Black History Month: An Interview with Professor Matthew Smith, incoming Director of the LBS

29 October 2019

This October, we have been speaking to staff and students in the department about what Black History Month means to them. We spoke to incoming Director of UCL’s Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership (LBS), Professor Matthew Smith

Professor Matthew Smith

We are looking forward to welcoming you in March 2020 as the new Director of The Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership (LBS). Can you tell us a little more about yourself, and your main areas of research?

Sure. I am from Kingston, Jamaica and have been an historian of the Caribbean for almost two decades. I previously taught in the Department of History and Archaeology, University of the West Indies, Mona in Jamaica which is also where I studied History as an undergraduate. My main area of research is Haitian political and social history since the nineteenth century on which I have published widely. I also have interests in the history of slavery in the Caribbean, Caribbean migration histories, and the history of Caribbean music. I am currently working on a book on the social history of Jamaican music from the 1950s-1980s that considers the movement of musicians across the region and their tours overseas. These may all seem somewhat varied on the surface, but my approach to history as writer and teacher has always been about deep interrogation of the social experiences that shape and are impacted by historical outcomes. I find this approach is especially important when studying the Caribbean past given how connected it has been with the histories of other places. The human experience of history is a common theme that runs through all my work whether it is on nineteenth century Haiti or 1960s Jamaica.

Once you are settled in to your new role at UCL, what are your main goals for LBS moving forward?

There are two projects I will jump right into which I am quite excited about. The first is to continue working with the LBS team on getting a revised slave registers database online. The registers, which include reports from estates for the period 1817-1832, contain extremely valuable evidence on the biographies of the last generation of enslaved peoples in the British Caribbean. The work we will do on this source will form a critical extension of the pioneering work done on the records of the Slave Compensation Commission started under the directorship of my predecessor Dr. Nick Draper. That database, which has attracted over one million users, has changed our understanding of the world of slave-holders and the people inside and outside the Caribbean who profited from the trade in human lives. We expect it will continue to be heavily used and new insights be integrated into future scholarship. With the slave registers database, we have the potential of getting closer to the worlds of the enslaved. While the slave registers cannot give us a full picture, they will add vital pieces to the puzzle and hopefully spark further research. At the LBS we are working hard on getting this project launched over the next year.

My second goal is to expand on the outreach work that the LBS has been doing for the past few years. I plan to approach the question of outreach from a fresh perspective, one that involves a wider community within and outside the academy into discussions on historical evidence, slavery, race, capital, and the afterlives of British slave-ownership. It is important that we work with groups in and around London whose interests parallel our mission to deepen awareness of the multiple legacies of slavery. I envision close collaborations with students and organizations with interests in these areas. These will include projects with groups, the development of teaching modules on the history and legacy of British slavery, and cultural expressions of what this history has meant for generations of descendants of the enslaved. On trips to London I have met with students and local groups interested in the larger legacies of plantation slavery in our world. These contacts been very promising and I am eager to develop them further once settled in post at UCL.

The work that happens with LBS is obviously very relevant when thinking about Black History Month. Why do you think Black History Month is so important, and why is it something our students should get involved in?

Black History month presents an opportunity for reflection on the way the world, and in particular the United Kingdom, has been transformed by the lives of Black people. This transformation has come most often as a result of the racial exploitation of Black lives for centuries. In innumerable ways this has contributed to the economic, political, social and cultural evolution of Great Britain. While October affords us a chance to pay attention to this history, the full appreciation of this point cannot be considered in a month. Black History needs to be discussed and integrated more fully into school curricula and wider discussions at academic and national levels. The Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership takes this as a guiding principle. So while we mark Black history in October, I hope that the activities of this month inspire students to continue their exploration and discussion of Black history beyond this month.

London is a great place to be during Black History Month (and the rest of the year) as there’s so many brilliant events and exhibitions on! You’re moving to London from Jamaica – what about working in London are you most looking forward to?

I’m very excited about moving to one of the most vibrant and multicultural cities in the world. I enjoy teaching and working with students from different backgrounds; I learn much from that exchange. London and UCL in particular is an ideal place for me to continue developing as an academic and mentor to students. I am also thrilled that I will be working in a place so close to some of the best libraries and museums anywhere. That opens new vistas for me professionally both with the work of the LBS and its connections to a broader community and also with the work I plan to do with students and community groups in the city.
Moving from a Caribbean island to a large metropolitan centre will have its teething pains for me and my family. But we are looking forward to building new friendships and networks which will help us overcome these challenges. It is also very comforting to know that we won’t have to look too far to find Caribbean food and music!