See all stories
20 Sept 2023

Encountering Children of Empire symposium

Two men stand at the edge of the sea, with waves lapping over their feet. Both look out to sea. The older man on the left holds the arm of the man on the right. The man on the left wears a shirt tucked into rolled-up trousers, and a bright red scarf around his neck. The man on the right wears just a pair of shorts.
© Billy Gerard Frank, Second Eulogy – Mind the Gap, 2019
The National Trust for Scotland and the Beniba Centre for Slavery Studies (University of Glasgow) held a two-day symposium exploring the histories of children in colonial spaces.

Our symposium was held at Culzean Castle, where ‘Scipio’ served in the household of the Kennedy family in the early 18th century. Scipio had arrived in Scotland as a young child, having been kidnapped from his home in Guinea, West Africa, and enslaved. He spent the rest of his life on the Ayrshire coast. Although we know that he prospered there, his early years remain obscure, reflecting a more general difficulty with exploring the history of children in colonial archives.

This two-day event (14 and 15 September 2023) brought together international academics with a descendant of Scipio, Scottish curators and focus groups. The keynote speaker was Grenadian American artist filmmaker Billy Gerard Frank, who undertook a residency at Culzean Castle in September, exploring Scipio’s life.

Two images are shared next to each other. On the left, a young boy stands holding a yellow flower with a long stem, in front of a forest backdrop. He wears an old-fashioned linen shirt with a ruffled collar. He is crying purple tears, which fall onto his shirt. On the right, the young boy walks along a forest path, carrying a large hamper of flowers. He is looking down.
Billy Gerard Frank, Palimpsest: Tales Spun from Sea and Memories – Indigo Milk, diptych, 2022

In his art film Palimpsest: Tales Spun from Sea and Memories, Billy Gerard Frank explores fragments of the life of Quobna Ottobah Cugoano who, whilst employed as a servant for artists Richard and Maria Cosway, was introduced to all the pageantries of class, race and power in 18th-century England. Through his book Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery (1791) Cugoano played a seminal role in the abolitionist movement.

In the diptych above, Cugoano is a boy in Grenada, crying tears of indigo – a major crop that was farmed by enslaved people and used as a dye in British clothing. His tears suggest the sea; he had crossed the Atlantic twice at the age he is shown here. The dislocation forced upon him as a child is manifest in the juxtaposition of his expensive attire – that of an exotic servant – and the tropical treescape of his youth, through which he treads. The tears also convey the blueness of deep sadness, serving as a powerful symbol of the shared sorrow of an entire generation of enslaved people. Cugoano embodies the grief of all enslaved ancestors for whom he will later, through his writings, become a powerful voice.


Download the Encountering Children of Empire conference guide.

Tales of friendship, resistance and home: some personal reflections

By Taylar Carty, Wessley Edmonds, Noura McNeils Mahmoud, María Fernanda Ortiz Vivas and Martha White

A group of young researchers got together after the symposium to write about their experience.

Wessley Edmonds, student at the University of Edinburgh

To the children of empire,

At the end of the National Trust for Scotland’s Encountering Children of Empire symposium held at Culzean Castle this past September, five young women took a train back to Glasgow from the Ayr rail station. Our minds were filled with insights and endless questions. The symposium was jam-packed with information that was thought-provoking, cathartic and, at times, emotionally overbearing yet educationally rich, directly addressing the legacies we often fail to acknowledge, that of empire and the enslaved. Each of us came to the symposium with our own origins, experiences, backgrounds and future aspirations for our academic journeys. And all of us bonded over the inspiration and curiosity generated by the academics, artists, curators and historians who endeavour to do the work of acknowledging the marginalised histories of slavery in Scotland, often overlooked by society.

The Children of Empire symposium offered crucial recognition of the work scholars of slavery must engage in when entering a field where we must fill in the gaps of history, and where methods of inquiry require colonial apparatuses that may continue to inflict violence on the legacy of the enslaved. Sitting in a room filled with minds and hearts intent on finding ways to deconstruct this violence and engage with the narratives of enslaved children imbued with care and empathy was stimulating and heartening. As Saidiya Hartman puts it, we ‘intended both to tell an impossible story and to amplify the impossibility of its telling’ (‘Venus in Two Acts’, June 2008). The symposium created a space where like-minded individuals formed a community of thought and innovation for the future of slavery studies and its ever-expanding role in academia, museums, film and more.

As students and young academics who plan to go into this field or lines of research adjacent to it, we looked up to our professional counterparts and tried to soak in their shared knowledge. We also looked to each other for walks around the seaside castle grounds, deep breaths, too many cups of tea and the support we needed after digesting so much. In the end, it was a train ride back to the city where we bonded and fabricated an aspiration to share our collective experience of a time and place that meant so much to our academic careers and personal growth. In this way, we each offer a point of reflection – or a little poetry – through themes of home, resistance, change and friendship, inspired by and dedicated to the children of empire.

María Fernanda Ortiz Vivas, MA student at the University of Glasgow

There was something conflicting about encountering the experiences of ‘children of empire’ while being so near the shore and its vast sea. It was the first time I had seen the water since I left home – the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, originally Borikén. I find myself linked to a profound spirituality in these liminal spaces where water meets land. It has become a sort of ritual place to connect with nature, history and ancestry; to connect with peripheral histories of slavery and resistance.

I believe the symposium was a way of honouring the enslaved children of empire. However, it should not be the only way. The multiple questions being posed about how to formalise these conversations and research into projects for the benefit of the outside world were also conflicting: How do we heal trauma? How do we share these stories? How do we learn from them? How do we prevent it from happening again? I turn to the sea again. It assures me we are all interconnected, and while drawing figures in the sand I’m reminded of the power in youthful emerging humans – there is no world without them. There is still something conflicting about writing this and thinking of the children in Gaza. The legacy of colonialism is very much alive, and ‘children of empire’ still walk this earth.

Taylar Carty, PhD student at the University of Glasgow

As a first-year PhD student researching enslaved children in the British Caribbean, the symposium encompassed all the themes I aimed to pursue, research practices I aimed to adopt, and challenges I had not yet thought of. Grappling with questions of re-traumatisation and suitable narratives, these dialogues contributed to the much-needed action of academics, museums and heritage sites to broaden their scope, experiment with different methods, and connect these histories to wider audiences of the general public, especially younger audiences. Incorporating voices of those outside of higher education and heritage backgrounds into symposiums such as this would be a key point of action.

As this conference connected me with other students, who are eager to formulate new methods for engagement, it is evident that such change will provide new and diverse perspectives for the academic and heritage sector. Not only did I make wonderful connections with academics and other students that will be vital for my research but I also obtained an understanding of the steps being made to broaden engagement of heritage sites and histories.

Noura McNelis Mahmoud, student at the University of St Andrews

Where do children fit in narratives of coloniality? What spaces do children hold in the past, where can we find their voices? How can we present our answers to these questions to the public? The symposium was the first time and place I had met others who were preoccupied with these questions I’ve asked myself countless times before. Being an undergraduate student in this space was exhilarating. Here, I could listen and learn, and have intimate conversations about scholarly care and decolonial inquiry with those from a diversity of backgrounds.

As much knowledge as I gained from the papers presented, the connections I made to those who were committed, both in the academic and public sectors, to exploring children’s place in empire was invaluable. On a personal note, meeting young women invested in reparatory justice and historical study inspired me deeply. Their insights reasserted the value of young voices and reminded me of the importance of giving weight to those upcoming in the field. I am deeply grateful for the small moments we shared.

‘The Children of Empire’ by Martha White, MA student at the University of Glasgow

The Children of empire
named ‘un-named’,
named and re-named,
and re-named.
Through each and every distance of history
our insistence on violence
inspires your resistance,
demands its persistence,
while we batter and
we sever
tongues in every picture,
and arms which
hover at hip-height,
while you rage and fight
our hooked and baited lines of adulthood –

despite the fact that they
will pull you in some day

Your fight is fleeting but
not futile
and you are not un-named,
nor more lost
than our own shells
lying empty,
lying left by a tide leaving
a line of hooks.

These are the shores of the adult world,
where a silence is pierced by
the shrieking call of distant love
– a lone curlew.
An island becomes clear as a
horizon of mist
and there are the Children,
standing together.

We roar and we storm and
some of us laugh
and the curlew flies up
and the Children wait
and more keep coming
and a castle rises
from the cliff face
and the castle is in ruins.
But the Children of empire
keep coming
and they will keep coming.
And as we turn to face footprints
filling up with salt water
They hold Their castle high.