In the heart of Wisbech, close to the River Nene, stands a tall spire-like monument dedicated to the anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Clarkson, who was born in the Cambridgeshire market town in 1760. Today, Wisbech & Fenland Museum – which stands less than 5 minutes’ walk from the memorial – holds an archive of documents, letters, books, and artefacts relating to the activist’s work, including a campaign chest that was given to the museum in 1870, 24 years after Clarkson’s death. This chest contains examples of 18th-century African goods, including textiles, seeds, and leatherwork that Clarkson collected and used to argue against the trade in enslaved people and to demonstrate the potential for trade in natural and manufactured goods from Africa, as a counter to economic arguments against abolition.
In 2018, the ‘Articles for Change’ project – funded by the Museums Association’s Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund – set out to open up access to this important collection and archive, and to make it relevant to local communities and audiences from further afield. Since then, part of this work has involved exploring the contents of the campaign chest to establish where they may have come from, and analysis of the leatherwork and the contents of the seed tray is currently ongoing. The ground-breaking research that we will explore in this article focuses on using scientific processes to identify, date, and geographically locate the origin of materials used in creating the textiles in the chest, as well as their place of production. Exploring the origins of the textiles and their component parts can also provide a snapshot of what we know to have been a global trade supporting the production of textiles in West Africa, and it shines a spotlight, too, on the African peoples involved in this trade.
How had the chest’s contents come together? Clarkson purchased the textile samples from merchant ships arriving in the ports of London, Bristol, and Liverpool, documenting the transactions in his two-volume work The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament. He relied on these merchants and crew of ships for information on the origins of the materials, but details of where in West Africa the textiles where produced can hardly be found in his writings.
The first items Clarkson acquired were two pieces of textile, which he presented to William Wilberforce to persuade him to become a parliamentary representative and advocate for the abolition campaign. He subsequently gathered the other articles in the chest, including five other textiles and two protective devices of bags with Qur’anic texts with textile elements, mainly in May and June 1787. Along with the textiles themselves, the chest also contains other items related to textile production, such as indigo dyestuff, hand-spun cotton, an intact spindle with a whorl, and the beater and heddles of a loom. All these elements are mentioned in Clarkson’s writings, though without much indication of provenance. We hoped to rectify this, and the focus of this article is on the seven woven textiles definitely collected by Clarkson in 1787.
The importance of the textiles in the chest in relation to West African weaving traditions has previously been touched on by researchers such as David Devenish, Marcus Wood, Jane Webster, and Malika Kraamer. Kraamer had already realised in 2006 that some of these textiles might represent the oldest kente cloth in the world, and she received funding from St John’s College, Cambridge University; the ‘Articles of Change’ project; and the Society of Antiquaries to carry out further joint scientific study of the textiles in the chest in collaboration with Margarita Gleba. This made possible a much fuller exploration of the age and origin of these materials, using textile analysis and contextual research in combination with scientific research techniques. These latter techniques, which can determine the fibres and dyes used, are regularly used on textiles found during archaeological excavations, but this is the first time they have been applied to 18th-century cloth from West Africa in a museum collection.
As a final product of a long and complex manufacturing process, any textile has a specific structure, and contains in it information about the various stages of its production. Analysis of a textile can thus help us to understand the nature and quality of its raw materials (fibres and dyes), as well as the techniques used in making it. Being geographically and chronologically specific, these in turn can help with tracing a textile’s origin and date. Today, in addition to the standard structural analysis, modern textile researchers are fortunate to have a suite of scientific analytical methods at their disposal, such as digital, transmitted light, and scanning electron microscopy for fibre identification, and high-performance liquid chromatography for dye analysis. Both microscopy and chromatography require only small thread samples to be taken from the textiles. These methods have rarely been used to study 18th-century West African textiles, but they add an important new dimension to contextual and historical research. Together, these approaches help to reconstruct the age and provenance of textiles, resulting in a new in-depth understanding of indigenous knowledge systems of different weaving localities. So, what did we find out?Contextual and technical weaving analysis of the textiles within the Clarkson’s Chest collection gave some indications of the possible weaving centres they came from. The textiles we examined had all been hand-woven on a loom, whereby the warp system of threads kept under tension is interwoven with the weft system. They are also all plain or tabby weave, the most common binding structure, with each weft alternating over and under each warp and vice versa. Among these, one sample is balanced weave, with a similar number of threads per cm, while a larger cloth and two other samples are warp-faced, with significantly denser warp than weft. Two more samples are weft-faced plain weave, with at least twice as many weft threads as warp threads per cm, and the last is also weft-faced but has a supplementary warp. This latter characteristic is thought to be specific to weaving centres in southern Togo and south-east Ghana, though all other weaving structures are common in many parts of West Africa.
In most weaving centres within this region, weavers make either weft-faced plain weave cloth, often also using supplementary wefts, or balanced or warp-faced plain weave cloth, in combination with supplementary weft and occasionally supplementary warps. The width of the cloth is a further indication of a particular weaving centre, and most pieces of cloth, including those in Clarkson’s Chest, are made on a particular type of West African horizontal double-heddle loom, resulting in relatively narrow strips that are subsequently sewn together to form a textile. In a few localities, though, particularly in Nigeria, an upright single-heddle loom is used for the production of much wider strips. Only one sample in Clarkson’s Chest was produced on such a loom.
Fibres and dyes
Scanning electron microscopy of tiny thread samples taken from the textiles has allowed us to identify the material used for their production. Three types of fibre were identified: cotton, wool, and silk. Cotton fibres present a characteristic, ribbon-like appearance with frequent twists or convolutions, and measure between 14 and 21 microns in width. Cotton was identified in all seven textiles, present in both warp and weft, and constituting the ground weave in all of them. It has been used either in its natural (or possibly bleached) white state, or dyed blue with indigo (sometimes in various shades, ranging from very pale to dark). All the cotton threads are hand-spun in z- or clockwise direction, which appears to fit well with the longstanding African tradition.
Sheep wool fibres, meanwhile, have characteristic cuticular scales on their surface, which account for their good insulating quality. Wool was identified in three textiles, and in all cases the threads were dyed red, green, or yellow. Wool quality in textiles – that is, fibre fineness – varies depending on the breed of sheep, their biology, and processing of the fleece. The wool threads in the three weft-faced plain weave textiles are composed of extremely uniform and long fibres, ranging in diameter between 20 and 30 microns. They form a very smooth and neat thread, indicating that the fleece was well combed, as is also suggested by the opposing direction of scales in adjacent fibres. The uniformity of the wool and thread indicates that these threads were most likely machine-spun and had therefore been imported.
As for the magenta-coloured warp threads of a large, striped warp-faced cloth within the collection, their very long, smooth, and uniform fibres, 10-12 microns in diameter, with occasional longitudinal surface striations and a roughly triangular cross section, are consistent with degummed domesticated (or mulberry) silk of Bombyx mori, the domestic silk moth.
There was much to learn, too, from the colours preserved in the collection. Most textiles in the chest include yarns dyed blue, red, green, or yellow, and dye analysis was undertaken by Ina Vanden Berghe at the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in Brussels, Belgium. This work revealed that the blue colours had been obtained with indigotin-containing plants, either indigo (Indigofera or Polygonum species) or woad (Isatis tinctoria L.). The yellow threads present in two textiles contained luteolin/apigenin, which is present in a broad range of plants, such as weld (Reseda luteola L.), sawwort (Serratula tinctoria L.), dyer’s greenweed (Genista tinctoria L.), types of chamomile (Anthemis sp.), or other local equivalents. The detection of carminic acid in all red samples, together with minor amounts of flavokermesic acid and kermesic acid, gives us evidence for the use of the red-scale insect Mexican cochineal (Dactylopius coccus Costa) as an animal red dye source. Mexican cochineal, used in all red yarns, was widely imported to Europe and Asia by the 18th century, and yarn from red wool and silk cloth imported to Africa from Europe and Asia was unravelled so that it could be used in locally produced patterned cloths.
Taken together, the findings from our research tell us that the collection of textiles within Clarkson’s Chest includes a variety of weaves, qualities, and materials, indicative of their diverse origins. The analysis has also identified some of the earliest-known textile samples from the region between the mouth of the Volta in modern-day Ghana and Ouidah in western Benin, an area known in 18th-century European sources as the western ‘Slave Coast’.
Three of the textiles are most likely from the Ewe-speaking region in Ghana and Togo, which has a history of weft-faced and warp-faced plain weave cloth, and the use of not only supplementary wefts but also supplementary warps. Furthermore, it is possible that the warp-faced textile sample with silk threads comes from the other weaving centre of kente in the Asante Empire in the middle of present-day Ghana. The use in West African textiles of the silk and wool threads (particularly those dyed red) unravelled from cloths imported from Europe and Asia has been recorded for this area in the 18th century. However, the unravelling of fibres from European cloth for local textile production has been reported for other weaving localities in West Africa, too.
The role and development of West African coastal manufacturing during the era of the Atlantic slave trade in this time of globalised consumerism is understudied, but our project has now begun to address this. The contents of Clarkson’s Chest are evidence of powerful cross-cultural contacts. These contacts were mirrored and shaped through West African cloth and framed in debates over the abolition of the transatlantic trade in enslaved people. Our research has only just begun, but this investigation has identified a number of further avenues of exploration, and the study into the origins of these textiles continues.
Detailed publications on the findings reviewed here are forthcoming, but to follow the ongoing research on the contents of Clarkson’s Chest or find out more about the Chest in general, please see www.wisbechmuseum.org.uk for blog updates.
Sarah Coleman is project lead for ‘Articles for Change’ at Wisbech & Fenland Museum. Margarita Gleba is a specialist in archaeological and historical textile analysis. She has undertaken the scientific analyses of the Clarkson’s Chest textiles. Malika Kraamer is an art historian and specialist in historical fashion and textiles from West Africa, and is also trained as a weaver of kente. She initiated the new study of the material and carried out textile and contextual analysis.