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Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose

Delving into the story behind BBC slavery epic The Long Song with Tré Ventour…

Through her books, including Small Island and The Long Song Andrea Levy has been a voice for generations of people. The Long Song is a story about Black people. It’s a story about White people. It’s a story about slavery set in Jamaica, both before and after abolition in 1833.

On July 31, 1838, it’s rumoured that the people of Jamaica climbed the hills to watch the dawn. After legal breakthroughs, abolitionist campaigning, and rebellion from the slaves themselves, freedom was achieved.

Plantation owners were uncertain what was going to happen. For years they believed slavery would never end; though fear of rebellion was always on their minds, as they had convinced themselves of their own fearmongering propaganda. “Friends, neighbours, welcome to Amity” begins John Howarth (Leo Bill). “The abolitionists in England are gaining support […] and thanks to them mutinous talk has been circulating amongst the slaves.”

Andrea Levy

Overseers and planters alike were scared that their former-slaves who they had raped, exploited and whipped would take retribution. “They won’t rise against us. They lack any ability to organise themselves.” Then of course, The Christmas Rebellion (1831/32) happened (lead by Sam Sharp). What they don’t show you in the series, is that rather than take revenge, the slaves went to church. In this act they showed White society they were not the savages they were labelled as. Not that this changed perceptions.

In 1837, in England, the new queen Victoria was crowned. The Victorians believed abolition and anti-slavery sentiments marked a new era for the country and its empire. Abolition changed how the Victorians looked at themselves. Being anti-slavery, for many, was directly entwined with British identity. I guess you were ‘unBritish’ if you were pro-slavery. Some took it to the next level. The British saw themselves as moral leaders. It took Britain over two hundred years to get to this point. Oh, the irony! Now, Britain wanted to do what Britain does best. Ride its moral high horse into battle, by ending slavery everywhere.

The Long Song #3

In regards to Miss July (Tamara Lawrance) and the other slaves, episode two and three shows post-slavery Jamaica – Robert Goodwin (Dunkirk’s Jack Lowden) doubling rents because he can – “your houses belong to me, therefore I can rent them out to whomever I choose for whatever I price I choose.” He goes on to emphasise they must work seven days a week to meet the new rent. Is this really freedom? Meanwhile, overseers cracked the whip in threat. “We dance to no lash” says Peggy (Shereen Gray). These brutal manipulations of the system loop hole the Victorian sense of moral righteousness. But inside thirty years this moral triumphancy would crash and burn, literally.

And in 1865, The Morant Bay Rebellion happened. Jamaica, a place that was once profitable, was now barren, with many going back to Britain. Now, hundreds of thousands of unemployed ex-slaves had no land and were living in a bad drought.

When a man was taken to court for farming on abandoned land, between 500 and 600 former-slaves congregated outside, only to be witness to the local magistrate reading the Riot Act (protected by the local militia). The crowd began to throw stones and subsequently, the militia opened fire. The crowd began to burn the courthouse down. The militia killed seven people and eighteen more were killed by the crowd, including the magistrate.

Small Island - Ruby Pictures/BBC
Small Island – Ruby Films/BBC directed by John Alexander starring Naomie Harris David Oyelowo and Ruth Wilson

The crowd simmered down. This was a riot in a small town that no longer mattered to the British. The reason why every Jamaican knows about this incident is because of what followed – on the say-so of Governor Edward Eyre, the army streamed into Morant Bay like swarms of wasps. Hundreds were killed; some were executed, like it was a sequel to Guyana (1833).

Morant Bay was a brutal act of vengeance. I would go as far to call it a genocidal act. The narrative of Black insurrection against White authority is a tale as old as time, uncanny to the repercussion of James’ “No” in The Long Song. One small word… three hundred years in the making. Goodwin’s response wasn’t in reply to “No”; it was in response to Black fear in the face of White authority, similar to Eyre calling on the army.

Post-abolition, the slave-owning class continued to live in Jamaica. They didn’t change their views when the law changed. The policy of the colonial government was to stop those of African descent from being in control of their own destinies, in fact liberating them of their rights – e.g. prohibiting them from owning their own land. Goodwin proclaiming how they (the slaves) should be grateful for their freedom is reminiscent of how Black British people today are told how we should be grateful to the UK whenever we complain about anything.

When freedom reigned in 1834, the planters didn’t go quietly.  This great socioeconomic experiment had made lots of people rich in the colonies and in Britain – from London to Glasgow, from Liverpool and Bristol to Northamptonshire and the home counties, Jamaica, Grenada, Barbados and beyond – if they were to lose their source of income, a lucrative one at that, they wanted to be paid for it. They wanted compensation.

The British Empire was where the sun never set and this blood-stained currency seeped into all corners of the world. Profits acquired by the Transatlantic Slave Trade ran riot in the heart of the British economy creating powerful dynasties, amassing large sums from the exploitation of the African via the backbreaking labour in sugarcane fields. Many of these planters had never even set foot on a plantation but had grown rich from a system that their ancestors invented.

For July (Lawrance) and her friends, the price of freedom was high and that price was more than the contents of a purse. It was in human life and the blood shed through resistance and rebellion, the impulsions of slave masters and the rape of slave women (like Miss July’s mother Kitty). The price was in the Haitian Revolution and mutinies – in Demerara, Berbice and Essequibo (Guyana, 1833). The ringleaders were executed and bodies swayed in a haze of nooses.

The Long Song #2

Two hundred and fifty died in Guyana but these acts of rebellion were widespread across the Caribbean (including the French and Dutch islands too), stories that have been overlooked in favour of the abolitionist narrative, one following a man who Akala describes in his book Natives as “Mr William – patron saint of Black emancipation – Wilberforce.” It wouldn’t be so amusing if it wasn’t true, as if one person could end a two hundred and fifty-year-strong economic venture, purely based on his moral convictions. And we don’t talk about the film Amazing Grace, whose title was inspired by clergyman and slaver John Newton.

When you look at the British Slave-ownership index, it makes you ashamed to not only be British but to be a human being. What human being could do that to another human being? Not only does it show you the names of people who got paid, it also shows the companies whose legacies were assured from it, including  Barclay, Bevan and Bening (Barclays), Lloyd’s of London, Lloyd’s Bank Company Ltd (Lloyd’s), and more. Additionally, slave money was also used to buy seats in parliament. By looking at the index, it’s evident that slavery benefited more than the rich white men. Women too profited, regardless if they were widowed heiresses or planters in their own right.

The price of freedom was high. Compensation for the planters was a pre-condition of emancipation. Within this sits a dilemma of monumental proportions. If the only way to achieve freedom for the slaves was to pay off the plantation owners, they would have to acknowledge people as things rather than human beings. That these men, women and children made in God’s image with immortal souls were objects to be bought and sold like cattle. Centuries of slave rebellions and fifty years of abolitionist campaigning is what lead to it. For July (Lawrance), Godfrey (Lenny Henry) and company to be free, they had to be acknowledged as property.

In the finale of this moral struggle, the abolitionists were given an ultimatum by the planters – abandon your most cherished value or let slavery endure. Freedom may have been achieved, tangibly, but The Long Song shows how the slave mindset grew like weeds in the heads of the slave-owning class. And what’s more, the planters won the war on race. These ideologies passed through the generations, surviving slavery, reminding us of the discourse from the coloniser to the colonised.

These ideas trickled into British culture in how Britain thought about its empire. Families began rewriting their genealogy. It’s why Admiral Nelson is only thought of as a naval war hero but not as slaver too, as well as a supporter of compensation for the slavers. It’s stately homes in relation to Britain’s colonial drama. It’s the slave-picked cotton manufactured in Lancashire’s mills (see ‘The Lancashire Cotton Famine’). It’s in the colonial statues, street names and art galleries too.

How Britain thought about race and Black people found itself forged into propaganda, minstrel shows watched by the white masses – one more example of how dark skin was fetishized – from the great stage of slave plantations in The Long Song to the theatres and playhouses of England. And to think we had black and white minstrel shows on UK television until 1978.

These ideas of ‘Black is whack and White is alright’ still dominate. Must I write about the Windrush Scandal and colourism? Must I write of Britain’s white-led debates on race? Must I write about my grandparents leaving small islands for a smaller one? – telling me of hurricane season and a Britain’s browbeaten NHS and train services.

Light skin, white skin, dark skin… blue, black, brown – we are all touched by this history. This long song is still being sung through the descendants of slavery in Europe and the Americas. All of us together are part of this story. The Long Song is the story of my ancestors, the coloniser and the colonised, the rulers and the ruled. It comes to a point where you have to acknowledge that our ancestors would have been both black and white, sharing in both their humanity and cruelty – their comedy and tragedy; their love and lust; the good, the bad and the outright horrible.

Many of us have benefited from the economic, social and cultural legacies that slavery and colonialism left behind, including white privilege, and inherited fortunes built on human suffering and stolen land. Could the release of The Long Song be a chance for Britain to come to terms with this history? Or will certain people continue to press mute on unpleasant subjects? – acting like a viper in the bosom of one of the most important parts of our national story.

I'm the editor and owner of The NeneQuirer.

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