 18th century sugar plantations of the Caribbean. It is being staged at the Snape Proms 2016 in Suffolk tomorrow (11 August).

Dr Petley comments: “We want to bring to life the historical world of plantation slavery and encourage audiences to think about the issues of enslavement, forced movement and suffering – issues which are still a reality for many people around the world today.”

In the performance Sweet Tooth, musicians Jason Yarde, Sylvia Hallett and Mark Sanders create a soundscape to accompany Elaine Mitchener’s vocals and Dr Petley’s research on plantation slavery in the 1800s, with reference to his forthcoming book, Slavery and Revolution – which lays bare the harsh conditions slaves endured and considers the individuals caught up in the trade.

Dr Petley explains: “The machinery of sugar and slavery divided, ruled and inflicted untold pain on countless named, unnamed and misnamed individuals. The sights and sounds of plantation Jamaica in working motion were part of a much bigger machine. The blood and sweat of the slave workforce, and the sweet produce of acre after acre of sugar cane, helped drive the imperial economy.

“Planters reaped huge benefits. So too merchants, as did the British treasury. Ancillary industries reaped a return. So did the Royal Navy. Eighteenth century British consumers, sitting down to sweet cakes, scones, jam and tea, were transforming their bodies and habits of consumption thanks to the grinding toil of slaves on distant Caribbean sugar plantations. In the 18th century British empire, enslaved people were an overlooked presence — a ghostly force that activated the whole machine.

“As a historian, I would normally present my work on those things in books, papers or lectures – but this project has given me the scope to explore new, challenging ways of getting my work across to a new audience. Elaine has very much taken a workshop approach, letting the piece evolve through people from different disciplines coming together to share ideas.”

Aspects of Sweet Tooth were developed and presented in an experimental performance in June at Turner Sims on the University of Southampton Highfield campus. A further work-in-progress showing is being presented at Aldeburgh Music’s Open Sessions section at the Snape Proms 2016 in Suffolk on Thursday 11 August.

History at Southampton

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