Black and British

David Olusoga’s book has the sub-title ‘A Forgotten History’ so his work is timely since it sets the record straight in terms of the multi-cultural nature of British society.  Since Roman times there has been a black presence on these islands and, as he shows in chapters that proceed chronologically, there has been a black participation in the life of the country ever since.

Some of the participants were not voluntary members of society, of course, since they were here as slaves.  One of the sad trends related here is the fashion for young enslaved black boys or girls to attend the rich in their houses only to be cast out when they have grown older and less appealing.

The noble history of the campaign to end the slave trade is given a lot of space but so also is the less well known accommodations given to the merchants who built their fortunes on slavery.  Compensation was paid!  The role of Thomas Clarkson was given prominence even though the sons of Wilberforce tried to play down his contribution at the same time as promoting the part played by their father.

The chapter on the second world war was informative in terms of the racism debate and the extent to which British attitudes were shaped by the insistence that the American colour (color) bar was maintained over here.  It is pleasing to think that the British were less prejudiced but the subsequent history, including the reluctance of the Attlee government to import black labour in the post war period, suggests that it was not an exclusively American attitude.

This was an excellent ‘opening up’ of an important part of British history and I was glad to have read it.  BlogBlackBritish


Any Known Blood

BlogAnyKnownBloodThis novel by Lawrence Hill made for fascinating reading.  A novel, it follows the story of Langston Cane as he researches his family background in preparation for a novel.  This metacognition is heightened by the fact that each of the (male) relatives he follows are also called Langston Cane.

‘Our’ Langston is number five and working for a government minister when the book opens but a misdemeanour with a speech he prepares for his boss finds him out of work. As his wife has also left him, he is without a purpose until family history sends him from Toronto to Baltimore and his aunt who is estranged from her brother.  She has information about her father and grandfather and Langston uses this to piece together a story of race and civil rights across the generations.

Both world wars feature as does the underground railway to Canada used by slaves escaping the USA.  The civil rights movement and interracial marriage are here, too.   An African illegally resident is a key character while historical figures such as John Brown and Frederick Douglass pop up.

What makes the book work as more than a fictionalised family history is the story of Cane trying to navigate the present while looking into the past.  Lawrence Hill avoids giving us a chronological version of the past Cane’s revealing bits of the past out of sequence before providing ‘chunks’ of the story of previous Langston Canes.

‘Any Known Blood’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?


The Gilt of Cain

The Gilt of Cain

Here is the ask price on the closed position,
history is no inherent acquisition
for here the Technical Correction upon the act,
a merger of truth and in actual fact
on the spot, on the money – the spread.
The dealer lied when the dealer said
the bull was charging the bear was dead,
the market must calculate per capita, not head.

And great traders acting in concert, arms rise
as the actuals frought on the sea of franchise
thrown overboard into the exchange to drown
in distressed brokers disconsolate frown.
In Accounting liquidity is a mounting morbidity
but raising the arms with such rigid rapidity…
Oh the reaping the raping rapacious fluidity,
the violence the vicious and vexed volatility.

The roaring trade floor rises above crashing waves:
the traders buy ships, beneath the slaves.
Sway machete back, sway machete again
cut back the Sugar Rush, Cain.
The whipsaw it’s all and the whip saw it all
The rising market and the cargo fall
Who’ll enter “Jerusalem” make the margin call for Abel?
Who will kick over the stall and turn the table?

Cain gathers cane as gilt-gift to his land
But whose sword of truth shall not sleep in hand?
Who shall unlock the stocks and share?
Break the bond the bind unbound – lay bare
The Truth. Cash flow runs deep but spirit deeper
You ask Am I my brothers keeper?
I answer by nature by spirit by rightful laws
My name, my brother, Wilberforce.

Lemn Sissay


Gilt of Cain

In London and with some time to myself so I went off in search of a sculpture I had long wanted to track down.  ‘The Gilt of Cain’ was unveiled in 2008 to commemorate the abolition of the slave trade.  The site is significant: Fen Court in the City of London is the site of a church which had strong connections with the abolitionist movement in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Rev John Newton, the slave trader who became a vicar and ardent abolitionist, served as the Rector of St.Mary Woolnorth which stood on this site.

The sculptor Michael Visocchi worked with the poet Lemn Sissay to create a sculpture made up of columns and a podium.  The columns represent sugar cane and the podium could be taken for a pulpit or a slave auction block.  The work is grey granite with carved words taken from the Lemn Sissay poem ‘Gilt of Cain’.

It was a wet and gloomy Sunday morning when I went looking for it.  Once there, I discovered that there was a building site next to it and a blue fence had been erected right up against the work of art.

Never mind the rain, as it was a Sunday in the City of London, I had the sculpture to myself and was undisturbed.


This film is based on an amazing and true story.  In Kenwood House for many years there was a painting on the wall of Kenwood House, Hampstead, the seat of Lord Mansfield who was the most senior judge in Britain. He was Lord Chief Justice in 1770s.  The painting attributed to Johann Zoffany was exceptional because one of the two subjects was black and was present in the painting, not as a servant to confirm the importance of the sitter, because of her rank and place in an aristocratic family of England.


Around this painting a film has been created which explores the themes of race and gender.  Dido is the ward of Lord Mansfield.  Her father, a naval officer, took the child he had with her slave mother to England and left her with his uncle, Lord Mansfield.  Dido lived with them as part of the family but, with respect to the conventions of the time, she did not eat with the family at meal times.  It was permissible to show her off once the meal had been taken.

As her cousin, Elizabeth, looked for a suitable match or rather as her guardians looked for one for her, there was no thought given to Dido.  The love interest in this film comes from the young radical white man who argues for an end to slavery and wins the affection of Dido while at the same time falling foul of Lord Mansfield.

Belle Movie Stills

Throughout the film the notions of class, rank and gender are emphasised along with the obvious theme of race. Where people fit into the order of things is the most important factor in determining identity.  There may have been some comfort in knowing your place.

For a film to portray an important (and often hidden) part of history is interesting but I worry that our modern views are layered over uncomfortable stretches of history so that we can feel better about ourselves.  In one scene, towards the end Dido and our young radical kiss on the street.  Members of the public walk past without noticing or remarking on it.  Would it not be better to show the scene as it would have been?  Would not members of the public have attacked the couple for their offensive behaviour?  In making things okay for us now, with our modern sensibilities, perhaps we let our collected selves off the hook for parts of history that should be remembered for what they were.

Limbo: Edward Kamau Braithwaite

Here is a poem about slavery that plays on the multiple meanings of the word ‘limbo’.  There is a clear reference to limbo dancing under the metal rod that was used on slave ships but the poem also references that state that exists outside of certainty.  The rhythm of the poem with repetitions echoes the beats of the drum as the limbo dancing takes place.


And limbo stick is the silence in front of me

limbo like me
limbo like me

long dark night is the silence in front of me
limbo like me

stick hit sound
and the ship like it ready

stick hit sound
and the dark still steady

limbo like me

long dark deck and the water surrounding me
long dark deck and the silence is over me

limbo like me

stick is the whip
and the dark deck is slavery

stick is the whip
and the dark deck is slavery

limbo like me

drum stick knock
and the darkness is over me

knees spread wide
and the water is hiding

limbo like me

knees spread wide
and the dark ground is under me


and the drummer is calling me

limbo like me

sun coming up
and the drummers are praising me

out of the dark
and the dumb god are raising me


and the music is saving me


on the burning ground.

Edward Kamau Braithwaite



The Fruits of Early Industry and Oeconomy

The slavery gallery of the Museum of London Docklands had many artefacts and information boards to bring you up short.  This print by W. Ward of George Morland’s painting is one example.  It is the scene of a wealthy British merchant enjoying the ‘just’ rewards of his hard work as a buyer and seller.  Through the window you can see the wharf where the goods that led to wealth can be seen.  The merchant is at business, attended by a clerk, while his family and dog add the picture of domestic bliss.  On the wall is a painting of their country estate, confirming their wealth and status.


The print is from 1789 and, in keeping with the times, aims to show what rewards hard work can bring.  It isn’t just the goods seen through the window that illustrate the buying and selling, though.  At the right of the picture is a young black servant boy offering a basket of fruit to the lady of the house.  He, too, is a fruit of the merchants endeavours!  The wealth of many merchants and the economy of much of London was built on the trade in human beings.