Friday, 24 January 2014

The Largest Slave Revolt in the US

Louisiana has a dark past. One inevitably intertwined with the history of enslavement, brutality and death. Many stories remain lost, undiscovered or hidden; when I visited Destrehan Plantation, 40-50 miles from that vibrant, soulful city of New Orleans, I learned about a little-known slave revolt in 1811. I had never heard of this, despite researching the theme of slave revolts for a university essay. After my visit I purchased a book by Daniel Rasmussen, which I have just devoured in the last few days in my lunch hour. It is an amazing book, and it should be on every university reading list for American history. Rasmussen not only describes the revolt in detail, but also weaves together its consequences with the history of American expansion and how African American history is remembered through a filtered lens. 

In January 1811, Charles Deslondes, Koot and Quamana, slaves on neighbouring plantations outside New Orleans, led a revolt of 200-500 slaves against their masters. Deslondes began by hacking the son of his owner to death and marched in the direction of the city. Mass panic ensued. As news spread from plantation to plantation, (sometimes betrayed by fellow slaves, hoping their loyalty would win them favour), the white population fled into the swamps or made for New Orleans as well. Refugees led a 9 mile traffic jam into the city to escape these insurgents. Federal troops were called to protect New Orleans -  an action which confirmed the young American republic as a slave nation – but the French plantation owners decided to take matters into their own hands. 80 white men, armed to the teeth with muskets rode out to meet the slaves and charged – only half of the slave army had guns and this exchange was little more than a massacre. The planters fired and hacked the wounded to pieces. They unleashed bloodhounds to chase Deslondes and after one seized him in the chest, the vengeful planters broke both his legs, severed his head and burned his body. The other ring leaders were rounded up for trial and over one hundred were executed. Their heads were stuck on pikes and placed all along the River Road from New Orleans, reminding the enslaved of the authority of white men. This revolt was suppressed quickly and brutally; William Claiborne, the governor of the New Orleans territory prevented the revolt from being a talking point in Congress and so avoided a national discussion. The country’s largest slave revolt was lost to the history books.
This injustice deserves to be righted. These men fought for freedom and equality, and were prepared to die for it. But why have these men been forgotten? Rasmussen makes the point that the non-violent Martin Luther King has been remembered but men like Deslondes – who challenged the status quo – do not fit with American ideals and thus, ignored. Deslondes and his army were freedom fighters and Rasmussen puts them in context with other powerful black figures who tried to seize their freedom – like the black slaves who fled plantations when the Union army came to the Louisiana shore, or those who fought in the black regiments in the Union. This book strikes at the very heart of the debates within American society – over the hypocrisy of American society, its willingness to hide those who are not ‘safe’ to remember and above all what Americans were prepared to do to protect their ‘domestic institution’ = slavery.

12 Years A Slave a 'White Saviour Story?' Not a Chance

'12 Years A Slave' has dominated the news lately and rightly so. It is a true story exposing the brutality of a system which existed in the United States for over 200 years. The US was quite comfortable with promoting its reputation as a ‘land of liberty’ despite the fact that four million African Americans were held in bondage. It was a 'white man’s world' and blacks were expected to conform to it. Stories of resistance or revolt from the enslaved population were suppressed because they were a threat to white dominance. This emphasis on white men has led to a disappearance and a shameful cover-up of African American resistance. Since slavery began there have been countless stories of slaves seizing their own freedom – running away to the North, forming maroon communities or even (more drastically) committing suicide – all to escape slavery. These men and women did not rely on white men to help them achieve this.
I’ve been reading a lot of reviews and articles about the reception of '12 Years A Slave', and one of the most surprising posts I came across was a description of the film as yet another Hollywood story of how an African American was saved by a white man. It is certainly true that traditionally, Hollywood has focused on this type of story or aspects of history where white men were heavily involved. I would love a film to be made about Harriet Tubman, the strongest woman to have ever set foot on this earth. She escaped slavery and travelled back to the South many times, risking her life to help other slaves. A film about the black maroon communities in Florida would shatter illusions about the supposed ‘passivity’ of blacks, who took to arms to defend themselves when the US Army attempted to drive them out. Or how about the story of Charles Deslondes, one of the leaders of the 1811 Slave Revolt in Louisiana, who hacked his master’s son to death and marched with an army of slaves in an attempt to storm New Orleans?
These stories would make great films. But I am prepared to fight my corner for Soloman Northup. If people think the film is just another white man’s saviour story they do not understand the true nature of Soloman or the film itself.  
For those who haven’t seen the film, perhaps a little background is required. You can read the general overview of Soloman’s life in the post below but at the end of the film Soloman is saved from slavery by a white man named Bass (played by Brad Pitt), who takes a letter Soloman has written to the post office, and sends it to New York. Bass risked his life, as helping a slave was punishable by death.
For Soloman, living in Louisiana, there were few opportunities to escape on his own. Situated in the Deep South, Soloman’s plantation was surrounded by swamps. In his narrative, Soloman tries to escape and fails – bloodhounds are sent after him and he realises he will die if he carries on. Fleeing slavery in this area of the South was more difficult because of the terrain. Where would he go? There was no one to help him and in a country dominated by white men, his presence would be questioned at every turn. If slaves left a plantation for an errand or such like, the plantation owner had to grant him or her a pass – something the film conveys very well. The pass would say something like – ‘I, [owner’s name] give permission for [slave's name] to go to [destination] and return by [date].’  Without a pass a slave would have been thrown in jail. If a slave ran away without a pass there would be limited options and he had to contend with slave-catchers and snarling bloodhounds.
Another way for Soloman to escape slavery was to somehow incite a slave revolt. However, as Soloman mentions in his narrative, this opportunity was presented to him several times and in every instance he refuses to join and even dissuades the conspirators. The 1811 Slave Revolt in Louisiana and its brutal suppression was a powerful reminder of what would happen if they were caught. The revolt would need hundreds of men to make it successful. Although blacks outnumbered whites, without weapons and a cohesive plan there was little chance of overthrowing the system.
The other option Soloman tried was writing a letter and entrusting a white man to deliver it for him. First of all, it was extremely difficult to get hold of the paper but when he did, Soloman asked a white man to take it to the post office. The man betrays him and Soloman narrowly escapes a flogging. It takes him a while before he risks this again with Bass, which ultimately proves successful.
Thus, American slavery was a system sustained by violence and suppression. Soloman could do very little without arousing suspicion or anger from his plantation owners.
Regardless of all of this, those who criticise Bass' role miss out the most important part of the story: Soloman himself. Bass appears at the very end of the story and has a small part. Yes, technically he ensured Soloman’s eventual freedom but it was Soloman’s sheer sense of will that kept him alive.
“I will survive! I will not fall into a pit of despair! I will keep myself hardy, till freedom is opportune.”
These words, uttered so powerfully by Chiwetal Ejiofor, strike at the heart of who Soloman was – a survivor. It is not a white man's story. Bass may have been the medium through which Soloman gained his freedom but as he asserts so often in his narrative, Soloman did what he could to survive. He is the driving force behind his story and a powerful figure we should all remember today.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

12 Years A Slave - Finally, a True Glimpse of Slavery

12 Years a Slave is the most powerful film about slavery in existence. It should serve as a sharp wake up call for those who don't know much about American slavery, but also to those who deny the truth about the violence of an inherently cruel and abhorrent system. It should be shown to those who work in plantations, the men and women I met on my trip to the Deep South, who ignored the sufferings of the enslaved and refused to speak about it. It should shame and embarrass those historic sites who refuse to confront history. In short, it should be compulsory viewing for all.

12 Years a Slave focuses on the true story of Soloman Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped from the North and sold into slavery. Soloman was passed from plantation to plantation in Louisiana, and after twelve years he was finally reunited with his family in New York. In 1853, he wrote a narrative of his experiences and lectured on the horrors of slavery, as well as aiding fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad. Northup tried to bring his kidnappers to justice, but as a black man, he could not testify against a white man in court. His jailers walked free. Strangely, the circumstances of Soloman's death are unknown.

I've been waiting to see this film for a long time, and it was worth the wait. Finally, this film, more than any other, portrays slavery for how it was - in all its horrific barbarity. It encapsulates so many themes - how African Americans were seen and treated; the patriarchal system present on the plantations and the hypocrisy of America as a free nation. One scene depicts a slave's separation from her children, and the response to this from Benedict Cumberbatch's wife sums up this hypocrisy: "no matter, you will soon forget your children." The film powerfully illustrates that to men and women of the plantations, slaves were property.

It's pretty accurate, and at times the violence is horrifying. In one scene, Soloman is strung up by the neck with his feet barely touching the ground and left there for hours, suspended, while plantation life goes on around him. In another scene, Michael Fassbender's cruel master Edwin Epps forces Soloman to beat his favourite slave Patsey, and the audience is left to watch her face contorted in pain while her back is literally torn to shreds.  Despite this, the film is still a 15. I was surprised by this, and after all the hype I was expecting there to be more violence. I still stand by the belief that it is the best film about slavery, but all things considered, director Steve McQueen could have shown much more violence.

The film teaches us a lot about American slavery, but British audiences should not see this as a purely American phenomenon. Britain played an essential role in the slave trade and we had our own plantations in the Caribbean and parts of the American South. We profited from slave-grown goods like sugar and working men in Manchester and other parts of the North used slave-grown cotton in factories. Slave ships were outfitted in Liverpool and cities like Bristol, Hull, London and Glasgow were partly built on the profits of slavery. This film should serve as a reminder that this history is very much part of our own 'Island story', one that politicians refuse to accept - instead of focusing on this role, Prime Minister David Cameron is quick to accept our part in abolition. Africans and Black Britons deserve their story told, right up to the Civil Rights Movement in Britain.

So, go and see this film and remember Soloman's story. But, perhaps more importantly, remember this: Soloman was able to leave slavery behind him, but thousands were not so lucky. The scene that will stick with me is Soloman riding away to freedom in a cart, with Patsey and other unknown slaves, left behind.


Have a read through this New York Times article focusing on Chiwetel Ejiofor's amazing performance. As Steve McQueen points out, Ejiofor acts with his eyes, and his portrayal of Solomon is quiet, understated, and altogether perfect.

Prehistoric Reconstruction

Follow the link below to see a truly amazing sight - the facial reconstruction of a prehistoric man. I love the power of science, and it is incredible to look upon the face of someone who actually existed thousands of years ago. His face is reconstructed from a skeleton near Stonehenge, although the man lived long before the settlement there. It is estimated he was between 25-40 when he died, and scientists believe it was an infectious disease that killed him. Visitors can see his face at the new visitor centre at Stonehenge, costing a whopping £27 million.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

I visited Portsmouth Historic Dockyard today with my parents, and I was pleasantly surprised at how much fun it was. I'm not a massive fan of naval history, but it was so interesting learning about Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar, the Mary Rose and the HMS Warrior. We had an hour tour around the HMS Victory, Nelson's ship, which is the oldest commissioned war ship in the world. It was built in 1765, so the ship was forty years old when Nelson lost his life at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21st October 1805. 821 men served on the ship, and it was amazing to see how the ship had been designed to accompany this amount of men, plus the food, the cannons and gunpowder. Our tour guide brought the history to life, describing the daily life of a man on the ship, how a wound would be treated, showing us where Nelson slept and explaining the different punishments the men would face. (The phrase 'let the cat out of the bag' comes from the idea that the cat o 'nine tails was taken up in a bag to the top deck when someone was to be punished, and it would be taken out of the bag and then used on the offender - usually between 12 and 48 times. The other phrase, 'no room to swing a cat' also comes from this - this punishment was always administered on the top deck to show men they would be wise not to misbehave but also because there was no room to flog an offender below deck - hence, no room to swing a cat o' nine tails.)

From there we visited the Royal Navy Museum and had a quick walk around the HMS Warrior in the rain. The ship was commissioned in 1861 but "never fired its cannon in anger." It was the fastest and most powerful ship at the time and acted as a deterrent to other nations. Don't mess with the Warrior, basically.

The new Mary Rose Museum was also open. £35 million had been spent on preserving the wreckage and creating the museum, and I can honestly say it was worth it. The exhibition describes how the ship was built and it has recreated a passageway so you can walk alongside the wreckage. The ship sank in 1545, and at the moment air is continually pumped out to preserve the remains. It will take four years to dry, and it was so interesting to see the wooden planks where hundreds of men would have walked up and down, shouting and obeying orders, and chillingly, where they met their death. (Only 35 survived when the crew numbered roughly 600). The artefacts were incredible - plates, cutlery, shoes, cannons, cannon balls, books, chests, jewellery - the list is endless. What I found the most fascinating however, was the facial reconstructions of some of the crew members. Several skeletons had been analysed and archaeologists estimated what they looked like and their professions. For example, the face of the master carpenter had been reconstructed and it was possible to tell he liked archery (from wear on his bones), he was literate (books were found in his berth), he was in his 30s and 5ft 7inches; an abscess in his jaw meant he could only chew on the right side of his mouth and he had arthritis in his spine and ribs. INCREDIBLE to have this amount of detail. It takes us one step closer to the past, to know what a man might have been like - what someone liked to do or felt at a particular time. The museum also described an archer, a cook, an accountant - all from their bones.

Such a wonderful visit and a reminder to me, if it's necessary, that history stirs my soul.

Glorification or a sombre commemoration?

Michael Morpurgo has written an article in The Guardian about the commemoration of the First World War, which will take centre stage this year for the 100th anniversary of its beginning. But what form should the commemoration take? Should we celebrate the start of one of the most horrific conflicts of our age? Or should we just commemorate the end, in 1918? 
Morpurgo describes how "destruction wreaked" the country and the terrible burden of grief tore families apart. Speaking with World War One veterans inspired Morpurgo to write 'War Horse', and he eloquently writes:
"To tell the story is the only way we have left to remember, and the only way to pass it on. And it is important to pass it on, important for the men who died on all sides, all now unknown soldiers, for those who suffered long afterwards and grieved all their lives. And important for us too. If they gave their todays for our tomorrows, then, I am sure, after all they went through, and died for, they would wish to see us doing all we can to create a world of peace and goodwill, a world that one day will turn its back on war for good. It is through their words and our stories that we must and will remember this and remember them. Then we really will be honouring their memory.
In 2014, as we begin to mark the centenary of the first world war, we should honour those who died, most certainly, and gratefully too, but we should never glorify. We should heed the words of those who were there, who did the fighting, and some of them the dying. Wilf Ellis, Harry Patch, Sassoon, Thomas and Owen. Siegfried Sassoon wrote of "the callous complacency" of those back home who wished only to prolong the war, no matter what the cost. To Wilfred Owen, the words Horace had used to glorify war centuries before, "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" – how sweet and fitting it is to die for your country – were simply "the old lie".
I couldn't agree more.

"Britain's Black Power Movement in danger of being forgotten"

This article from the Guardian is essential reading. The authors of a new book about the Black Power Movement in Britain argue that this history is in danger of being forgotten because it does not 'fit' with the country's idea of itself as a progressive nation. We present ourselves as a freedom-loving country, one that is free and has always been free from racism and discrimination. Of course, this is not true. What I find bizarre is that the African American Civil Rights Movement is studied in schools - very important, don't get me wrong - but Britain's black Civil Rights Movement is completely ignored. Something needs to change.