12 Years a Slave tells an American story; but when will Britain confront its own history of slavery?

African-American writers will not let their nation forget. Where is the UK equivalent?

Share

Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen is now one of Britain’s most exploratory, independent, unsettling film-makers, an outsider whose cameras go looking into the Stygian nooks of the human psyche and secreted collective perversions. His new film, 12 Years a Slave, examines both. It is based on a true tale of a free black man, Solomon Northup, living quietly in Saratoga Springs near New York in 1841, when he was duped, captured and taken off to a southern plantation.

Critics seem shaken and overwhelmed by its unsparing detail and authenticity. Glittering prizes will, for sure, follow. McQueen, known as “an English film-maker” is a Londoner of Grenadian descent: “I’m here because my family went through slavery. Fact.” That fact and others have been buried away in unknown graves in the country which now claims him and in the other UK nations too.

Our national narrative goes like this: slavery occurred in America and the untamed Caribbean isles, with the co-operation of the “dark continent” and it took heroic Britons to end the evil. Lies told so often and so assiduously eventually transmute into impenetrable, solid veracities. This film will not shift those steadfast beliefs because the story is well, again, an American one. When will we get such a film made about, say, one of the small boys sold in a London coffee house, his life as a slave on these shores, his attempts to escape, the terrible punishments, mutilations and degradation? It happened, even after Lord Mansfield decreed in 1772, that no men or women could be sent forth from these isles to be slaves.

Oh the arguments I have had with people, including friends, about Britain’s slave history. They do not want to know. Last summer we went on holiday to Trinidad and Tobago. In museums, seeing shackles, testimonies, torture instruments, etchings of whippings and hangings, my daughter wept. Although she has been educated in Britain, she was never taught about what really went on, the grotesque truths.

To calm those readers who will be getting very angry, I must acknowledge some facts, which do, up to a point, mitigate the culpability of this nation. Arabs and Africans had been enslavers for many centuries and continued after abolition. Long before the British came into the business, the Spanish, Dutch, French and Portuguese were catching and transporting Africans across the Atlantic and selling them. Britain then transformed the trade into a massive, profitable industry. The country, however, had vocal women and men of conscience who, with ex-slaves, finally stopped the commodification of humans. It was a moral crusade. Ships patrolled the coasts of Africa to stop slave ships. It is right that we always remember what they did. But we must also remember the horrors of enslavement that created revulsion among those great and good, women and Quakers in particular.

Sir John Hawkins, second cousin of Sir Francis Drake, started it all in 1555, with a cargo of 301 slaves. After the Restoration, the trade was controlled by monopoly companies backed by the King. Jamaica was seized by the British in 1655. Fifty years later, there were 42,000 slaves there. Half a century after that the number rose to 200,000. Death rates were high so many more must have landed. Read the books by James Walvin to get the stark details. Almost every institution and class in this country profited. The Tate Gallery, Oxbridge colleges, the Church, politicians, the aristocracy, middle classes, banks, manufacturers and traders. In the recent past, to their credit, cities like Bristol and Liverpool have broken the silence and found ways to permanently remember the stolen people.

It’s not enough but at least England tries. Scotland, in contrast, has completely excised its part and the whitewash continues. It joined the Union so it could get into the lucrative game. Glasgow was built on slave money and later the empire. Many great lairds, such as Richard Oswald of Auchincruive House in Ayrshire, owned massive Caribbean slave plantations. Robert Burns planned to go out to the Caribbean to become a slave driver. The vast number of Scottish surnames of black people in the US, Caribbean and UK show just how deeply involved the Scots were in this enterprise. Someone please ask Alex Salmond if this will be in the school curriculum of an independent Scotland.

African-American writers and artists will not let their nation forget. Here the descendants of slaves remain reticent. Some even feel shame and don’t want to be reminded of those dark centuries. Though we have compelling black writers, thus far none has given us the potent slave narratives of, say, Alex Haley or Toni Morrison. McQueen sees the consequences of the trade in black-skinned men, women and children: “Look at the prison population, mental health issues, poverty.” Actual enslavement still goes on too –  trafficked farm workers, young, forced prostitutes, undocumented domestics and cleaners.

This groundbreaking film, whilst very important, will not get audiences to make connections between America and Britain, then and now. And so British slavery remains the greatest story never told.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Beware of the jovial buffoon who picks fights overseas

Boyd Tonkin
 

My shameful failure to live up to the spirit of Christmas

Howard Jacobson
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all