A Long Read – capitalism and slavery, the past intrudes

The Guardian reports on an upcoming documentary on slavery and Britain’s role by the BBC, one of that corporation’s strengths, The history of British slave ownership has been buried: now its scale can be revealed.

As lead-in to the British role and experience, David Olusoga takes a brief look at genealogy, history and the US celebrity.

The past has a disconcerting habit of bursting, uninvited and unwelcome, into the present. This year history gate-crashed modern America in the form of a 150-year-old document: a few sheets of paper that compelled Hollywood actor Ben Affleck to issue a public apology and forced the highly regarded US public service broadcaster PBS to launch an internal investigation.

The document, which emerged during the production of Finding Your Roots, a celebrity genealogy show, is neither unique nor unusual. It is one of thousands that record the primal wound of the American republic – slavery. It lists the names of 24 slaves, men and women, who in 1858 were owned by Benjamin L Cole, Affleck’s great-great-great-grandfather. When this uncomfortable fact came to light, Affleck asked the show’s producers to conceal his family’s links to slavery. Internal emails discussing the programme were later published by WikiLeaks, forcing Affleck to admit in a Facebook post: “I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was embarrassed.”

North Korea had originally been officially (and falsely) accused of hacking the Sony e-mail that WikiLeaks would publish. Among the e-mail would be the communications on how to avoid history and fact, how to recreate reality.

In case of the celebrity genealogy gimmick, the celebrity historian, greater celebrity because of the show, also is complicit. Even with the slavery business, there is that celebrity African-American (US) whose roots would, in total defiance of all probability, be traced to some exalted African king, all ably abetted by media as a show of patriotic non-racism. Puzzlingly, all ‘sellable’ on US TV to credulous, buying viewers.

And on the more pertinent pivotal role of Britain, one powerful paragraph,

The compensation of Britain’s 46,000 slave owners was the largest bailout in British history until the bailout of the banks in 2009. Not only did the slaves receive nothing, under another clause of the act they were compelled to provide 45 hours of unpaid labour each week for their former masters, for a further four years after their supposed liberation. In effect, the enslaved paid part of the bill for their own manumission.

Sobering to read, even if already known. Incentive to revisit Eric Williams’, Capitalism and Slavery?


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