Catherine Lough, The Telegraph, July 6, 2023
Wales must acknowledge its complicity in “colonial exploitation” because the nation’s wool was used in garments worn by slaves, a historian has said.
Dr Charlotte Hammond, a Cardiff University academic, recounts in a new book how the wool, known as “Welsh plains”, was both used as a commodity to trade for slaves and as the material for enslaved peoples’ clothing.
She said it was an area of history that has received “little recognition until now” and that as Welsh identity was rooted in “experiences of historical oppression” it was more difficult for the country to acknowledge how it had benefited from the trade.
“Woollen cloth woven in Wales became a popular commodity in the Atlantic slave trade but there is a lack of public knowledge of this colonial history,” she said.
But critics have responded, claiming that Wales is only the latest European nation to be pulled into a “grievance industry”.
Dr Hammond also collaborated on research into the topic with a group of students, exploring how the “exploitation of weavers in rural Wales” can be linked with “the racial injustices of Atlantic slavery”.
The “Welsh plains” wool was uncomfortably coarse, and was distributed to slaves to fashion as they wanted, rather than being given ready to wear clothes.
The book edited by Hammond, Woven Histories of Welsh Wool and Slavery, describes how dress became “an important visual language of resistance”.
The collection of essays comes with a warning that it “contains colonial racial language that is considered offensive today … In particular, the term ‘Negro Cloth’ appears frequently in colonial archives to refer to the woollens used to clothe enslaved people.”
During the project students walked to historic sites, and sketched oppressive implements from plantations such as shackles, chains and branding irons, as well as the enslaved field workers themselves.
Dr Hammond added that the research had taken the group from “fulling mills in Dolgellau, Meirionnydd, via the packhorse trails that transported Welsh Plains cloth to England. There, it was dyed and finished in Shrewsbury, sent to London and Liverpool to be traded and then exported to the Americas.
“We have followed the cloth’s colonial connections to the Caribbean and southern states of the US, where Welsh plains was used to clothe enslaved field workers who toiled on the plantations.”
The book also calls for further research in the field to explore the “shared histories of exploitation and resistance” between farmers in rural Wales and enslaved field workers.
Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury, said:“The thing is that there is now an industry of grievance archaeologists and they are linking everything to slavery so everything that’s important and good in European civilisation becomes either directly or indirectly linked.
“Wales is pulled into that even though the Welsh are claiming they too were colonised, and once decolonisation becomes its own imperative everybody gives way to it.
“Even poor little Wales is not going to get off scot free because they too like every European nation [are] directly or indirectly implicated in this.”