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Marking the legacy of David Richardson, our founding director

We are very sad to announce the death of Emeritus Professor David Richardson, the founding director of the Wilberforce Institute at the University of Hull, who passed away yesterday surrounded by his family.

David Richardson with John Oldfield and Trevor Burnard
David Richardson with John Oldfield and Trevor Burnard at the Wilberforce Institute, which David helped establish

Philip David Richardson, known as David, was born in Runcorn, Lancashire, in 1946. Educated at the University of Manchester, he accepted a position in the Department of Economic and Social History at the University of Hull in the late 1960s, and spent his whole career here, becoming Professor of Economic History.

During his half century of teaching and research, David was a prodigious scholar of the British slave trade (with expertise also in the French and other European slave trades). He was part of a remarkable generation of scholars, including David Eltis, Stanley Engerman, Seymour Drescher and others who used their formidable archival research and wide-ranging historical knowledge to establish the numbers and nature of the transatlantic slave trade between Africa and the Americas. David was an expert in the slave trading business of Bristol and latterly of Liverpool.

David's work was remarkable in itself but just as remarkable was his gift for collaboration and for doing interdisciplinary history. He was instrumental in the creation of the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, one of the most important digital projects ever to be undertaken. First published in the 1990s by David, David Eltis and Stephen Behrendt, it is now available at www.slavevoyages.org.

His work was extraordinary in its depth and extent, ranging from numerous pathbreaking articles on slavery and the slave trade in all of the best academic journals in Britain, France and America, to many volumes on all aspects of slavery. His publications include two books with David Eltis, Extending the Frontiers: essays on the new transatlantic slave trade database (2008) and the prizewinning Atlas of the Transatlantic slave trade (2010). He helped edit the paradigmatic Cambridge World History of Slavery (2010-2021). In 2022, he published his final book, an authoritative survey of Britain’s slave trade and its abolition, Principles and Agents: The British Slave Trade and its Abolition. He also served on the editorial board of the world leading journal Slavery and Abolition and played an important role in the UNESCO Slave Routes project.

David Richardson was not just a hugely important author of articles and books on slavery, he was also an institution builder. With colleagues, he persuaded Hull City Council to provide space for a new research institute on slavery and the University of Hull to provide resources for academics to work on historical and contemporary slavery. Rather than being situated on the main university campus he had the vision to locate the institute within the heart of Hull's Museums Quarter, thereby raising public awareness of the unfinished business of slavery. He became the first director of the Wilberforce Institute, named after the distinguished Hull abolitionist, William Wilberforce, and persuaded Archbishop Desmond Tutu to become the first patron. Opened in 2006 by former President John Kufuor of Ghana, the Wilberforce Institute under his leadership became a major centre of scholarship on all aspects of slavery.

A highlight of his directorship, from 2006 to 2013, was the commemorations of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007, including major events at Hull, that brought together politicians, academics, and community representatives from throughout Britain and the world. Crucially the Institute capitalised upon David's lifelong commitment to support the next generation of scholars. Countless PhD students, Early Career Researchers, and heritage professionals benefitted from his endless energy and visionary outlook. He never sought to be the centre of attention, rather to help others augment their own careers. All who met him held David in high esteem.

The Wilberforce Institute joins David’s family and friends in mourning his death. We are extremely grateful for the many contributions that David made in establishing the Wilberforce Institute as an important research institute and in providing an outstanding example of leadership and academic excellence. More details will be provided in due course about recognising and celebrating David’s many personal and scholarly achievements. For now, we give thanks for his selfless vision to help others. He will be sorely missed by everyone he taught, supported or led at the University and further afield.

 Trevor Burnard, Director of the Wilberforce Institute

John Oldfield, former Director of the Wilberforce Institute


This tribute to David Richardson, first director of the Wilberforce Institute, comes from David Eltis, professor emeritus at Emory University and long-time collaborator with David Richardson on more than 20 books and articles, including the prize-winning Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Yale, 2009).

I first met David at Colby College, Maine in August 1974, though to my subsequent regret it was eighteen years before we began a collaboration. Fifty years later I find myself adding to the mass of data on the British slave trade that he assembled in the nineteen eighties and nineties, first as sole author of a four-volume catalogue of the Bristol slave trade, and then with Katherine Beedham and Maurice Schofield, A Computerised Edition of the Liverpool Plantation Registers, 1744-1786. These formed the core data for the English slave trade. When Steve Behrendt’s data for 1779-1807 became available, it emerged that for six decades the English had carried more African captives across the Atlantic than had any other country. But the work involved in these projects comprised far more than collecting numbers of enslaved people. The project encompassed all the details of often complex voyages and involved the creation of well over 150 variables that are still in daily use on the slavevoyages website.

I mention this somewhat arcane information because an eighteenth-century document has recently come to light containing details of 1,340 voyages that disembarked slaves in Jamaica – the principal slave market in the British Americas. In the process of integrating this new source into www.slavevoyages.org I have gained new respect for David’s meticulous work. I have worked with many careful scholars over the years, but he was the best - patient, resourceful and usually correct in his final decisions. But his key contribution to slave trade scholarship was yet to come. After Cambridge published the CD-ROM of the transatlantic slave trade database in 1999, he applied for and won the largest single grant the voyages project has so far obtained – from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. This funding allowed us to greatly extend our coverage of the Portuguese slave trade as well as begin the arduous process of moving the database to the web. Another eight years of piecing together data followed, this time drawing on French and Portuguese archival material before the site went live in 2008.

While all this was going on, indeed from 1995 to shortly before his final illness, David co-authored and co-edited twenty books and research essays with me alone, most of the latter finding homes in top ranked journals, and major university presses. Yet all these comprised just a small fraction of his research output. I was just one of twenty other scholars with whom he published during his career, many eminent. He had an extraordinary ability to work with those with whom he disagreed, an unusual characteristic among the academics that I know, including myself! Not the least of what he brought to the collaborative table was a peerless collection of notes and xeroxed documents taken from a wide range of archives. In the 1990s I would work through these during extended visits to his office and I was followed by a wide range of other scholars. Fortunately, when he retired this treasure trove was transferred to the Wilberforce Institute. No research on the slave trade can be now complete without the researcher making an extended visit to WISE.

Indeed, would the very institute that now houses these documents even exist but for the tireless efforts of David, Mike Turner and Gary Craig? What astonished me during my visits to Hull in the pre-WISE days, was the way he was able to hold down administrative positions at the same time as working with me. He went seamlessly from Department Head to Dean and then to Director of the Institute without his research missing a beat. A glimpse at his cv will establish this last point. And of course, the creation of the Institute in the early years of the century was a full-time job in itself. He was at ease with politicians at both the local and the national levels as well as the upper range of the University administration. The talents he displayed in interacting with scholars in the increasingly fractious field of the Black Atlantic were clearly suited to smoothing the path that made the establishment of WISE possible.

For three decades I have been able to rely on quick responses from David to my incessant questions. I see his handwriting whenever I open my filing cabinets; his comments and papers fill my back-up drives. His passing of course means an enormous loss to the field, but this is nothing compared to the gap it leaves in my own personal and professional life. At least with the Slavevoyages’ site averaging 2,000 visitors a day, his work on the slave trade alone will likely endure forever.



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