This film from 2006 tells the story of William Wilberforce and his fight to end the slave trade. The film reminds us that going against the prevailing orthodoxy is always uncomfortable, even when the reform is one as transparently just as this one appears to modern audiences.
The story of how the minds of the public, or at least the politicians who held the power, were changed is central to the story. The title comes from the words of the hymn written by John Newton who had been a crew member on a slave ship before his conversion to Christianity. He was a huge influence on the similarly committed Wilberforce as he moved into the abolition movement.
Thomas Clarkson is portrayed as a radical thinker whose convictions owe much to the revolutionary thinking crossing the continent. Wilberforce was a committed Christian who would have gone into the church if he hadn’t been persuaded to do God’s work in politics by working to end the slave trade.
Michael Apted directed the film. Ioan Gruffudd played Wilberforce and Rufus Sewell played Thomas Clarkson. Youssou N’Dour played Olaudah Equiano.
The film is structured around Wilberforce’s arrival at his friend’s house in Bath. He is here to recuperate after a long battle to get the public to appreciate the awfulness of the slave trade and the vested interests to give up their source of great wealth. In flashbacks we see how he reached this stage. In Bath he meets the woman who will become his wife. It is the love of Barbara Spooner that gives him renewed hope and strength to carry on the fight.
‘Amazing Grace’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I have spent hours of my life in the National Portrait Gallery and I could spend hours more! There is always something new to discover.
This painting by Benjamin Robert Haydon from 1841 is titled, ‘The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840’. It is significant because it commemorates the meeting of the society in 1840 when all the slaves in the British Empire had been freed. Many of the major figures of the anti- slavery campaign are included in the painting along with some of the freed slaves.
Thomas Clarkson is the central figure, clearly shown addressing the meeting. The radical Irish MP, Daniel O’Connell is also shown at the extreme left of the painting. Henry Beckford, a freed slave from Jamaica, is in Clarkson’s eye line. The picture captures a moment when Clarkson addressed Beckford directly. It is no surprise that women are also represented here, since many of the members were non- conformists and Quakers but women were not allowed to speak!
This is not the most amazing painting in the world but it is a record of an amazing gathering of inspirational people. This makes it a painting worth returning to.
‘The Anti- Slavery Society Convention, 1840’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I spent long hours struggling with Wordsworth when I did English Literature A Level back in the 70s. I was not a huge fan. This poem, though, is important because of its subject and because of the sentiment it expresses. I only came across this poem years after finishing A Level because of my interest in some of the key figures of the abolition of slavery movement.
Thomas Clarkson was a leading member of the abolitionist movement. In later life, after the success of the campaign to abolish slavery in Britain, he campaigned for a world wide end to the slave trade. His life remains an inspiration. No wonder Wordsworth put pen to paper!
‘To Thomas Clarkson. On the Final Passing of the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ (1807)
CLARKSON! it was an obstinate hill to climb:
How toilsome—nay, how dire—it was, by thee
Is known; by none, perhaps, so feelingly:
But thou, who, starting in thy fervent prime,
Didst first lead forth that enterprise sublime,
Hast heard the constant Voice its charge repeat,
Which, out of thy young heart’s oracular seat,
First roused thee.—O true yoke-fellow of Time,
Duty’s intrepid liegeman, see, the palm
Is won, and by all Nations shall be worn!
The blood-stained Writing is for ever torn;
And thou henceforth wilt have a good man’s calm,
A great man’s happiness; thy zeal shall find
Repose at length, firm friend of human kind!
This book by Simon Schama is an account of slaves in America who rallied to the British side in the War of Independence. In return, they were offered their freedom. Once it was clear that the colonies were lost, the former slaves were offered new lives in Nova Scotia, which was still part of the British Empire. Many former slaves took the opportunity to start a new life using land promised to them by the British; the consequences of this choice, once it was clear that many of the promises were empty, are the reason this book is worth reading.
This is a significant achievement by Simon Schama. It is an important history to tell and he writes in a way that compels you to keep reading, despite some very difficult events. The story of human suffering is related as is the duplicity of many people of power. He follows the story where it leads, from the American colonies to Nova Scotia and on to Sierra Leone. Some of the main players, black and white, were difficult to say the least; why wouldn’t they be, given the circumstances? Their crossing back to Africa and the life they tried to build once back there provides the main point of the book. There are no heroes as such but John Clarkson, the British officer charged with building a settlement in Freetown is central to the story. As younger brother to Thomas Clarkson, the famous abolitionist, he shared many of the same values and principles. He led former slaves across (back?) to Africa and was seen as an advocate and father figure.
This book reminded me that history is never as clear cut as we may like it to be nor as simple as we try to make it later so that the story can be told in a straightforward way. There were blacks who chose to fight on the side of the Americans, who would keep them enslaved, just as there were whites fighting for emancipation.
By the time I read this book, I missed the chance to see the stage version written by Caryl Phillips, another writer I admire. I did read the script, though, and I notice on my searches through the internet that the BBC made a film based on the book with Schama presenting and parts of the story dramatised with actors.
‘Rough Crossings’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This novel by Lawrence Hill tells the epic story of Aminata Diallo, a young girl from West Africa who was abducted and sold into slavery. The story of her life is told through the first person covering her years on plantation in South Carolina, her involvement in the war of independence and her subsequent journeys to Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone. We learn of the love of her life and the fate of her daughter.
This is a work of fiction but it is based on historical events, documented in several countries. ‘The Book of Negroes’ which gives the novel its title is the ledger of names inscribed of black men and women who supported the British during the war of independence. In return for their loyalty, they were offered freedom and new lives in the ports of Nova Scotia. The details of the ‘Negroes’ shows the malign effect of the trade. Their names are often the names of their former owners rather than any name they own.
The British owed a debt of gratitude to the loyal blacks but they were careless in fulfilling their obligations as is clear from the later stages of Aminata’s life. The racism faced by the refugees in Nova Scotia was as bad as anything they faced in the States. Lawrence Hill carefully introduces real figures from history to anchor the story in the unfolding events.
The book is structured into four sections. At the beginning of each, it is the voice of the older Aminata we hear, in London to give testimony. There she witnessed the passing of the act to abolish slavery, passed by the British Parliament in 1807.
Throughout the adversity she faces, her spirit remains intact and this, over all, is what makes this story an important one to read.
‘The Book of Negroes’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Having remembered ‘Roots’ from the 70s, I went searching my bookshelves for a book I bought just after I watched the series. Called ‘The Inside Story of Television’s Roots’, it is the insider account of how Alex Haley’s novel was turned into a television series. Thinking about it now, with the history books telling us what a success it was and what a landmark event it represented, it is easy to forget the size of the risk taken by David Wolper who co- wrote this book with Quincy Troupe. Planning the series began even before it was clear that the novel itself was going to be successful.
Broadcasting over eight consecutive evenings is often cited as a master stroke and part of its success story but, as this book reveals, the decision was taken partly because schedulers were concerned that the audience might be put off by a programme with black characters centre stage, so to speak. The eight consecutive evenings idea was, in part, to minimise any damage to ratings should the audience fail to materialise. Indeed, most of the book covers the planning and filming when nobody knew how it would be received.
My copy of the book was published in 1978. I read it that year and then again more recently after watching the series on DVD. There is an anecdote which Alex Haley relates on page 84 which I don’t recall making much impact on me in the 70s but which certainly did reading it again in the 21st Century! LeVar Burton who played the younger Kunta Kinte is an actor from California. In between filming in Savannah, Georgia he was socialising in a bar with some friends from his college. They happened to be white girls. He was oblivious as he danced with his white girl friends but Alex Haley and older black actors saw what he didn’t: the room was full of local white men watching a young black man dancing with white girls. As Haley relates, he took on the role of older and wiser confidante who told LeVar Burton that in the South, customs were not the same as in California.
‘Roots’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I saw the film, ’12 Years a Slave’ recently. It was brilliant! However, I do not yet know if it will enter my hinterland; only time will tell. It reminded me, though, of the 70s television series that first lifted slavery out from the history books and made me realise that it was a tragedy experienced by millions of people and not just something to study in school.
‘Roots’ was broadcast by BBC Television in 1977 over several evenings. Over 19 million people watched it and I was one of them. The series was based on Alex Haley’s novel which had the full title of ‘Roots: The Saga of an American Family’ when it was published. My copy of the book, obviously bought in Britain, only has the title ‘Roots’ but with ‘The epic drama of one man’s search for his origins’ as a strapline.
It is the story of Kunta Kinte who is captured in West Africa, sold into slavery and given a new name by slave owners. They do not see a human in front of them but an item of highly valuable property. The story of his life as a slave and the lives of the generations of his family that follow is told through the mini-series.
n 2007, the BBC broadcast a documentary about the impact of the series on black Britons. I remember listening to their interviews and realising the importance of the mini- series to them. It was important, not just because it was a drama with more black characters than white, but because the BBC gave so much air time over to the story. It was highly unusual then. I wonder if it is any better now!
‘Roots’ taught me two things: while I was sympathetic and saw myself as a liberal who believed on the right things, this was not my history; it needed to be told by the right people and this history needed to be told by a black man.
There is a scene in the early stages of the series when Kunta Kinte, played by LeVar Burton, tries to escape his chains. He rages on the shore line in what looks like a macabre dance. The anguish, anger, fear and betrayal he feels are all conveyed without words.
‘Roots’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?